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Montana's Wild and Scenic
Upper Missouri River
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Montana's Upper Missouri River Guides and Canoe Outfitters

Upper 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 segments.

Segment #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 the 1900's.

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”.

Segment #3: "The Badlands of the Upper Missouri" aka "The Missouri Breaks"
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 Missouri.

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.