Located on the continent of North America, the USA is the world’s third largest country, with more than three million miles of river running through it. Some of these waterways cross borders to Canada in the north or Mexico in the south. Others empty into the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans or become tributaries of other rivers.
Whatever their course, rivers fulfil vital roles within US society. From agricultural irrigation to drinking water, fishing to recreation, USA rivers work hard. And some of the hardest working of them all are the longest rivers in America. It’s said that about 38 of the USA’s longest rivers have main stems at least 500 miles in length. In this article, we’ll be looking at these giant waterways, the shortest measuring approximately 1,450 miles. We’ll start with the largest river in the US, the Missouri.
The Missouri River: The Biggest River in the USA
Length: 2,341 miles
The names “Mighty Mo” and “Big Muddy” are fitting for what is both the largest river in the US and the largest one running exclusively within its borders. Rising in the Rocky Mountains in Montana, the Missouri River travels some 2,341 miles before emptying into the Mississippi. When taken together, the Missouri-Mississippi river system is the fourth longest in the world.
The journey of the Missouri River takes it through the US states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. But it drains many more. At 529,350 square miles, the catchment of the USA’s longest river takes in 32 states and around a quarter of the country’s farming land.
As well as being home to a diverse array of plant and animal life, the Missouri River is an important waterway for commerce and transportation. It’s also a popular recreation destination, with many people visiting each year to fish, boat, and camp.
The Mississippi River
Length: 2,340 miles
Second in the list of the USA’s longest rivers is the one they call “Old Man River”. Not only is the Mississippi a giant amongst the rivers in America, but it has historically been considered the line marking the east of the country from the west. Rising in Minnesota’s Lake Itasca, it travels around 2,340 miles to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico, part of the Atlantic.
The waters of the Mississippi are populated with an estimated 375 fish species, among them white bass, pike and walleye. Many other animals and plants live in its basin, an area of roughly 1.2 million square miles, which includes parts of 32 US states and two Canadian provinces.
Length: 1,980 miles
The Yukon rises in British Columbia in Canada, then flows for just over 700 miles before crossing into the US state of Alaska. This is where it spends the remainder of its 1980-mile route, eventually emptying into the Bering Sea. One of the biggest rivers in the US and North America as a whole, the Yukon River drains an area about twice the size of Paraguay.
The river has played an important and varied role in human history for centuries, even millennia. There’s evidence of early settlers passing through its catchment as far back as 10,000 years ago. During the Klondike Gold Rush, prospectors used it to navigate and transport their goods. Today, this river is still of vital importance for both people and the diverse range of wildlife that lives in and around it. Its salmon run in particular provides the bears, whales and other animals in the area with food, while sustaining a fishing trade.
Length: 1,900 miles
Originating in the San Juan range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, the Rio Grande flows through New Mexico and Texas, with one section serving as the border between the US and Mexico. It travels a total of roughly 1,900 miles before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, making it one of the longest US rivers.
In addition to being an important water source for many cities and towns in the southwestern United States, the Rio Grande is a popular recreation spot for boating, fishing, and rafting. It’s particularly known for its trout, including the Río Grande cutthroat trout. What’s more, as one of the biggest rivers in the US, its catchment of around 336,000 square miles is home to many different species of plants, and animals such as bighorn sheep and river otters.
Length: 1,469 miles
Flowing 1,469 miles through the states of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, the Arkansas River is one of the USA’s longest rivers. Like the Rio Grande, it begins its journey in the Rocky Mountains and, like the Missouri River, it is a tributary of the Mississippi. Its drainage basin covers almost 168,000 square miles and it’s an important source of water for both drinking and irrigation. The river is also a popular destination for recreation, with activities such as fishing, boating, and rafting.
Length: 1,450 miles
The Colorado River is one of the longest rivers in America as well as one of its most iconic. It helped carve the natural wonder of the Grand Canyon and its basin was settled by Native Americans at least 8,000 years ago. Beginning in the Rocky Mountains, it runs through a variety of landscapes in the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California before entering Mexico.
Along its 1,450-mile journey, this giant amongst USA rivers covers over 200 miles in the Grand Canyon, and passes through no fewer than 11 national monuments and parks. It provides water for 10 percent of the US population, and its watershed is where 90% of its winter vegetables grow. The river is also a popular destination for recreation, such as fishing, camping, and rafting.
The USA's Longest Rivers
Whether it’s providing hydroelectricity or drinking water or even a day out with friends, it’s clear that the longest rivers in America run right through the heart of the country, and form an iconic element of the country’s natural wonders.