Comprising 377,346 acres of remote and unspoiled public land in central Montana, the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument contains a spectacular array of biological, geological and historical features. From the sleepy little river town of Fort Benton — named by Forbes magazine as one of the 15 prettiest towns in America — east to the edge of national wildlife refuges, the monument spans 149 miles of the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River, the adjacent Missouri Breaks country, and portions of tributary creeks and smaller rivers.
The area has remained largely unchanged in the nearly 215 years since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled through it on their epic 28-month Corps of Discovery journey, during which they covered more than 7,500 miles from Illinois to the Pacific Ocean and back.
Within the monument, you can fish, hike, drive, find solitude and simply marvel at the natural beauty. But absolutely best of all is to spend several days in a canoe or kayak on the Upper Missouri, enjoying a sense of exploration while floating past prairie badlands and juniper-brushed buttes, where elaborately eroded hills and gullies alternate with grassy plains. Just as Lewis and Clark did.
The Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River is unquestionably one of the premier multiday canoe trips in North America. Flat and wide, it’s a gentle Class I run with no real rapids, just occasional riffles and small waves, as it meanders through some of the wildest, loneliest and most historically significant stretches of open space in the lower 48.
The unusual geological features along the river have awed travelers since the Corps of Discovery passed through in 1805. Lewis was so awestruck by the sculpted badlands, sandstone arches and “gardens” of giant toadstool-shaped rocks that in his journal he described them as “scenes of visionary enchantment.”
Place names like Slaughter River, Bullwhacker Coulee, Deadman Rapids and Hole-in-the-Wall evoke powerful images of frontier life. With an average mid-summer current of 3.5 mph, the river runs smoothly and cold. Boaters can cover 15-20 miles
per day with easy paddling, as long as a headwind is not blowing.
If you have a week or more to float, Fort Benton is the ideal starting point for your journey. The community offers lodging, campgrounds and restaurants, as well as full-service canoe and kayak outfitters and shuttle providers.
Day use and overnight trips require small fees that can be paid at Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center in Fort Benton; Coal Banks Landing, where most boaters launch for shorter trips; Judith Landing; or James Kipp Recreation Area. These sites also have self-registration areas for your group.
Canoeists and kayakers can structure trips of varying lengths. Paddled individually or in combination, the 149-mile water route is broken into three contiguous segments. They are known as “The Upper River” (42 miles from Fort Benton to Coal Banks Landing), where the Missouri meanders through a mile-wide steep-walled valley with bottomlands and islands covered with cottonwoods; “The White Cliffs” (46 miles from Coal Banks Landing to Judith Landing), which includes a wonderland of 300-foot-high white sandstone buttresses that historian Stephen Ambrose, in his Lewis and Clark book, Undaunted Courage, describes as one of the top scenic sights in the world; and the “Missouri Breaks” (61 miles from Judith Landing to James Kipp Recreation Area), known for its rugged badlands topography. All trips require overnight camping on the river.
Boaters can spend the night in established camp areas, which offer amenities such as fire rings and pit toilets, or at dispersed undeveloped sites on public land anywhere along the river corridor. Monument rangers recommend carrying drinking water rather than relying on filtration or chemical treatment of river water. The only potable water sources exist at Coal Banks Landing Access Site (river mile 41.5) and James Kipp Recreation Area (river mile 149).
The Upper Missouri has a rich and interesting history, including 13 Lewis and Clark historical campsites, many of which are utilized by canoe-trippers. The same straggly cottonwood groves under which these iconic explorers of the American West pitched their tents offer their shade to campers today.
Other important historic sites exist around almost every bend: petroglyphs and tipi rings from early Native Americans, sites of American Fur Company forts and steamboat landings of some 150 years ago, still-standing homestead buildings dating to the early 1900s and hideouts for outlaws such as Kid Curry.
When to Go
The main floating season is from mid-June to early September. However, spring and fall are considered by some to be the most beautiful seasons to paddle, when the hot days of summer are replaced by cooler temperatures and far fewer visitors. Be aware that weather changes in these “shoulder seasons” can be more extreme; although not common, paddlers in May and October could see snow.
Cows have replaced the buffalo, and the grizzly bear and wolf are gone, but virtually every other species of animal life that Lewis and Clark encountered can be seen by present-day river travelers.
During the summer, the river is alive with waterfowl, herons and the majestic pelican. Bald eagles and golden eagles are not an uncommon sight, while whitetail and mule deer and pronghorn antelope are frequently spotted along the banks. Elk inhabit badlands along the lower stretch of the river, which is also an excellent place to look for bands of bighorn sheep.
The wail of coyotes can often be heard in the distance at night, and beavers, prairie dogs, wild turkeys and other wildlife add to the biotic tapestry of the area.
Canoes or kayaks are the preferred craft. Rafts and drift boats are not recommended due to the generally slow current and the potential for sustained upriver winds. There is minimal cellphone reception at most river locations.
After a day in a canoe seat, you’ll want to stretch your legs. And with still largely untamed open country flanking the river in all directions, this is the place to do it. There are no established trails along the river corridor, but abundant hiking opportunities exist, especially in the White Cliffs and Missouri Breaks sections. Be aware that the Upper River stretch is largely lined by private land.
The Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River begins at Fort Benton on U.S. Highway 87 and ends 149 miles later, where the Robinson Bridge on U.S. Highway 191 crosses the Missouri River.
Larry Rice is an avid canoeist, backpacker, bicyclist and world traveler who resides in Buena Vista, Colo.
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