Looking at a map of the US, you can see that the mighty Mississippi River and the Missouri River appear the same length. Actually, at one point in history, they differed in length by one miles. The United States Department of the Interior (USDOI) and the US Geological Survey (USGS) measures the country’s rivers, and the Mississippi came in at a whopping 2,340 miles, just edged out by “Big Muddy,” the Missouri River which measured 2,341 miles.
Of course, geography and topography change, both by natural and man-made means. The method you choose to measure the river also impacts the results you obtain. Do you include its tributaries in the calculation? Do you measure each tributary separately? How often do you measure? Do you denote differences in natural flow as opposed to a man-made induced change? Geographers must consider all of these questions when working with land surveyors to design the measurement criteria. The maps you view create a scaled version of the actual situation, so the mapmaker requires accurate measurements of every body of water, land mass, etc. to create a properly scaled version.
Using another method of measurement, the Missouri dwarfs the Mississippi by about 200 miles, with Big Muddy coming in at 2,540 miles in length to the mighty Mississippi’s 2,340 miles. To further confuse matters, the two rivers meet in St. Louis, Missouri. This makes them qualify as one of the largest river systems in the world. It puts them on par with the awe-inspiring Nile River with a length of 4,132 miles; Amazon River at 4,000 miles, and the Yangtze River at 3,915 miles. When you read a list of the longest rivers in the US, keep in mind that many of these rivers are tributaries of a larger river.
Looking at a map of the US, you’ll see that settlers established cities and towns along the riverbanks. Those areas provide the most fertile land, and the navigable waters allow the residents of those towns to transport their goods easily to other locations. This occurs in every country since when they were established, these rivers also provided drinking water carried in buckets. Today, complex pipelines carry water to distribution plants where the water undergoes treatment before disbursing to homes via plumbing systems.
Table of Contents
- The 30 Longest Rivers in the US
- 1. Missouri River
- 2. Mississippi River
- 3. Yukon River
- 4. Rio Grande River
- 5. Saint Lawrence River
- 6. Arkansas River
- 7. Colorado River
- 8. Colorado River
- 9. Red River
- 10. Columbia River
- 11. Snake River
- 12. Ohio River
- 13. Canadian River
- 14. Tennessee River
- 15. Brazos River
- 16. Pecos River
- 17. Green River
- 18. White River
- 19. James River
- 20. Kuskokwim River
- 21. Cimmaron River
- 22. Cumberland River
- 23. Yellowstone River
- 24. North Platte River
- 25. Milk River
- 26. Ouachita River
- 27. Gila River
- 28. Sheyenne River
- 29. Tanana River
- 30. Smoky Hill River
The 30 Longest Rivers in the US
1. Missouri River
The Missouri River got its nickname, “Big Muddy,” from its silty, muddy bed. Unlike many of the other rivers in the US, it never runs clear. This lengthy body of water stretches for 2,341 miles, winding through Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri. This river contains more than 95 tributaries, including the Platte River, Kansas River, Milk River, Yellowstone River, and James River.
Many Native American nations formed their communities along this river including the Blackfeet, Crow, and Hidatsa. In the Great Plains, the river also gets called the “Center of Life.” Along its fertile banks and adjacent lands grow much of the country’s wheat, barley, and oats, and the river provides a main thoroughfare for transporting those crops, too.
2. Mississippi River
The mighty Mississippi River also provides a major agricultural production center along its banks and adjacent lands. The 2,340 mile-long Mississippi River basin accounts for more than 78 percent of the world’s feed grains and soybeans. It provides about 92 percent of the US agricultural needs.
More than 50 cities for a total of approximately 18 million people rely on this river for drinking water as well as the area of discharge for their municipal and industrial waste.
The massive water body begins in Minnesota and passes through the states of Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana, ultimately emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.
3. Yukon River
The US shares one its longest rivers with the adjacent country, Canada, its northern border mate. The 1,980 mile-long Yukon River calls Canada’s Llewellyn Glacier its source. The river flows north to Alaska, one of the two non-contiguous US states. It forks westerly in Alaska, traveling across that state to the Bering Sea. About 30,000 people live in its watershed and depend on it as a part of the salmon fishery which they use for subsidence fishing.
4. Rio Grande River
At an even 1,900 miles in length, the Rio Grande River flows from Colorado through New Mexico and along the southern border of Texas into the Gulf of Mexico. The US shares this river with its southern border mate Mexico. This river has three major tributaries – the Rio Conchos, the Rio Chama, and the San Juan River.
In the future, you may see shorter lengths for this river because overuse of its water for agriculture and domestic water supply and reduced rainfall have depleted its water stores. Some areas of this river already ran dry.
5. Saint Lawrence River
The US also shares the Saint Lawrence River and Seaway System with Canada. Rather than flowing from Canada to the US, this river system flows from the US state of Minnesota into Canada, northeast flow. The river provides the Great Lakes Basin with its primary drainage. The total Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System flows for 2,500 miles beginning at the US’s North River. Its outflow occurs in the Atlantic Ocean via Cabot Strait.
Passing through both Ontario and Quebec provinces of Canada to our north, this river also borders New York state. This river has provided transportation for much of the trade for both countries since the arrival of Europeans to North America. It often gets placed as low as 26th to 28th on the list because only 600 miles of its 2,500 miles traverse through the US.
6. Arkansas River
The mighty Mississippi River’s tributary, the Arkansas River, flows for 1,469 miles, making it the sixth longest river in the US. It flows east and southeast through the states of Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Originating near the town of Leadville, Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains, this lake passes through Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. It enters the Mississippi River at Napoleon, Arkansas.
7. Colorado River
The Colorado River begins in Colorado and flows for 1,450 miles from the Rocky Mountains to California, ultimately emptying into the Gulf of California. This winding river also traverses the states of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. Formed millions of years ago, this river carved the Grand Canyon, its might flow creating erosion that divided massive rock formations. In 1936, the US built the Hoover Dam on this river, forming Lake Mead, the hydro power source for the city of Las Vegas.
8. Colorado River
The Colorado River flows 1,450 miles from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the Gulf of California. Along the way it passes through Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico. The river is famous for carving out the Grand Canyon over the course of millions of years. Today the Colorado is an important source of water and power for the southwest United States. The Hoover Dam was built on the Colorado in 1936. It formed Lake Mead and provides power to the city of Las Vegas.
9. Red River
The 1,290 mile long Red River begins its flow in New Mexico, traversing Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. It once discharged into the Mississippi River, but its flow changed and it now empties into the Atchafalaya River, a tributary of the Mississippi River.
The lengthy river forms the border between Texas and Oklahoma, becoming the name of one of the greatest rivalries in American football, The Red River Rivalry, which annually pits The University of Oklahoma against The University of Texas. The lives and industries of the four states through which the river flows caused many legal arguments over its use. In 1955, the US Congress directed the four states the river traverses to negotiate a compact.
The process took 23 years. In 1978, the federal government approved The Red River Compact and the compact created The Red River Compact Commission, comprised of eight members – two from each state. Since another US river also took the name Red River, you will read references to Red River of the South and Red River of the North. The former refers to the water border of Oklahoma and Texas.
10. Columbia River
Known for its outdoor activities, the 1,243 miles of the Columbia River earned a reputation as a hiking, fishing, camping destination. It passes through Washington and Oregon plus the Canadian province of British Columbia before dumping into the Pacific Ocean. The largest river in the US’s northwest region, the Columbia River provides hydroelectric power for much of the region. The US constructed the largest power-producing dam, Grand Coulee Dam, on the Columbia.
11. Snake River
Depending on how you count tributaries matters a lot to determining a river’s length. Various sources place the Snake River anywhere from ninth to 13th on the list, but its most recent measurement of 1,040 miles in length places it at number eleven. Beginning in Wyoming, the river winds through Idaho and Washington and it comprises the largest tributary of the Columbia River. The river flows through Hells Canyon on the border of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Exploring this canyon offers camping, fishing, jet boating, hunting, white water rafting, and hiking as pastimes.
12. Ohio River
Although named the Ohio River, this river neither begins in nor ends in that state. The name comes from the Iroquois word in the Seneca language, OYO, meaning good river or great river. At 981 miles in length, this river starts its flow in Pittsburgh, PA the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers. It traverses the states of Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, emptying into the Mississippi River in Cairo, IL.
It serves as the drinking water source of five million people and about 25 million individuals live in its river basin. Some measurements put this river at 1,310 miles in length, but this depends on the calculation method and whether the measurement includes man-made alterations.
13. Canadian River
The 906 miles of the Canadian River form the longest tributary of the Arkansas River. Beginning in Colorado, it flows through the states of New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. In some areas in Oklahoma, it has run dry, in others it forms puddles. Explorers could navigate it and called it the Magdelena or Rio Buenaventura. In areas that receive a plethora of rainfall, the river still forms a deep enough body of water for fishing.
14. Tennessee River
A tributary of the Ohio River, the 886-mile long Tennessee River also once referred to as the Cherokee River, flows through Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky. A small part of this river forms one of the borders of Mississippi, but just misses Georgia by 250 feet. While it provides multi-species fishing, this river is best known for its catfish.
15. Brazos River
Some sources place the measurements of this river’s length at 860 miles, while others place it at 1,280 mile in length Brazos River starts at Blackwater Draw stream in New Mexico’s Roosevelt County, flowing through Texas and draining into the Gulf of Mexico. Some sources place it at 12 on their list of the largest 30 rivers in the US, while others place it at fifteenth.
It divides Texas into its East and West halves. Dammed three times to form Lake Granbury, Possum Kingdom Lake, and Lake Whitney, the lake no longer has its original flow. It created flood problems for the state, so the state built Lake Whitney and Whitney Dam for flood control, as well as to irrigate cotton fields and generate hydroelectric power.
16. Pecos River
If you ever watch a Western film in which a character says he or she will travel to “west of the Pecos,” the line refers to this river! The 926-mile waterway through New Mexico and Texas empties into the Rio Grande River. This mid-south river proved integral to the Spanish’s exploration of Texas.
17. Green River
The main tributary of the Colorado River, the 730- to 760-mile long river flows through Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. It has inspired a song “Green River,” by Credence Clearwater Revival (CCR). Don’t confuse this Green River with the other Green River in the US, which inspired a serial killer. That 65-mile long river is in Washington state, where Gary Leon Ridgway terrorized the communities along I-90 in the 1980s and 1990s, killing a documented 49 individuals, but suspected of murdering at least 71 women.
The longer of the two rivers has a much happier past, hosting the Fremont Culture from the 7th century to the 13th century. The Fremont peoples painted the canyon walls artwork of Utah, pre-dating the Ute and Navajo peoples who later settled the area.
18. White River
The 722-mile long White River flows through the US states of Arkansas and Missouri. It originates in the Ozark Mountains and provides some of the best trout fishing in the US. Explore the Boston Mountains that it flows through, a favored area for hiking and camping. In the Ozarks, the area offers four unique species of trout in the river and makes a popular fishing destination.
19. James River
Another confusing case of two rivers named the same thing in the same country, the larger of the two James Rivers flows in the Dakotas. From North Dakota to South Dakota flows this 700 and some measure two or three miles long river. It just edges out Alaska’s second largest river by those two or three miles. Some maps and articles refer to it as the Dakota River. It is best known as a location for blue catfish fishing.
20. Kuskokwim River
Also referred to as the Kusko River, this Alaskan water body flows for 702 miles from the Kuskokwim Mountains to the Bering Strait. It forms the second largest river in Alaska. Located in a remote area of Alaska, few towns exist on its banks, but you can visit Bethel, Aniak, and McGrath.
You can also locate various small villages along this river. You will need to visit one of the three larger towns though since you must fly into this area and those three areas are the only ones in which aircraft can land. There are no roads in this area except with the three towns and limited roadways in the small villages. Only air travel or boat on the river once you arrive connects these towns.
21. Cimmaron River
The Cimmaron River makes a 698 mile trek through four southern Mid-West states – New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas. It merges with the Arkansas River and forms Lake Keystone. In Oklahoma, the river contains many minerals and salt, making its water undrinkable. In New Mexico, the Cimmaron provides ideal fishing conditions for brown and rainbow trout.
22. Cumberland River
Both Kentucky and Tennessee claim the Cumberland River which winds its way through both southern states for 688 miles. The river flows west from the Appalachian Mountains to the Ohio River. You can easily explore this river by visiting General Burnside State Park in Burnside, Kentucky.
23. Yellowstone River
Its 692 mile long flow traverses Montana and also enters into Wyoming and North Dakota. This Missouri River tributary remains the last undammed major US river. You can visit it when traveling to Yellowstone National Park. This river provides many famous sights, including Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, Grand Prismatic Spring, Tower Fall, and the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River.
24. North Platte River
Central Wyoming’s only floatable waterway, the 716 mile long North Platte River provides fishing, recreation, and scenic views. It also flows through Nebraska and Colorado.
25. Milk River
Not to be confused with the Milk River in Jamaica, in which you can’t swim due to crocodiles, this Milk River flows through Montana and enters Canada. It dumps its 625 mile long waters in the US though – in the Missouri River. The area by the river in Montana is widely known for its deer hunting.
26. Ouachita River
The Ouachita River flows for 605 miles through Louisiana and Arkansas, traveling south and east. In Louisiana, it joins the Tensas River to form the Black River. It provides a major recreational center for residents of Arkansas. The river provides the source for three of the state’s major lakes – Lake Ouachita, Lake Hamilton, and Lake Catherine.
27. Gila River
This river of 649 miles in length flows through Arizona and New Mexico as well as into Mexico. For more than 2,000 years, the river has provided a home for indigenous people. The river bisects two nationally protected places – the Gila National Forest and the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.
28. Sheyenne River
Also referred to as the Red River of the North, this 591 mile long river provides the US state of North Dakota with drinking water and leisure pursuits.
29. Tanana River
In Alaska, the Tanana River forms on of the tributaries of the Yukon River. The 584 mile long river hosts one of the most unique contests in the US. Each year, as a fundraiser for local charities, people place bets on the exact date and minute that the ice in the river will float out into the Nenana River. At $2.50 per guess, the contest funds a lot of good since thousands participate each year.
30. Smoky Hill River
Flowing through Colorado and Kansas, the Kansas River forms the mouth of the 576 mile long Smoky Hill River. In Salina, Kansas, the Friends of the River Foundation works to restore the river’s natural channel.