Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Step Back in Time – Missouri Headwaters State Park

I am still here. I have not fallen off the edge of the earth. However, for a few months I was afflicted by a serious case of writer’s block along with symptoms of mental inertia. I found it impossible to put pen to paper…or in this case, fingertips to keyboard. My lame excuse is that I spent most of March, all of April, and half of May binge–watching “House of Cards” on Netflix. That is not to say I didn’t actually go anywhere. Canyonlands called and I answered. An eight–day raft trip down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon overwhelmed my senses; before succumbing to photographic exhaustion, I snapped over a thousand pictures. I drove back to Yellowstone for my summer rangering job. In addition, I went to Montana for a day. Some things just need doing, and so you (eventually) do them.
A sign welcomes you to Missouri Headwaters State Park
Yellowstone oozes history. The story of Yellowstone is the story of the discovery and exploration of the western United States during the past two centuries. Granted, there have been native people living here for thousands of years. Significantly, though, their lives and the lives of those discovers and explorers of European descent intertwined where the Madison, the Gallatin, and the Jefferson rivers all flow together. Their lives intertwined over 200 years ago near Three Forks, Montana – the headwaters of the Missouri River, the longest river in the country.

Confluence of the Madison and Jefferson rivers, near the visitor center

Madison River, near the visitor center

Gallatin River, above the confluence

On July 25, 1805, William Clark and his crew arrived in the Three Forks area, two days ahead of Meriwether Lewis on the westbound leg of their expedition of discovery. Arriving two days later,  Lewis and his crew were accompanied by sixteen–year–old Sacagawea and her infant son. She had joined the party earlier near present–day Bismarck, North Dakota, with her French Canadian trapper/interpreter husband. According to journals of Lewis and Clark, when they arrived at the headwaters she indicated that she had been kidnapped in this area five years earlier by the Minitari (Hidatsa) and made a member of their tribe.

Lewis Rock stands above the confluence - he mapped the rivers from this vantage
The expedition camped near the headwaters for three days before moving up the Jefferson River in a desperate search for horses they would need to cross the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana. Fate intervened when the party met up with the Shoshoni and they found the chief to be Sacagawea’s brother. He had given her up for dead and was overjoyed to see her again.

Missouri Headwaters State Park is only 532 acres, but it encompasses a National Historic Landmark.  After getting some orientation from the ranger working at the visitor center (“I came all the way from Utah via Yellowstone to visit this park!”), I found my way a short distance up the park road to where the Madison and the Jefferson rivers come together. I stood on the bank, watching a hawk pester a bald eagle in the distance, and I thought how the river scene must have looked those 200+ years ago. Today, trucks roar by at 70 miles an hour on the two–lane road that dissects the park. Utility poles stand silhouetted on the horizon. Trains caterpillar their way along nearby tracks, uncounted cars connected and bound for somewhere. Prior to Lewis and Clark ever setting foot in the region, the Missouri headwaters offered itself as a crossroads rich in natural resources. In one way or another, the Missouri River has been a watercourse of commerce for thousands of years.

I spent most of the early afternoon slowly walking the Fort Rock trail, along the edge of a bluff overlooking the sinuous Gallatin River. The rocks are Early Mississippian Madison Limestone, carbonates deposited in a shallow sea that covered western North America 340 million years ago. I was alone except for a few other folks walking their dogs down near the river.

Gallatin River and Lewis Rock from the Fort Rock trail

Lark sparrow


After scaling small outcrops and following flittering songbirds for a couple of hours, I drove downstream a mile or so to the point where the Gallatin flows in from the southeast. According to the US Geologic Survey, the river officially becomes the Missouri upstream from here near the visitor center, at the confluence of the Madison and Jefferson Rivers. Consequently, the Gallatin River actually flows into the Missouri.

Interpretive sign notes USGS location of beginning of Missouri River

Confluence of Missouri and Gallatin rivers - tilted Madison Limestone strata

I had wanted to visit the Missouri headwaters for several years and finally made it happen. The story of our first national park is the story of the discovery and exploration of the West. If you are interested in the confluence of history and landscape, Missouri Headwaters State Park offers a significant element of each. It is a step back in time that is worth the trip.

The Upper Missouri starts here


  1. Beautiful scenery, especially with the grass so green ... spring!

    1. Yes, it was brilliantly green, Hollis. Springtime in Montana! The lark sparrows pretty much let me follow them down the trail, too.