Missouri River: From its Headwaters to Craig, This is Montana’s Greatest River

by Rick and Susie Graetz
fall colors along jefferson river below the ruby mountains near twin bridges, mt
Jefferson River and Ruby Mountains | John Lambing

Standing at the three forks, headwaters of the Missouri, on July 28, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote,

“Both Capt. C. and myself corrisponded in opinion, with rispect, to the impropriety of calling either of these streams the Missouri and accordingly agreed to name them. we called the S.W. Fork, that which we meant to ascend, Jefferson’s river in honor of Thomas Jefferson. the Middle fork we called Madison’s River in honor of James Madison, and the S.E. Fork Gallitian’s river in honor of Albert Gallitian.”

The Missouri in Perspective 

Here where the captains stood, the rivers emphasize their arrival. The Madison and Jefferson, each close to 100 feet wide, join and travel a short distance before meeting the equally broad Gallatin. Of all three tributaries, the Jefferson, counting its suppliers, drains the largest area and the Gallatin the smallest.

And while the Yellowstone’s water sources collect very quickly, within a couple of miles, before sending the newly formed river on its way, contributors to the Missouri’s birth cover a vast realm of geography while establishing significant identifications of their own. Consider the Jefferson with its upstream continuations, the Beaverhead and Red Rock rivers. Together, they take in 294 miles. And when the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin come together at the three forks to develop the mother river, each arrives swiftly carrying large quantities of water.

“…the country to the right of the of the S.W. fork, like that to the left of the S.E. fork is high broken and mountainous as is that also down the missouri behind us, through which, these three rivers after assembling their united force at this point seem to have forced a passage…”

—Meriwether Lewis, July 27, 1805

When these powerful flows mix their waters the great Missouri River begins an odyssey. For Montana it was a lifeline and had the starring role in the creation of a state. As a route of western expansion, it had few equals. 

History is vivid at this site, now Missouri Headwaters State Park. Interpretive signs and displays where the rivers unite, document a dynamic past and the chronology of Montana. Long before whites trespassed, the place was the natural crossroad, camping spot, hunting area, meeting place and battleground for native people, including the Hidatsa, Blackfeet, Shoshone, Crow, Nez Perce, Kootenai and Salish. Today, faint pictographs, the only physical evidence of the passing of indigenous cultures at the forks, are found in a small cave. 

From here this celebrated and powerful water way begins its journey towards the sunrise. By the time it gives up its flow to the Mississippi, it will have coursed 2,341 miles. And on the way to the nation’s heartland, it collects Montana’s memories and history. 

It is Montana’s great river!

The Missouri’s Southwest Montana Journey Begins

In Southwest Montana, from the three forks to just beyond Craig, the river covers 120 miles.  On August 12, 1805, Meriwether Lewis penned in his journals, 

“the road was still plain, I therefore did not dispare of shortly finding a passage over the mountains and of tasting the waters of the great Columbia this evening. At the distance of four miles further the road took us to the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in search of which we have spent so many toilsome days in wristless nights.”

marker near lemhi pass in the beaverhead mountains noting the lewis and clark expedition reaching the missouri river headwaters
Lewis and Clark marker in Lemhi Pass | John Lambing

Lewis was describing today’s Distant Fountain Spring, part of Trail Creek, flowing from the east side of the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass. Climbing above the trickle, Lewis became the first known white man to have stepped onto and across the Continental Divide.

However, in terms of the most distant waters, he was a bit off. That honor is reserved for a spring and Hellroaring Creek, which comes off the Montana side of the Continental Divide just below 9,846-foot Mount Jefferson at the extreme eastern end of the Centennial Range, west of Yellowstone National Park. Hellroaring has a short life. It is hastily consumed by Red Rock Creek, which begins just off the Divide below Red Rock Mountain at Lillian.

Lake, 9,000 feet above sea level, near Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Hellroaring and Red Rock creeks are the Jefferson’s source. Red Rock River falls out of the mountains and courses through a most beautiful setting, the Centennial Valley and the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Slowing to fill Upper and Lower Red Rock lakes, it offers haven and nesting ground for species such as the trumpeter swan. At the western end of the valley, the river enters 13-mile-long Lima Reservoir. Until this point, the river expanded westward. Beyond the man-made lake, it continues northwesterly until it meets Clark Canyon Reservoir and the waters of Horse Prairie Creek, entering from the west. “The Most Distant Fountain Spring” as labeled by Lewis, and Trail Creek, are at the upper end of Horse Prairie.

upper end of lima reservoir in the centennial valley near lakeview, montana, with lima peaks in the distance
Lima Reservoir holding the Red Rock River; Centennial Mountains | John Lambing

In the Corps of Discovery’s time, Red Rock River and Horse Prairie Creek coupled in an area the captains christened “Shoshone Cove near their Camp Fortunate (now buried by the waters of Clark Canyon Reservoir). From this point north to the Three Forks, the explorers called the entire stream “Jefferson’s river.” Today, where the creek and river convene somewhere under the reservoir, the Beaverhead River is born and flows forth, switching in and out of narrow canyons and wide valleys before partnering with the Ruby River. A short way beyond the town of Twin Bridges it meets the Big Hole River. It is from this point that the present Jefferson River runs to the Three Forks.

The Madison River gains its foothold where the Gibbon and Firehole rivers meet in western Yellowstone National Park. The Firehole begins on the Madison Plateau and Continental Divide just south of Old Faithful near Shoshone Lake. During its journey to meet the Gibbon River at the Park’s Madison Junction, it runs north through three geyser basins.

The Grebe Lake area, northwest of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, gives the Gibbon its start. From here it travels west, taking in two geyser basins, several rapids and an 84-foot plunge over Gibbon Falls before joining the Firehole at Yellowstone’s Madison Junction.

From this confluence, the newly made Madison, heading west to northwest, passes herds of bison and elk before leaving the park. It takes a brief rest in Hebgen and Quake lakes (site of a major earthquake in 1959) before rushing full of life into the spacious Madison Valley, where it holds court as one of Montana’s premiere fly-fishing destinations. Moving north, between the Madison and Gravelly mountain ranges, it spreads out in Ennis Lake, then squeezes into Bear Trap Canyon on its way to the Gallatin Valley and its destiny to begin the Missouri.

holter lake below beartooth (sleeping giant) mountain viewed from beartooth wildlife management area near wolf creek, montana
Holter Lake | John Lambing

In the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, Three Rivers Peak and Gallatin Lake send off the Gallatin River. It tumbles through a beautiful valley, then eases into Gallatin River Meadows—a favorite for backcountry skiers—before leaving the park and wedging itself into the constricted and magnificent Gallatin River Canyon, formed by steep rises of the Gallatin Range looking down from the east and the Madison Range across the way. The abrupt demise of the canyon southwest of Bozeman allows the river to spill into the ample and fertile Gallatin Valley and on to Three Forks.

A hallmark of southwest Montana is its grand valleys— sage-filled bottomlands surrounded by distant high peaks. The Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson rivers traverse such country.

Almost immediately upon departing the Three Forks area, the newly formed Missouri is neatly tucked into a mini gorge. Then, only 16 miles from its inception, the Toston Reservoir and Dam decelerate its flow. After traversing the “Little Gates of the Mountains,” so noted on Clark’s map of July 25, 1805, as “2d range of mts – little gate,” near the small village of Toston, the river will soon ply the last of the big southwest valleys. Officially established when the post office opened in 1882 and named after a local rancher, Tosten bills itself as “the first town on the Missouri.”

Wandering north between the Bridger and Belt mountains on its eastern flank and the Elkhorn Mountains to the west, it finds its way to the Prickly Pear Valley and the Helena area.

Early on the morning of July 24, 1805, Lewis and his men “passed a remarkable bluff of a crimson coloured earth on Stard. intermixed with Stratas of black and brick red slate.” These are now called the Crimson Bluffs and are located about a mile southwest of Townsend.

Somewhere along today’s Canyon Ferry Lake in the mid-to-late-1800s, John Oakes ran a ferry to access the gulches, including Confederate, in the Big Belt Mountains. The Missouri’s channel he crossed was in a canyon, hence the name Canyon Ferry. A 30-foot-high dam was built in 1889, and construction on the replacement, present-day Canyon Ferry Dam, began in May 1948 and was completed in June 1954. The resulting 26-mile-long Canyon Ferry Lake has 76 miles of shoreline.

bluffs along canyon ferry lake below mount baldy near townsend, montana
Canyon Ferry Lake | John Lambing

By this time, the river has covered 42 miles of gentle meanders. It then enters an almost 70-mile long stretch of the series of Canyon Ferry, Hauser and Holter lakes and dams. All three were built to harness the Missouri and create electric power, with recreation as a secondary consideration. In that section, it will have lost only a little over 500 feet of elevation since Three Forks.

Hauser Dam was completed in 1911 by Sam Hauser to bring power to the mines in Butte and the smelter in Anaconda. Holter Dam came online in 1918 and was named for Anton Holter. Both men were Helena-area mining tycoons and businessmen. Hauser also was a partner with Granville Stuart in the famous DHL Ranch north of Lewistown.

Between Townsend and Helena, the river crosses country that gold settled. On the east side of Canyon Ferry Lake, up in the Big Belt Mountains, was an extraordinarily rich placer-gold find. In December 1864, two Confederate soldiers struck it big here. Naming this site Confederate Gulch after their political leanings, they built four cabins to settle into for the winter. The path in the snow among the cabins formed a perfect diamond, so they christened the camp Diamond City. At one time, 5,000 people crowded in the narrow canyon, and it was said that some of the hillside prospectors garnered more than $1,000 worth of gold from a single pan of gravel. The big boom was over by 1870, and in 1880 only a couple of people remained. Today, not even the town’s footings are left—washed away by hydraulic mining once townsfolk realized they had assembled their homes atop the gold.

On the afternoon of July 14, 1864, four men, nursing their bad luck in the gulches and camps of Alder Gulch and Grasshopper Creek to the southwest, and who had been following rumors of gold to the north in the Kootenai country, returned to a gulch they had prospected a bit earlier. This was to be their “last chance.” Digging to bedrock in a canyon below today’s Mount Ascension and Mount Helena, they hit paydirt. A camp called Last Chance (later Helena) was mapped out and, as other would-be miners and prospectors migrated to the Prickly Pear Valley, became an overnight boom.

More ore was found, and additional camps, most of which have long since disappeared, were established. Today, as the Missouri passes remnants of those livelier times, she remembers how it was.

The Eldorado Bar, once a gold placer claim, is now worked by current day prospectors looking for sapphires in the gravels just off of the Missouri River.

Downstream from Canyon Ferry Lake, and northwest of Helena, the Missouri’s waters edge the western perimeter of the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. Here, the river’s channel narrows to knife its way through steep limestone walls. Lewis’ journal notes of July 19, 1805, read in part:

“… this evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. these clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of about 1200 feet … the towering and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us … for the distance of 5 3/4 miles … the river appears to have woarn a passage just the width of it’s channel or 150 yds. it is deep from side to side nor is ther in the 1st 3 miles of this distance a spot … on which a man could rest the soal of his foot … from the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.”

When the river passes through the Gates, it takes on the Adels, an extension of the Big Belt Mountains. Here, held back by the last of the upriver dams, it fills Holter Lake. After the dam, the Missouri sweeps by the east side of a recreation community, named for Warren Craig who built the first cabin here in 1886. It is now relatively free to run unobstructed for 89 miles until meeting the Sun River at Great Falls.

sunrise over the missouri river at townsend, montana
Sunrise on the Missouri River near Townsend | John Lambing