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Geography

What Are America’s Longest Rivers?

By Bradley O'Neill
Read time: 5 minutes

Browse a map of the world and you’ll probably notice that many cities and towns are located close to rivers. This isn’t some strange coincidence: From the smallest villages to the world’s largest metropolises, rivers are a vital source of water and means to facilitate trade. They are the arteries of the Earth, making it possible for humans to reach and connect with the remotest of places. The U.S. alone is crisscrossed by some 3 million miles of rivers, displaying centuries of history and culture along their shores. These are eight of the longest rivers in America.

8. Columbia River – 1,249 Miles

Railroad track and two-lane highway next to the Columbia River
Photo credit: Vitpho/ Shutterstock

Starting in the Canadian Rockies, the Columbia River meanders through the Pacific Northwest to the Pacific Ocean. Acting as a natural border between Washington and Oregon, it’s marked by a landscape of canyons and waterfalls. The Columbia River was once the site of the world’s largest salmon runs, and, in its heyday, spawned 30 million salmon annually. The river also provides irrigation for 600,000 acres of farmland and is home to 19 hydroelectric farms. Notable cities located on the Columbia River include Portland, Oregon; the British Columbia mountain resort of Revelstoke; and Vancouver, Washington.

7. Red River – 1,290 Miles 

Aerial view of bridge over the Red River
Photo credit: Bob Pool/ Shutterstock

Originating in the Texas Panhandle, the Red River (also known as the Red River of the South) zigzags across Texas, along the Texas-Oklahoma border, and into Arkansas. It then enters Louisiana near Baton Rouge, where it converges with the Atchafalaya River. The river’s name is a reference to the red soil of its bed. As the water flows, it lifts the soil to create a reddish hue. Varied wildlife species call the river and its basin home, including alligators, beavers, and numerous fish species. With the Chisholm Trail having crossed the river, it was historically connected with Native American trade and frontiersmen settlements. Established in the 19th century, this trail was frequently used for cattle runs between Texas and Kansas.

6. Colorado River – 1,450 Miles

Colorado River flanked by steep sandstone canyon walls
Photo credit: Nora Connors Photography/ Shutterstock

The Colorado River carves its way through dramatic gorges and arid plains in seven U.S. states and Mexico. It begins in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, which is one of 11 national parks through which it flows. For approximately 6 million years, the Colorado River has been shaping the Grand Canyon, which reaches depths of over 6,000 feet. Aside from being a paradise for outdoor adventurers — hiking, fishing, and whitewater rafting are among the river’s plentiful recreational activities — it also provides water to major cities such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego. 

5. Arkansas River – 1,469 Miles

Rapids of the Arkansas River flowing through mountains
Photo credit: IrinaK/ Shutterstock

Like the Colorado River, the source of the Arkansas River is in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. For centuries, this waterway has been associated with exploration and westward expansion. The Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples relied on it for sustenance, and Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto traversed the waters on his 1541 journey into what is now the U.S. Southwest. The Santa Fe Trail, a trade route that gained fame during the California Gold Rush, follows the river through large parts of Kansas. In Pueblo, Colorado, the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk offers boating activities, boutique shopping, and public artworks. 

4. Rio Grande – 1,900 Miles

Greenish waters of the Rio Grande flanked by narrow and steep canyon walls
Photo credit: Linda Moon/ Shutterstock

From the San Juan Range of the Colorado Rockies, the Rio Grande travels through the states of New Mexico and Texas, in addition to Mexico. Prior to emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, it skirts a section of the U.S.-Mexico border. With a catchment area of 336,000 square miles, the Rio Grande provides natural habitats for bighorn sheep, river otters, and various other wildlife. Within its span is the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, a 196-mile stretch protected by the National Park System. Distinguished by desert expanses and canyons of stratified rock, it’s an ideal spot for float trips, stopping at popular tourist areas like Big Bend National Park and Boquillas Canyon Trail.

3. Yukon River – 1,980 Miles (Inside the U.S.)

Aerial view of the Yukon River surrounded by forest
Photo credit: Pi-Lens/ Shutterstock

Alaska’s mightiest watercourse, the Yukon River has played a significant role in the human history of the region for thousands of years. Evidence suggests that the earliest settlers traversed the Yukon’s watershed some 10,000 years ago. Between 1896 and 1899, it was one of the principal means of transport during the Klondike Gold Rush

Starting its journey in British Columbia, Canada, the Yukon flows across the wild and remote Yukon Territory, through Alaska, and into the Bering Sea. One of the best ways to experience the river and its breathtaking surroundings is through camping, canoeing, and rafting tours. Not to be missed is Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve: Protecting 2.5 million acres of untamed wilderness, it offers a fascinating snapshot of life during the Gold Rush years. 

2. Mississippi River – 2,350 Miles

Autumn landscapes of the Mississippi River, seen from above
Photo credit: Photo Image/ Shutterstock

The second-largest river in the United States, the mighty Mississippi travels through 10 states from Minnesota to Louisiana. For thousands of years, everyone from Native American peoples to European explorers, fur traders, and garrisoned troops have benefited from its riches. The Mississippi provides a natural habitat for 50 species of mammals, 145 species of amphibians and reptiles, 260 fish species, and 326 bird species. 

It also holds a special place in American culture, playing a central role in novels such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Highlights along the river include the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum and Trail of Tears State Park, both in Missouri. The Mississippi Blues Trail explores the history of Delta Blues, which was nurtured in the Mississippi Delta region.

1. Missouri River – 2,540 Miles

Missouri River with mountains in background
Photo credit: O’Kelly Photography/ Shutterstock

Snaking from the Rocky Mountains to Missouri, where it converges with the Mississippi River, the Missouri is one of the world’s longest rivers. Its current course dates back approximately 115,000 years, when mountain streams were diverted by glaciers. Well before Lewis and Clark navigated the river on their westward journey, the river provided a vital source of food and water for the Missouri and Otoe peoples and a natural habitat for hundreds of native animal species. 

Today, the Missouri also provides irrigation for farms, hydroelectric power for homes, and adventures for tourists. Outdoor enthusiasts can discover a blend of history, culture, and natural wonders at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area, and Missouri Headwaters State Park, among other notable sights. 

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