the Upper Missouri River
The Upper Missouri River in Montana is
one of the premier canoe trips in the Unites States. It is
part of the National Wild and Scenic River System, and runs
for 149 miles through a spectacular canyon incised into the
prairie country of central Montana.
The Upper Missouri is a wilderness canoe
trip with the river being broken into three
segments which can be paddled individually or in combination.
All trips require overnight camping on the river.
Canoes and sea kayaks are the best choice
for the Upper Missouri, because of their efficiency. Although
people sometimes use rafts and drift boats, they are slow
and therefore much more work to get downriver with; they are
particularly at a disadvantage when confronted with headwinds.
The average current in the river is about 3 knots, and canoes
- with steady paddling, can average 5 knots.
Camping on the river is permitted on all
public lands, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management - the
managing agency, does maintain a number of established camp
areas which contain amenities such as fire rings and latrines.
Permits are not required to canoe the
Upper Missouri, so you can simply show up and launch.
When to Canoe Montana's
Upper Missouri River
Although there is no time of the year
when the river is closed, the main floating season is in the
summer months from mid-June to early September, when the weather
is fairly constant. For a period of about four weeks on either
side of the main floating season (mid- May to mid-June and
mid-September to mid-October) the river can be paddled safely,
but additional clothing and equipment are necessary in the
event of inclement weather; obviously, these "shoulder
seasons" provide a greater amount of solitude, since
there are far fewer visitors on the river.
Breaks National Monument Weather and Climate
The climate of Central Montana is classified
as continental semi-arid, with low annual precipitation (13.5
inches), hot summers, and cold winters. There is typically
a large variation between day and night temperatures. The
vegetation is mostly grassland, but includes desert plants
such as yucca and cactus. Along the Upper Missouri, the riverbank
ecosystem supports groves of towering cottonwood trees.
During the main paddling season the weather
is typically hot and sunny; temperatures in the 90’s
are common, but fortunately humidity is very low. Evening
temperatures are normally in the 40’s and 50’s.
Spectacular afternoon thunderstorms - sometimes quite violent
with strong, gusty winds - are fairly common, but are usually
short-lived. If a major weather disturbance moves in, temperatures
could drop to the 30’s and 40’s and be accompanied
by extended rain, however this is not common.
Good quality rain gear and a warm layer
of clothing should be carried by all, even if it's hot and
sunny on the day of your departure.
Spring and Fall are considered by some
to be the most beautiful times to float the Upper Missouri;
the hot days of summer are replaced by cooler temperatures
and changes can be more extreme. Although not common, paddlers
in mid-May and early October could see snow. The primary adjustment
to equipment is adding warmer clothing, including gloves,
warm hat, wool sox, and additional insulating layers. A weather
disturbance could bring either rain or snow. Preparedness
is always the best option.
Geology of Montana's
Upper Missouri River
The spectacular and varied scenery that
floaters see on the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic
River is directly related to the geology of this part of central
Montana. The region’s dry climate, and lack of vegetation,
provides excellent opportunities for floaters to view, and
learn about, the geology as they progress down the river.
The rocks of the Upper Missouri region
are primarily sedimentary rocks, ranging in age from 70-90
million years old, that were deposited during the Cretaceous
period of Geologic Time. Central Montana was covered by an
interior seaway that connected the Gulf of Mexico with the
Arctic Ocean and which cut North America in half. Thousands
of feet of sand, silt, clay, and lime were deposited in the
bottom of the seaway by rivers which drained into the sea;
eventually these layers of sediment hardened into the layered
rocks of today. Dinosaurs roamed the shoreline, and marine
animals inhabited the waters; fossils of many of these organisms,
including dinosaurs, can be found along the river corridor.
About 70 million years ago central Montana was uplifted, and
the sea retreated.
About 55 million years ago, during the
Tertiary Period, hot magma welled up from great depths, and
pushed its way into cracks in the sedimentary rocks. Some
of it reached the surface and produced volcanoes, but great
quantities of the magma cooled underground in the network
of cracks, and formed veins of igneous rocks, called dikes
The Upper Missouri River then cut down
through the entire rock package, and, especially in the White
Cliffs, has exposed a spectacular geologic wonderland of 300
foot high white sandstone cliffs that are laced with a complex
network of 20 foot thick veins of dark-brown igneous rock.
In the Badlands, a combination of thick
weak shale layers and alternating thin layers of strong sandstone
combine to produce the hauntingly spectacular badlands which
are locally referred to as "The Missouri Breaks".
Most of the rocks in the river’s
corridor are quite soft, and succumb easily to erosion. In
central Montana’s dry climate, this produces some fascinating
scenery which is displayed along the entire length of the
river, but particularly in the White Cliffs, and the Badlands.
Unusual features such as sandstone arches and "gardens"
of toadstool shaped rocks - called pedestal rocks, have awed
travelers since Lewis and Clark passed through this area in
More recently the Upper Missouri River
in Montana was impacted by the last Ice Age. Before the Ice
Age, the Missouri flowed north through Canada and into Hudson’s
Bay. But a massive glacier, flowing southward from Canada,
pushed the Missouri River to the south and diverted its flow
to the Gulf of Mexico, where it flows today.
The Upper Missouri's
Important historic sites exist around
almost every bend of the Upper Missouri.
Evidence of native American inhabitants
is still evidenced by petroglyphs and tipi rings.
There are 13 Lewis and Clark campsites
in the 149 mile "wild and scenic" stretch, many
of which are utilized by floaters as overnight camps. Most
notable of these is probably their camp at the confluence
with the Marias River, where the expedition took 10 days deciding
which river was the true Missouri River.
The sites of several important fur trade
posts exist on the Upper Missouri, most notably the American
Fur Company’s Fort MacKenzie.
Many abandoned homestead buildings from
the turn of the century are still standing and are a favorite
for floaters to explore.
Steamboat landing sites and gravel bars
which were a major obstacle for the big boats look much the
same as they did over one hundred years ago.
National Wild and Scenic River Wildlife
The wilderness character of the Upper
Missouri National Wild and Scenic River provides good wildlife
viewing opportunities. During the summer the river is alive
with waterfowl, including ducks, geese, and the majestic pelican.
Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles are not an uncommon sight. Many
other birds can be seen in the riparian areas along the banks.
Whitetail and Mule Deer are frequently seen along the banks,
and elk inhabit badlands along the lower stretch of the river,
which is also an excellent place to look for bands of Bighorn
Sheep, Bighorn Ram which are commonly seen.
Other unusual and interesting animal inhabitants
are lizards, snakes, turtles, toads, frogs, bats, squirrels,
It is not uncommon to hear the wail of
coyotes in the distance at night, or the hoot of an owl perched
overhead in the limb of a towering cottonwood tree as it searches
Beaver are commonly seen swimming in the
river, and they slap their tails and dive as canoes approach;
these beaver are not dam builders, instead inhabiting cavities
dug into the mud of the river's banks.
Three animal species that are missing
from the Upper Missouri are the Grizzly Bear, the Plains Bison,
and the now extinct Audubon Sheep. Of these, the Bison deserves
re-introduction, and there are a number of locations in the
Badlands section of the river where large tracts of public
land could support small herds.