Missouri River

The Missouri River may not hold the place in the American imagination as the Mississippi River, but it’s just as important to American history. It’s the river that carried Lewis and Clark to the West and a river that has supported Native Americans for centuries. Its name is from the Missouri tribe, meaning “the people with wooden canoes.” Also called the Mighty Mo, the Big Muddy and Kícpaaruksti, the river is a place for connecting with history as much as recreation. It’s a dramatic picture of the American West—a wide-open landscape that invites exploration.

Course of the Missouri River

Course of the Missouri River
Course of the Missouri River

The longest river in the United States runs for 2,341 miles from its source in the Rocky Mountains in Montana to its confluence with the Mississippi River just outside of St. Louis. The official start of the river is located within the Missouri Headwaters State Park, just outside Three Forks. Just a mile downstream, it meets the Gallatin River on its course towards the center of the United States. In total, the river winds through 10 states and two Canadian provinces. Many major cities of the Mountain West and Great Plains were built along the river. Great Falls Montana is the biggest city close to the river's source, and the capitals of both Dakotas (Bismarck and Pierre) are set on its banks. Omaha, Nebraska lies just across the rive from Council Bluffs, Iowa and the river separates Kansas City, Kansas, from Missouri’s largest city, also called Kansas City.

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail  Image: cariliv (flickr)

The names Lewis and Clark will forever be connected to the story of the Missouri River. At the start of the 19th century, President Thomas Jefferson sent out two of his best men to explore the vast lands he had secured with the Louisiana Purchase. William Clark and Meriwether Lewis set out with their trusty dog Seaman and the Corps of Discovery from Saint Louis. They followed the Missouri River West and eventually made their way to the Pacific Ocean. In recognition of this momentous occasion, the National Park Service set up the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, in partnership with many organizations along the way. The trail stretches more than 3,000 miles from the Wood River in Illinois to the Columbia River in Oregon. The official headquarters overlooks the river in Omaha. At the visitor center, exhibits explain what you’ll find along the way. The entire path is packed with interesting museums, outdoor sites and other cool things to do.

Missouri River Recreation

Missouri River Recreation
Missouri River Recreation

Much of the river is accessible for recreation, a rarity for major rivers. In the Dakotas, the river's reservoirs are some of the best places in the region to enjoy recreation, especially boating and fishing. Nearly 100 miles of the river have been set aside as the Missouri National Recreational River in South Dakota, perfect for canoing and paddling. In Montana, the river is more rugged and has been designated a U.S. National Wild and Scenic River, popular for rafting and boating on the water and hiking and wildlife watching back on shore.

Knife River Indian Villages

Of all the interesting things to do along the river, the Knife River Indian Villages provide one of the best places to connect with Native American culture. Found along the river’s banks in Stanton, North Dakota, the historical site is located an hour to the north of Bismarck and 90 minutes southwest of Minot. Here, you’ll find re-created villages once home to Plains Indians tribes. The most famous resident was Sacajawea, who interpreted for Lewis and Clark.

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