7 Major Rivers in North America

7 Major Rivers in North America

North America’s major rivers stretch across the continent in all directions. The Mississippi River, for instance, forms parts of ten states and the world’s third largest drainage basin.

The Mackenzie River flows through Canada’s Northwest Territories. The Colorado River, meanwhile, sculpts the iconic Grand Canyon. It winds through seven US states and two Mexican states, supporting a rich ecosystem of species like the humpback chub.

1. Mississippi

The Mississippi River sculpts stunning vistas and supports a $12.6 billion shipping industry while carrying half of the nation’s corn and soybeans. It is one of the world’s great water highways and is a vital natural resource.

This great river starts at Lake Itasca in Minnesota and flows almost due south to the Gulf of Mexico through a vast delta. It drains with its tributaries an area that includes more than 40 percent of the United States.

The Mississippi River borders or passes through the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana.

2. Rio Grande

The Rio Grande, or the “Big River,” as it’s known in Mexico, forms a boundary between the United States and Mexico and runs 1,900 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. It is home to an incredibly diverse and beautiful ecosystem, but today its waters are pleading for sustenance.

The watershed covers 336,000 square miles, but since much of it is arid or semi-arid, only about 176,000 square miles actually contributes to the Rio Grande’s flow. Its tributaries include the Puerco and Chama rivers in the US and the Rio Conchos, Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Colorado River basins in Mexico.

3. Missouri

The Missouri River is 2,341 miles long and drains a large portion of the western United States. It flows into the Mississippi River near St. Louis.

Aside from the Mississippi River, it is one of the most important rivers in North America. It carries meltwater from the Rocky Mountains through North Dakota and on to the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico.

It is also a significant migratory route for both people and wildlife. It spawns a storied passageway of westward expansion and connects prairie reserves, famed trout waters, a national monument marking Lewis and Clark’s journey, and the country’s second largest wildlife refuge.

4. Yukon

A broad river of ice-blue water flows through the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve. Eons of change have passed this flinty frontier wilderness without catastrophic transformation, home to prime peregrine falcon breeding grounds, the Fortymile caribou herd, choice paleontological sites, and hardy people who still hunt and fish for moose and caribou, trap for lynx and wolves, and ply their wits against a formidable landscape.

This 1,980-mile river rises in northwestern British Columbia and flows northwest through the Canadian territory of Yukon before curving southwest into Alaska. It discharges into the Bering Sea in a vast river delta.

5. Saint Lawrence

The Saint Lawrence River drains the heart of North America, linking the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. Its basic regional hydrographic characteristics are accentuated by large seasonal variations in water temperature.

From its headwaters in the northern part of Minnesota, the Saint Lawrence River travels through a boreal landscape that gradually morphs into a temperate zone. This transition is accelerated by the downstream flow of the Mississippi River.

Then, in the area around Montreal, the Saint Lawrence widens to become a broad estuary. Ultimately it drains into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the largest estuary in the world.

6. Colorado

This 1,450-mile-long river runs through seven states and two countries, sustaining a spectacular diversity of life. It’s a cradle of awe-inspiring canyons, whitewater rapids, wilderness areas, and a $1.4 trillion annual economy that includes recreation, such as fishing, mountain biking, and camping.

But the Colorado has also become a symbol of what happens when we ask too much from a limited resource. It was sucked dry by irrigation ditches and canals built in the feverish desire to settle the West, and it now ends several miles short of the Gulf of California in Mexico.

7. Columbia

The Columbia River of eastern North America, with its major tributaries, is one of the continent’s most significant rivers. The river hosts large runs of anadromous fish, including steelhead and sockeye salmon, and chinook. Indigenous people relied on the river for food and materials, including wapato (Sagittaria latifolia), a tuber that thrives in wetlands, and camas (Camassia quamash), a perennial plant of lowland meadows.

The Columbia’s main stem rises in Columbia Lake in British Columbia, then winds south across the border into Washington state. Ten principal tributaries join it, including the Kootenai, Flathead/Pend Oreille/Clark’s Fork, and Snake rivers.

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