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artist's drawing of interpretive center 

Frequently Asked Questions

What does “Breaks” mean in the Upper Missouri River Breaks?

The Breaks is a local geographic term describing the rugged valleys, badlands, bluffs, and coulees surrounding the upper Missouri River areas. It is often said that it appears that  the land breaks away to the river.  Others have described this terrain as upside-down mountains or badlands though the breaks is the most common term used to describe this area.

How far does the nature trail at the Interpretive Center extend?

The trail near the interpretive center parallels the Missouri River and is just a short stroll, about ¼ mile in length.  The trail connects to a walking and biking trail in the town of Fort Benton, extending along the Missouri River from one end of town to the other.  The trail, interpretive signs, and a bench/sitting area by the river are all accessible.

Why does the Interpretive Center building look as it does?

The center’s white concrete panels represent the White Cliffs along the Upper Missouri River, and the multi-colored brick on the building represents the geologic layers found in the Monument.  The back patio is built to resemble an actual steamboat deck, complete with a “grasshopper” which these boats used to free themselves from sandbars and obstacles in the river. 

Can a person climb the bluffs?

Climbing on the bluffs can be dangerous because of the loose consistency of the soil and the soft sandstone which can crumble under foot.  Also, disturbing the bluffs’ current geological state can create erosion and increase run off.  

What is the elevation of Fort Benton?

Approximately 2,613 feet above sea level.

Where does the Monument start and end?

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument encompasses more than 375,000 acres of land, extending eastward from Fort Benton to the BLM’s Kipp Recreation Area in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.  The majority of the Monument is located along the lower reaches of the Wild and Scenic Upper Missouri River.  Click here to see a map of the area. 

How many miles long is the wild and scenic portion of the Missouri River?

The Wild and Scenic Upper Missouri River is 149 river miles long.  It extends from Fort Benton to the Kipp Recreation Area, which is inside the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. 

How fast does the Missouri River flow?

It varies according to the season.  In the spring the river flow can average five to six miles miles/hour, sometimes more.  In the late summer or fall the flow averages two to three miles/hour. 

Can a person camp at the Lewis and Clark campsites along the Missouri River?

Yes!  There are special markers at the campsites used by Lewis and Clark.  Geographic positioning system (GPS) coordinates of the Lewis and Clark campsites can be obtained at the interpretive center for those who are interested.

Where can a person get information on boating the river?

There are several locations for information. You may visit or call the interpretive center.  We are located at 701 7th Street in Fort Benton.  Our phone is 406-622-4000.  The interpretive center offers free information and also sells maps that cover the entire length of the river through the monument.  You may also visit our Planning A Trip webpage for more in-depth information about the river.

What kind of animals are in the Monument?

Pronghorn antelope and mule deer are the most prevalent on the bench land above the river.  You may also see beaver, coyotes, bald and golden eagle, white-tailed deer, and the occasional bighorn sheep while you are floating the river.  In the evening while in camp, you may (thankfully) see bats that come to gobble thousands of mosquitoes and gnats each night.

What type of plants are found in the area?

Much of the breaks is a sagebrush-steppe habitat, which includes big sagebrush and rubber rabbitbrush.  Riparian areas along the river showcase a wide variety of shrubs and trees, such as snowberry, chokecherry, cottonwood, and juniper.

What kinds of birds are found in the Missouri Breaks?

A wide variety of song and other birds can be found in the area.  Yellow-breasted chat, spotted towheee, and brown thrasher can be found at Wood Bottom; the common poorwill can be heard at Eagle Creek; green-tailed towhee is found at McClelland; burrowing owls can be found near Holmes Rapids at the prairie dog town on the south bank; red-eyed vireo, mountain bluebird, common nighthawk, yellow-headed blackbird, and great-horned owl may be seen at Kipp; and American white pelican, bald eagle, osprey, western kingbird, Bullock’s oriole, and yellow warbler are often observed at or near the interpretive center.  While you are on the river a large variety of waterfowl can be observed along with an occasional belted kingfisher.  In springtime, one can typically see broods of ducklings or goslings bobbing along close to their parents. 

What types of fish are found in the wild and scenic stretch of the Upper Missouri River?

Pallid sturgeon (a threatened and endangered species), sauger, channel catfish, walleye, and shovelnose sturgeon in habit the river.  Other fish species include paddlefish, walleye, occasionally bass, perch, Northern pike, and various other minnows and smaller species.  A number of fish species are highlighted at the interpretive center.

What kind of noxious weeds inhabit the Missouri River Breaks?

Noxious weeds are non-native plants that were introduced to North America from other parts of the world (typically Europe and Asia).  These plants have spread at alarming rates because, unlike native species, there are no natural controls to stop their growth and spread.  Some species of noxious weeds found in the area include Dalmatian toadflax, leafy spurge, perennial pepperweed, purple loosestrife, Russian knapweed, spotted knapweed, salt cedar, and baby’s breath. 
 

Did steamboats actually navigate the Upper Missouri River?

Yes. The first steamboats to make it to Fort Benton were the Chippewa and the Far West, in 1860.  During the next 30 years, steamboats hauled people and freight on the Missouri River to Fort Benton or to other sites downriver when the water was too low to navigate up to Fort Benton.  Steamboats became the lifeline of Fort Benton until the railroad arrived in 1887.  The last year of commercial steamboat traffic to Fort Benton was 1890. 

What is a “grasshopper” on a steamboat? 

This term refers to the spars on either side of the steamboat bow (front deck).  These spars were used, via ropes and pulleys, to help the boat get free from sandbars and obstacles in the river.  Ropes from the spars were wrapped around a capstan in the center of the bow.  A motor spun the capstan, thus tightening the ropes and driving the spars into the sand bar.  By lifting the boat even a few inches, the paddlewheel could then spin in reverse to send more water under the boat.  This was done repeatedly as the boat crawled over the shallows.  The action of the spars resembled the back legs of a grasshopper when being used–hence the name “grasshopper."  These were essential equipment on any steamboat on the Upper Missouri. 

Is that the actual size of a Murphy wagon (as displayed at the Interpretive Center)?

Yes, the width is six feet and the height is about eight feet.  A wheelwright in Canada made the wheels for this wagon because there are not many local wheelwrights any more.  The larger (rear) wheel weighs about 400 pounds.

How many oxen pulled the wagons along the trail?

Ten yoke (or pairs) of oxen were needed for a fully loaded wagon, so 20 oxen would pull the wagons.  Murphy wagons were usually pulled in tandems of three wagons hitched together. The first two wagons were full-sized, while the third or “tag” wagon was about ½ size. Together these wagons hauled about 2.5 to three tons of freight.  These excessive loads are what required so many oxen. 

Why did they use oxen to pull the Murphy Wagons?

Oxen, while slow, are much stronger than horses or mules.  Murphy wagons pulled by oxen averaged about 10 miles per day.  Also, oxen were considered less favorable animals by the Indians so these wagon trains were seldom attacked for their oxen. Some wagons did use mules or horses if there were not enough oxen available.