Destination: Central Montana’s Upper Missouri River

The exploration of Lewis and Clark's historic territory continues

Missouri River Breaks area near the White Cliffs. Photo by Tony Bynum.

By Ryan Newhouse

The Missouri River is the longest river in North America, flowing more than 2,500 miles from Three Forks, Montana, to its confluence with the Mississippi in St. Louis, Missouri. On May 14, 1804, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the 40-man team known as the Corps of Discovery launched keelboats and pirogues into its waters with the mission to explore. From that day on, much has been written about the waters and landscape.

Fast-forward to 1976 when a 149-mile segment of the Upper Missouri was designated as a National Wild and Scenic River. In 2001, this river section's 375,000 surrounding acres were deemed the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. This is where our motley crew explored for six nights and seven days.

The roster included a father-son duo, a husband-wife pair, a woodworker, photographers, a retired accountant, paddle makers, and a fellow Montanan who was taking his seventh trip on the Upper Missouri. All previous six trips with family, this Missouri River veteran introduced his kids to this voyage when they were as young as three years old.

To paddle the entire stretch, you can start in Fort Benton (River Mile 0) and take out at James Kipp Recreation Area. In the interest of time, we launched at the next all-weather put-in, Coal Banks Landing, which is Mile 41.5.

With hand-crafted artisan Sanborn Canoe Co. paddles in hand, we took six canoes with us: two new 14.5' Merrimack Tennessean canoes, a 16' Merrimack Souhegan, a 16.5' Sanborn cedar strip, a 17' Wenonah Spirit II, and a 16.5' Wenonah Escapade.

Fall on the Missouri River. Photo by Jason Savage.

Aside from weather, in planning a trip on the Upper Missouri, water and waste were our most important considerations.  There is no potable water for 149 miles. None. The Upper Missouri cannot be boiled, and it cannot be filtered because of sediment in the water and extensive cattle in the area. The bare minimum amount of water to take is one gallon per person per day.  Remember that beer should be an addition, not a substitution to water allocation for the trip.  Also, the last half of the trip in the Wild and Scenic Upper Missouri River is wild with primitive camping lacking pit toilets. All waste must be packed out. A Luggable Loo is essential.

We set off from Coal Banks Landing late in the day and paddled 15 miles to Eagle Creek (Mile 56), where Lewis and Clark camped on May 31, 1805. It didn't take us long, as we had the wind in our favor and the water flow was bounding towards its historical average at 7,500 cfs.

At Mile 53, the famed White Cliffs begin and tower alongside the river for 25 miles. The cliffs are made of Eagle Sandstone and are arguably the most iconic formations between Fort Benton and James Kipp Recreation Area.

The famed white cliffs of the Missouri River Wilderness. Photo by Chris Chapman.

Meriwether Lewis described the cliffs as "scenes of visionary enchantment [sic]." Stretching upwards of 300 feet in places and topped with low grade coal and black shale, the Eagle Formation was formed in the Cretaceous Period (70-90 million years ago) from the retreat of the Western Interior Seaway and the uplifting of central Montana. The retreating sea left its white sandy beaches, which cemented together with calcite (what seashells are made from) to form sandstone.

Getting hands-on with Virgelle Sandstone in the Eagle Formation the next morning, we hiked from the campsite up Neatts Coulee and then loaded up the canoes.  We paddled up to Mile 64 for a quick hike up to the notable Hole-in-the-Wall formation. Without too much difficulty you can stand inside the hole and have one of the best views of the river on the trip.

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Alone on the Missouri River Breaks near the White Cliffs. Photo courtesy MOTBD.

Night two was at Slaughter River, Mile 76.5, where the Corps of Discovery camped twice, once coming and once going. Lewis named this spot "Slaughter River" because of the mass of buffalo carcasses the Corps found nearby, leading him to believe it was the site of the buffalo jump; though archeologists are not certain that was the case.

The next day we paddled to Judith Landing for lunch. Importantly, if you are not committed to paddle another 61 miles, this is your only chance to get off the river.

As we lazily drifted, fished, and paddled further, we pulled off to explore one of the many skeletons of homesteads still standing by the river. At Hagadone Homestead, Mile 97, we made the walk to the remnants of a home built in 1917, mindful of the rattlesnakes known to also call this place home.

Our next stop was at the McClelland/Stafford Ferry, the last pit toilet on the trip and an excellent place to get a weather report from the ferry operator who lives there. He warned of foul weather, so we pushed on and had to pass up the McGarry Bar campsite because of nesting Bald Eagles.

Then, the weather hit. We barely pulled off in time near Lone Pine Rapids, Mile 109, and pitched our tents in blowing rain. Had we been on the water five minutes longer, we would have lost a boat or two. The wind blew waves upriver, forming whitecaps.

The storm lasted just over an hour and left us tired, but grateful. We ate well, slept well, and slipped back on the water the next day. We paddled to Gist Bottom at Mile 122 and set up camp for two nights. It was only a mile downriver from here that Captain Clark hiked up Snake Point and saw, for the first time, "the Rocky Mountains with certainty" on May 26, 1805.

Paddlers on the Missouri River. Photo by Jason Savage.

The two-night respite was genius, thought the group, and when we loaded up and launched toward our final campsite on the trip, the reality of the miles behind us started to seep in.

The next stretch of water in particular is historically rich. At Mile 126.5 the Nez Perce (Nee-Mee-Poo) Trail crossed the Missouri River. This was the 1,200+ mile "Trail of Tears" the Nez Perce navigated to avoid being confined on a reservation. After crossing the Missouri they traveled north, but with only 40 miles left before reaching Canada, the Army cornered Chief Joseph's exhausted tribe, forcing them to surrender. Here, at what is today the Bear Paw Battlefield, the Chief said, "My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

Ten miles later, we reached Hideaway Primitive Boat Camp, and it's name is no joke. Except for a small trail cut in the tall willows and the map in our hands, we might have missed it.

On our final night we played something called "Caveman Games," as suggested by one of the paddle builders. It consisted of things like log tossing, hatchet throwing, building a bow and arrow and hitting beer cans, and a little atlatl action. Thankfully no one lost an eye.

Our last day on the water was a somber push of 13 miles alongside wide open spaces. The White Cliffs are long gone, the Badlands are all but behaved, and soon we can hear the roar of cars crossing the Fred Robinson Bridge at James Kipp Recreation Area.

In the end, we paddle 108 miles. Stroke after stroke, smile after smile, the history of the Missouri River became a part of our own histories. And we were thankful that we still have the opportunity to explore.

For our shuttle and trip we used Missouri River Outfitters .


MORE REGIONAL PADDLING OPTIONS:

Sunset over the Missouri River. Photo by Jason Savage. R: Fall fishing, Missouri River near Wolf Creek. Photo courtesy MOTBD

Lake Elwell and the Marias River provide several options for easy kayak touring or standup paddling trips. Nice camping along the reservoir behind Tiber Dam serves as a base for day outings on flat water (178 miles of shoreline). Once you get your paddling mojo, move camp to the nice site just below Tiber Dam and sample the Marias River, which is a smaller version of the beauty of the Missouri Breaks. A 20-mile stretch from below the dam to Highway 223 lends itself to a long summer day's paddle, or a relaxed overnight. (Several ranch bridges along the way offer shorter stints.) For the truly adventurous, continue down the Marias to the Missouri, a remote, winding tour of some 60 miles where you are unlikely to see anyone. Meanwhile, kayak anglers can enjoy a section of the Missouri River upstream of the Wild and Scenic stretch, between Craig and Cascade, which boasts some of the highest levels of trout per mile of any river in the state. It’s pretty popular and there’s plenty of outfitters and access in both of those towns just southwest of Great Falls. You’ll be in the company of drift boats and other anglers, but it’s popular for a reason.

Contact: Lake Elwell. Missouri River Outfitters in Ft. Benton, Mont., offers information on shuttles and general river advice – 406/622-3295.

Standup paddleboarding outside Great Falls, Mont.

Contact: Montana River Outfitters, mro@montana.com; 800/800-8218; more info on the historic site.

Judith River Campsite on the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, Montana, USA. Photo by Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (lower Missouri) offers great camping with simple paddling access. Combine stunning Missouri Breaks country and sample the upper reaches of Ft. Peck Reservoir. Several cottonwood-grove campgrounds along Hwy 191 (James Kipp Bridge), or in the refuge itself (backcountry style camping along river) offer riverside opportunities for flat-water paddling in the midst of remote scenery – badland coulees, wild turkeys, cottonwood bottoms, prairie wildlife. When it's time to take a break, there are lots of opportunities for hikes, backcountry drives and wildlife viewing. Bring what you need, because it's a long drive to groceries or a cold beer.

Contact: Russell National Wildlife Refuge; cmr@fws.gov, 406/464-5181.

Side hiking enables great views along the Upper Missouri. Photo courtesy MOTBD


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