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Montana's Wild and Scenic
Upper Missouri River
Guide Book













Montana's Upper Missouri River Guides and Canoe Outfitters

Montana's Upper Missouri River:
Information and Facts for Paddlers

The information on this page is offered as an overview of Montana's Upper Missouri River Breaks
National Monument, with focus on the Climate, Geology, History, and Wildlife. Detailed descriptions
of these and other relevant topics can be found in the guidebook publication, "Montana's Wild and
Scenic Upper Missouri River: A Guidebook for the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River
and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument".


Paddling 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.

Missouri 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 and sills.

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 1805.

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 History

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.

Upper Missouri 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, and fox.

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 for prey.

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.


Upper Missouri
River Guides
Canoe Outfitters

We are the only Upper Missouri River outfitter whose entire fleet of canoes is made by Wenonah Canoes of Minnesota. They are the fastest, most stable canoes available on the Upper Missouri, and have large cargo capacity to hold gear for long trips.

Glenn Monahan, owner of Upper Missouri River Guides, is the author and publisher of the only available guidebook for Montana's Upper Missouri River.

LaBarge Rock is named after a famous Missouri river steamboat captain. It is an intrusion of igneous rock emplaced into the sandstone of the White Cliffs of the Upper Missouri.

Dinosaur limb bone weathering out of an outcrop bordering the river in the Missouri Breaks.

A "pedestal rock" in the White Cliff region of the Upper Missouri. Glenn Monahan, owner of Upper Missouri River Guides, holds a geology degree from Montana State University

Old homestead building located in the Badlands section of the Upper Missouri. Our trips include lots of hiking to historic and geological sites of interest.

Bighorn Sheep are commonly seen in the Badlands section of the Upper Missouri.

Our guided trip canoes are Wenonah's made of fiberglass or Kevlar.