Missouri River Breaks National Monument:
Trip Planning - Description of the Upper Missouri River
The Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River is comprised
of three contiguous segments, described below. Canoe trips
can be made on individual segments and on combinations of
#1: "The Upper River"
Fort Benton to Coal Banks Landing (42 miles)
This segment of the river is entrenched
in a milewide, steep-walled valley
composed of black-colored Marias River Shale, capped by the
yellow Telegraph Creek Sandstone. The Missouri River here
has a meandering habit, with bottomlands and islands, many
covered with lush groves of cottonwoods.
This is rich habitat for deer, pelicans,
geese, ducks, eagles, and many other birds. There are four
Lewis and Clark campsites, including their camp at the mouth
of the Marias River, the site of an extremely important decision
point for the captains, and which they named Decision Point
- the location of a BLM interpretive site that is easily accessed
from the Upper Missouri by canoers. Several important fur
trading posts, most notably the American Fur Company’s
Fort McKenzie, were located on this stretch of the river.
This segment of the river is largely bounded
by private land, so off-river hiking opportunities are limited.
The river's flow is faster here than in the lower segments,
which we typically exploit to travel this segment in two days
and one night.
Segment #2: "The White
Cliffs of the Missouri"
Coal Banks Landing to Judith Landing (46 miles)
Considered by many to be the most spectacular
stretch of the Upper Missouri River, this is also the most
popular. Stephen Ambrose, in his Lewis and Clark book, Undaunted
Courage, described the White Cliffs as “one of the most
beautiful places on Earth”.
Along this stretch of the Upper Missouri
floaters pass three Lewis and Clark campsites, Indian habitation
sites - where tipi rings and petroglyphs can be still seen,
, and several still-standing homestead buildings dating to
Adventurous floaters can take a vigorous
climb up to the “Hole-In- The-Wall”, and there
are abundant hiking opportunities from all of the BLM designated
campsites in the White Cliffs.
No longer meandering in nature, the river
follows a relatively straight course, and has cut a spectacular
800 foot-deep canyon through the white-colored Eagle Sandstone,
which forms breath-taking 300 foot high cliffs. Unusual formations
called “pedestal rocks”, resembling large toadstools,
are common, and in many places are
so numerous as to form “gardens”. The sandstone
cliffs contain an intircate labyrinth of dark brown-colored
veins, called dikes and sills, some over 20 feet thick, that
were formed by the injection of hot magma. These dikes and
sills are highly resistant to erosion, and frequently form
spectacular vertical walls. Geologists who visit this area
consider it to contain textbook examples of landforms produced
by intruding magma. Captain Meriwether Lewis was awe-struck
by this area, and in a lengthy journal entry described “scenes
of visionary enchantment”.
#3: "The Badlands of the Upper Missouri" aka "The
Judith Landing to Kipp Recreation Area (61 miles)
Occupying a 1000 foot deep canyon, this
rugged stretch of the river is the wildest and the least traveled,
making it a personal favorite of ours. Combined with the White
Cliffs section it makes an excellent 6 day trip, which we
consider to be the premier extended experience on the Upper
Hundreds of thousands of acres of spectacularly
beautiful public lands flank the river, providing innumerable
hiking opportunities - the best hiking in the entire 149 miles
of river. There are 6 BLM Wilderness Study Areas. Many old
homestead buildings are found here, as well as some important
sites in the Upper Missouri’s steamboat history, and
five Lewis and Clark campsites. The Nez Perce National Historic
Trail crosses this stretch of the Upper Missouri. Captain
Clark's first view of the Rockies site is an awe-inspiring
place to visit in the wild Bullwhacker Creek area, a 5 mile
hike back from the river.
Excellent opportunities to view herds
of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep exist in some locations and
elk are sometimes seen. The dominant rocks are those of the
Judith River Formation (70 million years old), which is made
up of strong, thin layers of sandstone, and alternating thick
layers of weak siltstone and shale. This combination produces
the landform known as badlands - or "The Missouri Breaks",
where erosion has run rampant and produced hauntingly beautiful
scenery. There are spectacular examples of geologic faults.
Some locations contain dinosaur bone beds (which are protected
by federal law), and are the destination for some of our hikes.
The banks of the river do not support many groves of trees,
and shady campsites are more scarce. The tops of the "breaks"
are covered with Ponderosa Pine. This segment ends at the
downriver boundary of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National
Monument and the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River.