Where Does the Missouri River Start and End?

Recognized as America’s longest river, the Missouri River is known as the “Center of Life” in the Great Plains. From agriculture to food, this winding waterway plays a major role for those who live close to it. It is possible to boat the entire Missouri River. But to do so, it’s important to know where it starts and ends. Where does the Missouri River start and end? 

The Missouri River begins in Three Forks, Montana, and ends in St. Louis, Missouri. It crosses several states, including South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, and Kansas, covering 2,341 miles

Read on to learn more about where the Missouri River starts and ends, including the routes it covers, its economic benefits, and the many activities you can enjoy in and around the river. 

Where Does the Missouri River Start and End? 

where does the Missouri river start

The Missouri River starts at the Rocky Mountains in Three Forks, Montana. The river traverses a total of 2,341 miles and ends as it converges with the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri.

Missouri River’s headwater is at the convergence of the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin Rivers, all of which are located in Gallatin County in Montana, specifically in Three Forks. This is in the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of roughly 1,200 feet above sea level. 

Its flow starts heading north from western Montana. It then turns east and continues until reaching the state’s northern side. It enters west of North Dakota and traverses the southeast portion until it gets to South Dakota. As it continues flowing, it covers the boundaries of South Dakota and Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa, and Missouri and Nebraska. 

After reaching Kansas City, the Missouri River flows to the east and heads southeast until reaching Jefferson City. From here, it finally turns east to join the Mississippi River in St Louis, Missouri. This is where the Missouri River ends.

Other Rivers Flowing Through the Missouri River 

Throughout the Missouri River, there are over 95 large tributaries. Below are some of the main affluents that make up the length of the river: 

  • Yellowstone River: At 692 miles, this is the longest tributary of the Missouri River. It starts at North Folk and South Fork, flowing through Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota. It also has several interesting features, such as the river plunge at the Grand Canyon and the majestic Yellowstone Falls. 
  • White River: This tributary flows at 580 miles covering areas of Nebraska and South Dakota. It is a crucial water source at the Badlands National Parks and the other areas where the river flows. 
  • Osage River: With a length of 276 miles, it starts in Vernon County in Missouri and flows through Kansas. The part of this tributary that meets the Missouri River is in Bonnots Hill. There are dense areas along the river, including Lake Ozark. 

How Long Is the Missouri River? 

Now that you know where the Missouri River starts and ends, it is also important to know its size. Being the biggest river in the country will give you an idea of how long and massive it is, especially considering that it covers several states and two Canadian provinces. 

The Missouri River flows at a total length of 2,341 miles. It drains at a watershed with a size of over 529,000 square miles. Its catchment is equal to 1/6 of the United States and 5% of North America. It is similar to the size of Quebec in Canada. 

A Short History of the Missouri River 

The river’s mouth was first uncovered in 1673 by Europeans. Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette were canoeing along the Mississippi River when they discovered the Missouri River. At that time, the upper part of the river was the settlement of various native American groups, including Crow, Hidatsa, and Blackfeet.

After its initial discovery, the river was unexplored in the following decades. The next most significant exploration was in 1713 through Etienne de Veniard and Sieur de Bourgmont. 

In 1804 and 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark lead the Missouri River expedition. They used a 55-foot keelboat and had a delegation of 45 men to trace the Missouri River’s route. 

Years after its exploration, the Mississippi River became the jump-off point for the American West trails. The government also built dams and dikes for effective flood control.

The Economic Value and Development of the Missouri River 

Being the longest river in the country, the Missouri River was a dominant economic force. It had a significant role in the economies of the areas surrounding its waterways from its early years. 

During the initial years following its exploration, the government did almost nothing to develop the river to become a valuable waterway. There were no projects to transform it into a source of power or irrigation. 

Early Fur Trade 

where does the Missouri river start and end

The Missouri River had a crucial role in facilitating the early years of the fur trade in the United States. During the European migration, the waterway has one of the most dependable mediums for fur transportation despite being challenging to navigate.

Some of the fur traders that used the river were the Spanish Commercial Company, Saint Louis Missouri Fur Company, Columbia Fur Company, Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and American Fur Company. These were also the first companies to build European settlements in the region. 

The Rise and Fall of Steam Boating 

The steamboat was the most popular mode of transportation on the Missouri River in the 1800s. Large boats transported humans and cargo. Most of these travels were from 1846 to 1866. In the 1860s, steamboats traveled along the river to mining towns to respond to the gold rush. Steamboats also transported seeds and plows to farmers in Nebraska. 

However, steamboats eventually declined. With the Hannibal and Saint Joseph Railway construction, traders discovered an easier alternative mode of transportation.

A Comprehensive Plan by the US Congress 

For over seven decades, the U.S. Congress has spearheaded an intensive plan for water resource management and flood control in the Missouri River. The bold plan envisioned the construction of over a hundred reservoirs and dams. The latter has significantly minimized flooding in Missouri while also providing irrigation supply in the surrounding communities. 

Supplying Water in Missouri and Beyond 

Unsurprisingly, the Missouri River is one of the most important water sources in Missouri and the surrounding states at which the river runs. It also supplies drinking water to benefit the communities surrounding the river basin. 

Over the years, however, the river has been in trouble. Many issues hound the waterway, from wildlife destruction to water pollution that encompasses ten states and two provinces in Canada. With laws and programs, such as the Clean Water Act, restorative works continue to save the Missouri River and the people benefiting from its waters.

Where does the Missouri River start and end? The Missouri River begins in Three Forks, Montana, and ends in St. Louis, Missouri. It crosses several states, including South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, and Kansas.

How long is the Missouri River? The Missouri River is 2,341 miles long. It drains at a watershed with a size of over 529,000 square miles. Its catchment is equal to 1/6 of the United States and 5% of North America. It is similar to the size of Quebec in Canada. 

Activities Around the Missouri River 

The Missouri River is home to various economic and recreational activities, attracting locals and tourists alike. This section briefly talks about some of the most common activities around the river:

1. Fishing 

From the early 1900s, commercial fishing was one of the biggest industries in the Missouri River. However, with the massive dams’ construction, diverse fish habitats were destroyed, ending the river’s fishing industry. Pollution issues, including the formation of coliform bacteria, also contributed to the problem. 

Today, however, the Missouri River is a popular destination for recreational fishing. The rules are different depending on the specific area of the river that you will access. In most areas, a valid license is necessary. It is also important to follow regulations on length and creel limits. 

The Missouri River is home to different species of catfish, bass, crappie, walleye, sauger, and sturgeon, among others. 

2. Boating 

One of the best ways to enjoy the Missouri River is by boating. The navigable portion of the river depends on the type of boat that you are using. Some parts are calm enough, which you can enjoy even with a small boat

If you have a kayak or a canoe, you can explore the river’s upper part, which covers over 1,806 miles. These are narrow portions, making them accessible only to small boats. Some areas are large enough to accommodate powerboats. However, take note that there are six dams throughout the river. 

Before you try boating along the Missouri River, timing is one of the most important considerations. Flooding is a common issue in the river, so there are many instances when specific jurisdictions will limit boating. 

3. Hiking 

While the water is the main attraction of the Missouri River, given how massive it is, there are plenty of land activities you can enjoy as well, and one of such is hiking. An example of this is the Missouri River Trail. It starts at the cross of Burlington Northern Railway tracks and Weston Bluffs Trail. The route has migratory songbirds and ends with a scenic view of the river. 

Another popular choice amongst hikers is the Lewis and Clark Trail. It traces the original route of the expedition led by Lewis and Clark as they surveyed a French acquired territory known as the Louisiana Purchase. Many parts of the trail are good for hiking, while some are also popular for biking. 

4. Wildlife Watching 

If you are looking for something relaxing to do along the stretch of the Missouri River, you can’t go wrong with wildlife watching. Along the stretch of the river, there are rich land areas gifted with diverse wildlife. 

One place worth checking out is the Bush Conservation Area. It has pine groves, bottom-land forests, and artificial lakes. It is a popular spot for birding, offering sightings of vermillion flycatcher, Bachman’s sparrow, surf scoter, and glossy ibis. 

5. Camping 

Everywhere in the land area surrounding the Missouri River, you have plenty of opportunities for camping. Some of the most popular camping spots along the river are Goat Island, Green Island, and Boat Island in Missouri. These places have leave-no-trace camping spots that visitors can access for free. 

The Missouri Headwaters Campground is also worth checking out. It has picnic tables and a potable water supply. You can enjoy other activities at the campsite, including hiking, biking, boating, horseback riding, and wildlife watching. 

how long is the Missouri river

On the Nebraska side, meanwhile, a popular spot for campers is the Gavins Point dam. Here, you will find two camping areas open from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend. 

For those in South Dakota, one of the accessible campsites in the Clay County park has comfortable and convenient electrical campsites. This quiet campground has diverse towering trees, making the area more relaxing. 

A note about swimming:

The last activity on this list is one thing that you cannot do on the Missouri River. Some might think that swimming in a river is a thrilling adventure, but in the Missouri River, this is a no-no. The strong current makes it unsafe, even if you are an experienced swimmer. 

In the past years, there have been several deaths related to swimming in the river. It is not illegal to swim in the river, but this is heavily discouraged because of current that can reach up to 6 mph. 

Conclusion – Where Does the Missouri River Start and End? 

In sum, the Missouri River starts in Three Forks, Montana, as the confluence of three major rivers in the state – Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin. The river runs a total length of 2,341 miles from its mouth, passing through different states, including the following:

  • North Dakota,
  • South Dakota,
  • Colorado,
  • Nebraska,
  • Minnesota,
  • Iowa, and
  • Kansas, until it ends in Missouri at the Mississippi River. 

Being the longest river in the United States, the Missouri River had a long history, starting from Europeans’ discovery in 1673. It has also assumed a significant role in various states’ economies, starting with the fur trade. Several programs have been introduced to preserve and protect the river through the years, including water management and flood control. 

Today, the Missouri River remains mighty and majestic. It is a popular venue for different activities, including boating and fishing, while supplying water to key areas.