The majestic cliffs of Upper Missouri Breaks National Monuments reflected in the Missouri River. Photo by Bob Wick.

UPPER MISSOURI RIVER BREAKS NATIONAL MONUMENT

The Upper Missouri River Break National Monument contains a spectacular array of biological, geological, and historical objects of interest. From Fort Benton to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the monument spans 149 miles of the Upper Missouri River, the adjacent Breaks country, and portions of Arrow Creek, Antelope Creek, and the Judith River. The monument includes six wilderness study areas, the Cow Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern, segments of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, the Fort Benton National Historic Landmark, a watchable wildlife area and the Missouri Breaks Back Country Byway. In 1976, Congress designated the Missouri River segment and corridor in this area a National Wild and Scenic River. The area has remained largely unchanged in over 200 years since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled through it on their epic journey. Within the monument you can float the river, fish, hike, hunt, drive for pleasure, find a little solitude, enjoy a sense of exploration in a remote setting or simply marvel at the variety of natural beauty.

PLANNING A VISIT

The public lands of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, both under federal and state management, make a significant contribution to the local lifestyle and the regional economy. Within the monument you can float the river, fish, hike, hunt, camp, drive for pleasure, find a little solitude, enjoy a sense of exploration or simply marvel at the variety of resources around you.

Vast portions of the monument are serviced only by graveled and unimproved roads. Much of the monument is not accessible by any road, inviting visitors to explore on foot.

Visitors are encouraged to visit the Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center or Lewistown or Havre Field Offices. Staff will be able to assist with maps, local outfitters, closure information, and general safety tips. All visitors are encouraged to carry a map and have basic land navigation skills before exploring the remote areas of the monument.
 
In some areas, the BLM lands are intermingled with State of Montana lands and private property. It is important that visitors enjoying the public lands of the monument remember to respect the rights of private land owners and be aware of trespassing.

ACCESS

Public access to the Upper Missouri River and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is remote and limited, so you need to plan ahead and be prepared for inclimate weather and difficult travel conditions.

Private landowners along the river and within the uplands are able to enter the river and private parcels from their own land, but visitors must use the developed public access sites.

Principal river launch points are: Fort Benton Canoe Launch (mile 0), Fort Benton Motorboat Launch (mile 1), Wood Bottom (mile 20.3), Coal Banks Landing (mile 41.5), Judith Landing (mile 88.5), and James Kipp Recreation Area (mile 149). Additional launch opportunities at Virgelle Ferry (mile 39.1) and McClelland (or Stafford) Ferry (mile 101.8) make possible trips of various lengths.

Under the Montana Stream Access Law, the public may use rivers and streams for recreational purposes up to the ordinary high-water marks. Although the law gives recreationists the right to use rivers and streams for water-related recreation, it does not allow them to enter posted lands bordering those streams or to cross private lands to gain access to streams. Complete rules are available at any Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks office or http://fwp.mt.gov/fishing/

BOATERS GUIDE

Boating (by any type of watercraft) is one of the premiere activities in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument as you can obtain access to the sweeping "breaks" views, numerous camping opportunities, homestead viewing, hiking and premier hunting and fishing. 

Boater guides are available for the area between Fort Benton and Judith Landing (river miles 0-88.5), and between Judith Landing and James Kipp Recreation Area (river miles 88.5-149). The waterproof guides provide up to date maps of river miles, land ownership, topography developed campsite locations, hiking opportunities, homestead locations and descriptive information of the river.

Each guide sells for $4.00. These guides can be purchased by check or money order payable to the DOI/BLM by writing to: 

BLM
P.O. Box 1389
Fort Benton, MT 59442

Call the BLM Fort Benton River Management Station for credit card purchases at (406) 622-4000.

You can also find the downloadable maps in the Public Room.

PERMITS, FEES, REGISTRATION, AND COMMERCIAL TRIPS

RIVER TRIP FEES (BLUE ENVELOPE)

Single Day: $5 per boat, any type/size

Multiple Day: Per person, per day, no additional boat fee

Adults (16 years and older)       $4 Children (7-15 years)                 $2 Children (under 7 years)            Free

 

LARGE GROUPS

If your group size is more than 30 you need to apply for a Special Recreation Permit by contacting the Fort Benton River Management Station at (877) 256-3252.

The BLM encourages you to register your party prior to your trip for two reasons. It allows us to gather accurate visitor-use statistics to help better manage the river and can be vital in the case of an emergency. You can register at the Fort Benton Visitor Center, Fort Benton Canoe Launch, Fort Benton Motorboat Launch, Wood Bottom, Coal Banks Landing and Judith Landing. If BLM employees are not present, please use the self-registration boxes at these locations.

There is a seasonal restriction on group size launching at Coal Banks Landing or Judith Landing.  From June 15 to August 1, groups larger than 20 people may only launch on Wednesdays, Thursdays, or Fridays.

The BLM’s Special Recreation Permit policy defines commercial use in several ways. In general it is defined as recreational use of public lands and related waters for business or financial gain. In addition, BLM’s definition of commercial use includes, ”when any person, group, or organization receives money, or obtains goods and services, as compensation from participants in recreational activities…when anyone collects a fee that is not strictly a sharing of expenses for the purpose of the activity, service, or use.” For example, a non-profit organization advertises guided trips on the Missouri. They collect the advertised fee from those who would like to participate. If a portion of the fee pays a trip leader or guide, or goes to support an organization, foundation, or other cause (e.g., is not strictly a sharing of expenses between trip participants), the use is considered commercial.

The BLM Fort Benton River Management Station can provide a current list of Authorized Outfitting and Vending Services, which includes shuttle services. For more information contact the Interpretive Center in Fort Benton, MT at 406-622-4000. 

 

PAYMENT INSTRUCTIONS

Pick up envelope at any of the three fee sites Fill out envelope and place cash or check payment inside. Please do not fold currency or check Deposit envelope into security lock box. Retain tab as your proof of payment.

 

CAMPGROUND USE FEES (YELLOW ENVELOPE)

Per site, per night. No fees for day use. No Reservations

Coal Banks Landing                   $10 Judith Landing                            $5 James Kipp Recreation Area      $12

 

VOLUNTEERS AND PARTNERS

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and Interpretive Center offers great volunteer opportunities!  If you enjoy meeting people, providing educational programs for children, talking about natural resources, or working outdoors on projects, our site could be the right volunteer opportunity for you! Annual opportunities can be viewed at Volunteer.gov

HISTORY

As a route of western expansion, the Missouri River had few equals. Lewis and Clark spent three weeks, from May 24 through June 13, 1805, exploring the segment that is now the Upper Missouri National Wild & Scenic River. Today this portion is considered to be the premier component of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. Captain Clark wrote about the badlands saying, "This country may with propriety, I think, be termed the Deserts of America, as I do not conceive any part can ever be settled, as it is deficient in water, timber, and too steep to be tilled." Of the White Cliffs, Captain Lewis wrote, "The hills and river clifts, which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance . . ." and described " . . . eligant ranges of lofty freestone buildings, having their parapets well stocked with statuary . ." and ". . . seens of visionary enchantment (sic) . . . ." They spent days at the mouth of the Marias River trying to resolve the dilemma of which river to follow.

During the years following the passage of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Blackfeet Indians showed such an uncompromising hatred for Europeans that the Blackfeet effectively prevented the penetration of their territory by trappers. The American Fur Company was finally successful in opening the upper river to trade in 1831. In that year they established Fort Piegan at the mouth of the Marias River. The following year they moved eight miles up river and established Fort McKenzie. In 1844, McKenzie was abandoned and operations were moved down river to the mouth of the Judith River, and Fort Chardon was established. In 1845, Fort Chardon was abandoned and Fort Lewis was established a few miles above Fort Benton. In 1846, Fort Lewis was abandoned and they moved a few miles down river and established Fort Clay. At a Christmas party in 1850, Fort Clay was renamed Fort Benton.

The confluence of the Judith and Missouri Rivers was the setting for two important peace councils. In 1846, Catholic missionaries Father Pierre-Jean de Smet and Father Nicholas Point celebrated Mass for the Flathead and Blackfeet tribes to pacify relations between these traditional enemies. In 1855, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens conducted a treaty council with the Blackfeet, Flathead, Gros Ventre and Nez Perce. This treaty established boundaries and provided for railroads, roads, telegraph lines and military post access across what is now northern Montana.

The fur trade era stimulated the first extensive use of the Missouri River as an avenue of transportation. Keelboats, mackinaws, bullboats and canoes plied the upper river bringing trade items and returning with a wealth of furs. The vast amounts of capital to be obtained encouraged steamboat captains to brave the treacherous Missouri. Steamboats arrived on the scene in 1859, and Fort Benton was established as the head of navigation in 1860. The steamboats arrived just in time to supply the gold camps in southwest Montana and northern Idaho. Before commercial steamboat traffic disappeared from the scene in 1891, supplies unloaded in Fort Benton were being freighted as far west as Fort Walla Walla in Washington and north to the Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories.

The railroad reached Fort Benton in 1887. The last commercial steamboat arrived there in 1890. By then the buffalo had disappeared from the plains to be replaced by livestock. Fort Benton changed from being a river port to an agricultural supply center. Homesteaders began arriving in large numbers around 1910.

GEOLOGY

Today's river traveler sees many widely contrasting scenes. The wide, fertile valley below Fort Benton differs considerably from the scenic white cliffs down river from Coal Banks Landing. The stark, rugged badlands below Judith Landing present still another vista.

The valley of the Upper Missouri is a living museum, the product of many events over time. The land was originally laid down in horizontal layers, the sediments and shorelines of a great inland sea that once covered most of the Great Plains. These layers have since been folded, faulted, uplifted, modified by volcanic activity and sculpted by glaciers. Erosion then added to the variety seen along the river today, a landform known as the Breaks.

Erosion has cut through the layers deposited by the great inland sea which covered the area for about ten million years (starting some 80 million years ago). The shoreline of the sea migrated back and forth across the area in response to climatic changes and shifts in the earth's crust. Marine deposits, materials that settled out of the water to the bottom of the sea, resulted in beds of shale. Just like the oceans of today, sandstone layers were deposited along shorelines and river deltas. The river's downcutting through this "layer-cake" of sandstone and shale has exposed some ten million years of geologic history.

Erosion also washed away the soft sediments from around the harder volcanic materials that were extruded into cracks in the shales and sandstones. Consequently, walls or "dikes" stand out from the surrounding bottom lands and valley slopes. At places, large intrusive plugs capture the traveler's attention. The black color of these volcanic features contrasts sharply with the lighter colored shales and sandstones.

SPECIAL PLACES

The monument contains an amazing number of individual features that have all warranted some level of previous identification for their important and unique values.

The Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, six Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs), the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, the Missouri Breaks Back Country Byway, and the Cow Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern all contribute to the fascinating framework for the Upper Missouri River Breaks.

The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge borders the last 10 miles of the scenic segment of the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River. It includes native prairies, forested coulees, river bottoms, and badlands that were often portrayed in cowboy artist Charles M. Russell's paintings. The refuge is managed primarily for wildlife habitat and includes large populations of elk, sharptail grouse, and many other wildlife species. The refuge also preserves cultural, archeological, and paleontological resources and provides wildlands recreation opportunities.

Mixed among these features you can find incredible displays of our geologic past; see where American Indians carved a living; enjoy the Upper Missouri River that tested Lewis and Clark and their crew; find evidence of the earliest hopes and dreams of homesteaders, businessmen and women; and pass by central Montana ranches of the 21st century.

Few places offer such a variety of opportunities mingled with the remoteness that is so rare today.

Many of the public land features in this monument are intermingled with private property. Many landowners in this area are second and third generation central Montana ranchers. Their stewardship of these lands has contributed greatly to maintaining the area's unique qualities and values. Remember, you must have permission from the landowner before entering onto private property. Please respect the important contributions these landowners have made to this area and respect landowner rights. 

WILDLIFE

Forty-nine species of fish (ranging from 1/2-oz. minnows to 140 lb. paddlefish) reside in the river. Fishermen are most likely to catch goldeye, drum, sauger, walleye, northern pike, channel cat, carp, and small mouth buffalo. Of the six remaining paddlefish populations in the United States, the Upper Missouri's appears to be the largest in average size. Generally only taken by snagging in the spring during upstream spawning runs, they are excellent table fare. Occasionally floaters may see these lunkers roll on the surface. Other unusual species in the river are the endangered pallid sturgeon and shovel nose sturgeon.

Shoreline areas provide habitat for soft-shelled turtles, beaver and a wide variety of waterfowl.

The riparian zone immediately adjacent to the river bank is the most important vegetative type in the river valley. Riparian habitat, like that along the Upper Missouri, makes up less than 1% of the vegetative mosaic of the west, yet a greater variety of wildlife species depend upon it than any other vegetative type in the West. The riparian zone is a complex ecological community. It is fragile and its survival depends upon many of the natural forces that at first glance appear to be quite harsh.

A dynamic and essential element of the riparian zone is the river itself. Both vegetation and wildlife in this area are dependent upon normal fluctuations in water height and silt load and the river's tendency to meander. High flows recharge groundwater to levels needed by riparian vegetation and deposit nutrient rich soils across bottom lands. The river's meandering builds new gravel bars, islands, and new bottom lands to replace those that have become too high and dry for riparian vegetation.

Most of the 60 species of mammals, 233 species of birds, and 20 species of amphibians and reptiles that inhabit the Upper Missouri River valley are dependent in one way or another upon the riparian zone. Among the more common species are white-tailed deer and pheasant. While at one time they only visited the area during the late fall and winter, bald eagles are again nesting in cottonwood snags.

Between the riparian zones and the valley slopes are the bottom lands. One of the most common species living here is the prairie dog, a critter that is especially popular with visitors from outside the region. Mule deer and sharp-tailed grouse are also found in the valley slopes and coulees.

The plains above the valley provide habitat for antelope and sage grouse. Elk and bighorn sheep use a variety of these habitat types.

A very special place in the cross-section of the river valley is the cliff faces. Nooks and crannies in the cliffs provide perching and nesting habitat for the many raptors that inhabit the river area. Among them are the sparrow hawk, prairie falcon, and golden eagle.

In addition to those mentioned above, you might also see pronghorn antelope, coyotes, mountain lions, red fox, badger, raccoon, skunk, beaver, porcupine, muskrat, numerous waterfowl, songbirds, raptors and reptiles.

WILDERNESS STUDY AREAS (WSA's)

Cow Creek WSA
This WSA covers 34,050 acres on the north side of the Missouri River. Of this total, 21,590 acres were recommended as suitable for wilderness designation. The size of the area, opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation, and the attractiveness of the setting combine to provide excellent wilderness quality. A diversity of recreational opportunities makes this area excellent for primitive recreational use, and a four-mile long sheer wall of sandstone is an outstanding scenic feature.

Woodhawk WSA
This WSA covers 4,800 acres on the north side of the Missouri River. More than 90 percent of the WSA is within the UMNWSR corridor, located in a very rugged portion of the Missouri Breaks. None of this WSA was recommended for wilderness designation because of the combination of small size and configuration of the WSA which are affected by offsite sights and sounds and have a high potential for natural gas development. This WSA does not contain outstanding primitive recreation opportunities.

Stafford WSA
The WSA covers 10,200 acres on the north side of the Missouri River. Approximately 5,060 acres along the southern boundary of the WSA lay within a wild segment of the UMNWSR corridor. None of this WSA was recommended for wilderness designation due to a variety of resource conflicts and manageability concerns including a high potential for natural gas development. The WSA contains few opportunities for outstanding solitude and primitive recreation. However, the area is very scenic and rugged, combining steep slopes with narrow ridges.

Ervin Ridge WSA
The WSA is on the south side of the Missouri River and contains 5,150 acres. Just over 3,900 acres are within the UMNWSR corridor. None of this WSA was recommended as suitable for wilderness designation due to the high potential for natural gas development and the potential for wilderness management conflicts. The small size of this area, along with terrain that opens to major off-site influences just beyond its boundaries, limits the opportunities for outstanding solitude to isolated areas in the deeper drainages. The area also lacks outstanding opportunities for primitive recreation, the scenic quality is lacking for designation. 

Dog Creek WSA
This 8,100 acre WSA is on the south side of the Missouri River. About 3,500 acres of the WSA are within the UMNWSR corridor. None of the WSA was recommended as suitable for wilderness designation due to a combination of the unit's small size, the cherry-stemmed road running through the WSA, and several resource conflicts. It has a high potential for natural gas reserves. The WSA does not contain outstanding primitive and unconfined recreational opportunities, but does have colorful broken topography. It also contains several prehistoric occupation sites. During the steamboat era, woodhawkers (wood cutters) cut timber to fuel steamboats plying the Missouri River. Chief Joseph's Nez Perce Indians probably traversed the area in their attempt to escape to Canada in 1877.

Antelope Creek WSA
The WSA covers about 12,350 acres on the north side of the Missouri River. Of this total, 9,600 acres were recommended for wilderness. This WSA offers outstanding opportunities for solitude and provides a diversity of primitive recreational opportunities such as hiking, photography, hunting, and rock climbing. The area is rich in historical significance, including Kid Curry's outlaw hideaway.
 

WILD AND SCENIC RIVERS

The Missouri is the longest river in the United States, flowing more than 2,500 miles from its source on the eastern slope of the Rockies near Three Forks, Montana, to its confluence with the Mississippi River at St. Louis, Missouri. Congress designated 149 miles of the Upper Missouri (UMNWSR) as a component of the National Wild and Scenic River System in 1976, calling it an irreplaceable legacy of the historic American west. Congress further stated that the river, with its immediate environments, possesses outstanding scenic, recreational, geological, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, and other similar values. BLM was directed to preserve the Upper Missouri River in a free-flowing condition and protect it for the benefit of present and future generations.

The UMNWSR boundary starts at Fort Benton, Montana, and runs 149 miles downstream ending at the James Kipp Recreation Area.

For more information visit the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River page. 

 

QUICK LINKS

QUICK FACTS

PARTNERS

CONTACT US

  • Lewistown FO: 406-538-1900
          920 Northeast Main 
          Lewistown, MT 59457
  • Havre FO: 406-262-2820
          3990 Highway 2 West
          Havre, MT 59501
  • Interpretive Center: 406-622-4000
          701 7th Street 
          Fort Benton, MT 59442