Boating on the Missouri River

If you are in the middle of the country then boating down the Missouri River might be on your bucket list. In this article I will answer some of the more common questions about the Missouri River and hopefully give you some insight for your boating trip down the Missouri. 

Where Does the Missouri River Start and End?

The Missouri River starts in Brower’s Spring, Montana and ends at the Mississippi River north of St. Louis. The Missouri flows 2,540 miles until it empties into the Mississippi River. 

There is a debate whether the Missouri River is longer than the Mississippi River and it honestly depends on where you think the rivers start. If you search online:

Is the Missouri River longer than the Mississippi river? 

You will find a variety of answers to that question. If you go to google right now it says that the Mississippi is longer than the MIssouri! But is that correct? 

According to the USGS the Missouri River is 2,540 miles long while the Mississippi River is 2,340. That makes the MISSOURI RIVER the longest river in the United States! So how does the almighty Google get that wrong? 

The problem is the answer changes depending on how you measure the start of the rivers but according to the United States Geological Survey  the MISSOURI RIVER is longer! 

Does the Missouri River Flow North?

When I was first researching the Missouri River this was one of the questions I came across. I of course laughed! “Rivers don’t run north,” I thought. It turns out I was wrong! 

The Missouri River does run north! If you look at the map below you can see where the Missouri turns and goes north before then going southeast again. 

Missouri River Map

How Much of the Missouri River Is Navigable?

Considering the above information, the next obvious question is, how far is the Missouri River navigable? 

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Unfortunately, how much of the MIssouri River is navigable depends entirely on which boat you are using. The upper 1,806 miles of the Missouri are really only navigable by smaller boats like kayaks or canoes assuming you are trying to travel the entire distance. 

There are many places along the Missouri River or lakes where you can use a houseboat or powered boat but you can’t take those boats all the way down the river for one simple reason, dams! 

There are 6 dams spread throughout the upper Missouri River that don’t have locks. That means to continue down the Missouri you have to carry your boat around the dam and relaunch it in the water below. With a canoe or kayak this is an inconvenience. With a houseboat or any other type of boat this is impossible (unless you are Superman!). 

These dams without locks make traveling down the entire Missouri River impossible except for those smaller boats that you can carry or drag around the dams. There are multiple stretches of the Missouri that are 200+ miles in between dams. 

You could certainly use power boats along those stretches but you can’t take them to the next section of the river without taking the boat out of the water. 

Since most of the upper Missouri is allowed to meander and isn’t taken care of by anyone the section from Fort Benton to Sioux City can vary in depth so even if you are using a canoe or kayak you do need to watch out for sandbars and sucken debris while you are traveling. 

From Sioux City to St Louis, the Missouri River is channeled out so those 734 miles will have no problem handling a boat no matter what the size. That section of the river is often used for barges transporting items from Nebraska/Iowa to St Louis as well points in between. 

Can you Boat on the Missouri River? 

Yes, you absolutely can boat on the Missouri River! How much of the river you can boat on is dependant on the time of year and what type of boat you have. As mentioned above, the entire Missouri River is open to boat traffic but portions of it will be too shallow to take larger boats on and only a flat bottom boat or kayak/canoe would work well. 

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You can boat many different sections in between the dams as well so as long as you aren’t trying to boat down the entire Missouri River there are many places available to take your boat out. 

The time of year can also have some effect on where you can boat as well. Certain cities along the river close off river access when the river is flooding. If you are planning to travel the Missouri River during springtime be sure to check with each city along your route to make sure that the marinas etc. are open or if it is legal for you to boat through. 

Can you Boat the Entire Missouri River?

Knowing that you can boat the Missouri River is great but what if you want to boat the entire river, is that possible? 

Yes, it is possible to boat the entire Missouri River but you would have to change boats at some point during the journey.

The upper section of the river is only deep enough for a canoe or kayak. There are also six dams that don’t have a lock on the top portion of the river so you would have to carry your boat along the shore and then relaunch it once you get to the bottom of the dam.

Once you reach Sioux City you can then use a power boat for the remainder of the trip. You do have to be careful as there are many places that have sand bars or debris that could damage your boat or motors.

The time of year can be a factor as flooding on the river can introduce a lot more debris and some areas can become unnavigable or even be closed to recreational boats and barges.

Are There Barges on the Missouri River? 

If you are going to boat down the Missouri you are probably wondering what kind of other boat traffic you will encounter. Barges are one of those vessels that you will want to be sure to steer clear of as their wake can cause issues if your boat sits lower in the water. 

Yes, there are barges on the Missouri River. During flooding, the river can become closed to barge traffic in specific areas. For example in June of 2019 the US Coast Guard shut down the Missouri River to all boat traffic including barges and recreational traffic due to flooding. It was closed from St. Louis to Sioux City for a total of 750 miles that was closed.  Source

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Can you Float the Missouri River?

The Missouri River does a lot of meandering and flows into a variety of lakes in the upper portions which makes simply drifting down the river a VERY slow process. Can it be done? Yes, it certainly can but I personally wouldn’t recommend just floating.

Many people canoe or kayak the Upper MIssouri as there are many areas where you can go for 100-150 miles without encountering rough water. That meandering section or lakes would be difficult to float down but with amazing scenery it is excellent to paddle down. 

Floating is possible on the lower Missouri River as the current will normally run 3-5mph but there is a lot of barge and large boat traffic so floating that section is an option but avoiding those large boats while simply floating would be difficult to do. 

Best Boat for the Missouri River

For the upper Missouri River, your best boat choice would be a kayak or canoe. You can easily pull them out and carry them around the dams while also traveling at a decent rate. Once you reach Sioux CIty below the Gavins Point Dam you can use any boat you like as those 734 miles are made to handle large barges.

If you want to use a houseboat, speedboat, or just a fishing boat, all of them will work just fine on the lower Missouri River. Being that this website is all about houseboats that’s obviously the boat that I would choose for your journey but some people prefer moving much faster than a houseboat will allow. 

Matthew Robbs

I love the outdoors and especially spending time with my family. Whether on a boat or at the beach, my happy place is near the water.

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