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Jonathan Stull | 11.22.2017

The amazing rivers of North America showcase many of the continent’s best outdoor recreation opportunities, and for this week’s installment of the #52WeekAdventureChallenge, we’re celebrating the unique adventures that can be found in the farthest corners of our river watersheds. Some of the world’s most interesting river basins enervate the North American continent, extending from coast to coast and everywhere in between.

The Handprint of God

Just about everything east of the Rocky Mountains and south of the 49th parallel drains into the Mississippi River, a basin that is fourth largest among the world’s rivers, draining 3,200,000 square kilometers of the North American continent. This is the river that inspired freedom for generations of European Americans. When the British enforced strict taxation on the American Colonies, Irish settlers fled west into the Ohio River valley, where they built the continent’s first distilleries and floated barrels of whisky down the Mississippi to New Orleans and the international market. For Mark Twain, it was a frontier beyond the confines of so-called civilized society where his characters were freer and more human.

Comprised of the Missouri, Ohio, and Arkansas river basins, the Mississippi River system is a geopolitical landmark that has characterized and shaped American history since its inception as a modern nation. It also offers some of the best whitewater in North America, finds its source as far west as Yellowstone, and cuts through high plains, the Rockies, and the glacially carved Midwest.

  • It’s hard to believe the course of the Mississippi can be traced as far west as Montana, but the source of the Missouri River, which joins the Mississippi near St. Louis, is found just northwest of West Yellowstone and the Madison River.
  • Likewise, its eastern arm begins on the Allegheny Plateau, a hundred miles to the east of Hocking Hills State Park. Still, the waters that flow through Hocking Hills eventually make their way to the Ohio and the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Farther south, Pickwick Landing State Park rests on the banks of the Tennessee River, which flows from the Smoky Mountains.
  • The Arkansas River, the Mississippi’s western arm, begins as far west as Leadville, Colorado, and its upper tributary is one of the best whitewater destinations on the continent. Buena Vista Whitewater Park, with five constructed whitewater features, is just a taste of the whitewater adventures available here. See the river from another perspective on the Arkansas River Trail.
  • The Ozarks are within the Mississippi River basin—the Arkansas and White rivers, more specifically—and Blanchard Springs is a great place to observe the water on its course to the Gulf.
  • Not all sources begin in the mountains. Mammoth Springs State Park births part of the Spring River, which eventually flows into the White River.

A Story of Dams in Many Ages

The headwaters of the Columbia River have no humble beginnings, and the Colorado’s mighty northwestern companion, one of the world’s most voluminous rivers, drains a basin the size of Texas. Like sandstone, the volcanic basalt of the Pacific Northwest’s ancient lava flows is easily molded under the force of water, and the rains fall heavier here than they do in the desert. That, and the deluge of prehistoric inland seas—like, an 80-mile-per-hour outflow of glacial waters—have carved the Columbia watershed into what it is today, a mountainous landscape marked by high desert plateau, temperate rainforests, and basaltic waterfalls.

  • The Columbia begins at Columbia Lake in British Columbia near Yoho National Park and the Iceline Trail.
  • Dry Falls is a landmark with a rich natural history: It’s here that the high drama of the Missoula Floods unfolded, where rushing water tumbled 400 feet over a precipice five times the width of Niagara and with a flow 10 times larger than all the world’s rivers, inundating the Columbia River Gorge with hundreds of feet of water that extended all the way up the Willamette River as far as Eugene, Oregon. Please, please, please, someone make a movie out of this with John Cusack.
  • Another important feature of the Columbia River basin: Hells Canyon, the deepest river canyon in the United States, on the Snake River. Take a look at its depth from Heavens Gate.

From Life to Death in the Desert Southwest

In Rocky Mountain National Park, the Colorado River begins its 1,450-mile journey toward Baja, California. The source of the Southwest’s only major river—lifeblood for the region’s economy and energy—is a pristine alpine meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park, the first of 11 national parks along the river's course to the Gulf of California. The river rarely gets there; since the 1960s, the flow of the river has dwindled behind hydroelectric dams and intensified irrigation. Where the river delta once flowed into the Pacific Ocean is, in most years, a dry floodplain with scars where the Colorado cut into the desert. But from source to seashore, the Colorado is perhaps the most dramatic of North America’s watersheds, carving a sandstone plateau rich with slot canyons, cliff dwellings, and ancient mysteries.


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