The world’s third largest continent, North America’s ecosystems vary from tundra and desert to grassland and coral reefs. It encompasses the frozen northern Canadian territories and tropical Caribbean islands. There are forests and mountains, and plenty of natural resources such as minerals and fertile soils. It also has an abundance of freshwater, much of it flowing through its many rivers.
In this article, we look at some of the most magnificent rivers North America has to offer, including the longest rivers of North America. We’re starting our journey with the longest North American river of them all, the Missouri River.
The Missouri River: The Biggest River in North America
Length: 2,341 miles
It’s known as the “Big Muddy” and “Mighty Mo”, and indeed, the Missouri River is considered the longest North American river of all. It flows east and south for over 2,340 miles from its source in the Rocky Mountains of Montana to its confluence with the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri. Along the way, it travels through several US states, including Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri.
The basin of the Missouri River measures an incredible 529,350 square miles and contains within it about a quarter of the farming land in the US. It’s also home to around 150 fish species and about twice as many species of birds.
Whilst it’s a major river in its own right, the Missouri River is also a tributary of the Mississippi. Together, these two vast waterways make up the fourth longest river system on the planet.
An important food and water source for thousands of years, its banks had long been settled by Native American tribes when the first Europeans arrived. They called the river after a tribe they encountered. Lewis and Clark famously navigated the river in their expedition to the West, and it’s been an important waterway for trade and transportation ever since.
Today, the Missouri River is still an important part of American life, providing irrigation for farms, hydroelectric power for homes and businesses, and recreation for outdoor enthusiasts.
The Mississippi River
Length: 2,340 miles
The Mississippi is one of the world’s great rivers and one of the longest rivers of North America. Extending from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, it flows for approximately 2,340 miles. Historically, the river was seen as the line dividing the east and west United States.
It drains the Mississippi River Basin, which encompasses an area of approximately 1.2 million square miles, roughly four-and-a-half times the size of Texas. This catchment includes parts of 32 US states and two Canadian provinces.
The Mississippi is one of the most important rivers in the United States, as it provides a vital link for trade and transportation. It’s a major source of drinking water and irrigation for the Midwest and is home to a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals. Among the wildlife that inhabit the Mississipi’s basin are 375 species of fish, including pike, white bass and walleye.
Length: 1,990 miles
In addition to being the longest river in Canada and one of the largest North American rivers, the Mackenzie River is in the running for the biggest river in North America by the size of its basin. This spans an impressive area of some 697,000 square miles, taking up around a fifth of Canada.
Named after the Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie, it’s located in the harsh environs of Canada’s northwest territories. In fact, the climate in the region is so cold, the river is too icy to navigate for over half the year.
Length: 1,980 miles
One of the most isolated and largest North American rivers, the Yukon stretches almost 2,000 miles from its source in Canada’s British Columbia to its mouth in Alaska in the US. There it empties into the Bering Sea at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the average discharge measuring just over 42,000 cubic feet per second.
One of the most famous episodes in the history of the Yukon was the Klondike Gold Rush. Beginning in 1896 on one of the Yukon’s tributaries, this was a mining frenzy in which one of the longest rivers in North America played a vital role in transporting gold.
Mining is still undertaken today, but the area within the Yukon’s approximately 321,700 square-mile basin is sparsely populated, and best known for its scenic beauty. It’s also home to one of the world’s longest salmon runs and a large population of wild salmon, which are commercially fished.
The Longest Rivers in North America
And thus we’ve reached the end of our list of the longest rivers in North America. Most of all, we’ve seen how they are “tide” to both the people and wildlife around them.