10 Longest Rivers In The United States

The United States is a massive, wide reaching country with a variety of landscapes, terrain, and ecosystems. Throughout them all, a number of large rivers cut across the land, whether through deep river valleys, carving through mountainous terrain, or flowing through swampy wetlands. Some of the largest rivers in the world can be found in the United States, and the country’s sheer size means it has a number of very long rivers. Here we’ve compiled a list of the ten longest rivers in the United States in order of length. 

Contents:

  1. Missouri River
  2. Mississippi River
  3. Yukon River
  4. Rio Grande River
  5. Colorado River
  6. Arkansas River
  7. Columbia River
  8. Red River
  9. Snake River
  10. Ohio River

1. Missouri River - 3,768 km

Missouri RiverHistoric railroad Katy Bridge over Missouri River at Boonville.

The Missouri River is best known for being the longest river in the United States. It measures a total of 3,768 km, and is actually a tributary of the Mississippi River (also on this list). This impressive river drains around one sixth of the entire continent of North America, and many smaller rivers and tributaries flow into (some of which are also on this longest river list). The river’s headwaters flow from one of the highest points on the continent, in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, near the continental divide. From there, the waters flow through North Dakota, South Dakota, along the border of Iowa and Nebraska, through Missouri, where they reach the river's mouth in St. Charles. As this is the longest and one of the largest rivers in the country, its national significance cannot be downplayed. For thousands of years it has served as a means of transportation, as well as a source of food via fish and also game, which live among the river banks. The river is also used for irrigation and as a water source for resiednts in states all along its borders. 

2. Mississippi River - 3,544 km

Mississippi River
Skyline of St. Louis along the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi river is generally considered the second longest river in the United States, measuring approximately 3,544 km in length. When combined with the Missouri, it forms the fourth longest river system in the worls. It runs through the state of Mississippi, which shares its name, as well as the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Louisiana. The river’s mouth empties into the Gulf of Mexico, while the main source for the river is Lake Itasca, in Clearwater County Minnesota. The Mississipi is truly a large river, measuring nearly 18 kilometers across at its widest point. The Mississippi has also been important throughout history as it gave rise to both saw and flour milling, as well as countains roughly a quarter of all North American fish species.

3. Yukon River - 3,190 km

Yukon River
Yukon River in Alaska

The Yukon River measures 3,190 km, making it the third longest river in the United States. This river actually starts in Canada, in the province of British Columbia, and runs westward through the Yukon Territories, which share their name. From there, it continues through the entire state of Alaska, thereby allowing it to be classified as a US river. The Yukon River flows all the way to the western shore of Alaska where it empties into the Bering Sea. The Yukon was used by Native Americans and early settlers as a means of transportation throughout the northern regions of North America, and was sginificant not only for hunting and travel but was at the heart of the Klondike or Yukon Gold Rush.

4. Rio Grande River - 2,830 km

canoeists paddle down the Rio Grande River through Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend Texas.
Canoeists paddle down the Rio Grande River through Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend Texas. Editorial credit: Mark Taylor Cunningham / Shutterstock.com

The fourth longest river on our list is the Rio Grande. The name itself means ‘big river’ so it is no surprise that it is one of the larger rivers in the United States. The river’s headwaters can be found in the San Juan range in the Colorado Rockies, and from there it flows through New Mexico and forms the border between Texas and Mexico. At its end, the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Because the river flows through desert and drought prone land, there are at times sections where the river runs dry. In fact, in 2001 and 2002, the river failed to reach the Gulf, and dried out completely before it could flow the full length of its course. Still, the river’s main and (usually) continued path measures around 2,830 km.

5. Colorado River - 2,330 km

Colorado River
Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River.

The Colorado River measures 2,330 km. The River finds its headwaters in the Rocky Mountain National Park, and its mouth in the Gulf of California. The Colorado flows through a number of well known valleys and lakes, from Lake Powell to the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. It also forms a border between states in a few different cases, running the line between both Arizona and Nevada, and then Arizona and California. The Colorado River is also a primary source of water for major cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson, most of which have aqueducts which run water from the river system to the citites.

6. Arkansas River - 2,322 km

Arkansas RiverRafting on the Arkansas River in Bighorn Sheep Canyon, Colorado, USA.

The fifth river is the Arkansas River, which, as the name suggests, flows primarily through Arkansas. This river also starts in the mountains of Colorado, and flows eastward through Kansas, part of Oklahoma, and then into Arkansas. In total, the river covers a distance of 2,322 km. The mouth of the Arkansas River is in fact the Mississippi River, and it is considered to be a tributary of the Mississippi-Missouri.

7. Columbia River - 2,000 km

Columbia River
View of Crown Point and the Columbia River, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.

The Columbia River is certainly one of the longest rivers in the United States, though it’s exact length (and therefore position in the top ten list) has been up for debate. It us around 2,000 km long. The Columbia River has a huge volume. It’s the second largest in North America, and is the river with the most volume (of those in the western hemisphere) that flows to the Pacific Ocean. This volume is used to power half of all the hydroelectricity in the United States, via eleven different U.S. dams.

8. Red River - 1,811 km

Red River
Red River at the border of Oklahoma and Texas along Interstate 35. 

The Red River has a length of 1,811 km. It’s mouth is located at the Atchafalaya River, and from there it runs through the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The Red River is particularly unique for two reasons. Firstly, it gets its red name due to the presence of rust-colored sedimentary rock which forms silt and sand-like debris in the river. Secondly, it is highly saline, meaning it is salt water, not fresh water. Salt deposits from what was likely a former ancient sea seep into the tributaries which flow into the Red River, causing an increase in its overall salinity.

9. Snake River - 1,674 km

Snake River
View of the Snake River in Idaho from a hot air balloon.

The Snake River is a tributary of the previously listed Columbia River, and itself measures 1,674 km. It stems from the mountainous region of Wyoming, in Yellowstone National Park, flows south from there through Idaho, runs along the Oregon-Idaho border, and eventually flows into the Columbia River just south of Pasco, Washington. The river is often referred to in sections: the Upper, Middle and Lower Snake river segments. Of these, the Upper Snake is used primarily as a source of irrigation and hydropower, and the middle, similarly, is diverted into hydroelectric generators. In this way the river is an extremely powerful tool for the surrounding states.

10. Ohio River - 1,575 km

Ohio River
Aerial View of the Ohio River between Jeffersonville, Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky.

The Ohio River rounds out the list, at 1,575 km. It gets its start in Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet, and flows through or borders five additional states: Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, and finally Illinois, where it joins the Mississippi. The river has at least 20 dams along it, which help to serve the more than five million people who source their drinking water from it. Though the order and exact lengths of these rivers has been debated (differences usually stem from where the official ‘start’ is located, or whether or not certain tributaries are included) one thing is certain: The United States has an abundance of large, lengthy and beautiful rivers. Each distinct in its own right, these major water sources serve as drinking water, energy providers and irrigation sources for much of the United States, flowing their way from the northernmost corner, the the southernmost state, criss-crossing their way across the nation. 

The 20 Longest Rivers In The United States

Rank Name Length

1

Missouri River

3,768 km

2

Mississippi River

3,544 km

3

Yukon River

3,190 km

4 Rio Grande

2,830 km

5

Colorado River

2,330 km

6

Arkansas River

2,322 km

7

Columbia River

2,000 km

8

Red River

1,811 km

9

Snake River

1,674 km

10

Ohio River

1,575 km

11

Colorado River of Texas

1,560 km

12

Tennessee River

1,504 km

13

Canadian River

1,458 km

14

Brazos River

1,390 km

15

Green River

1,230 km

16

Pecos River

1,175 km

17

White River (Arkansas)

1,159 km

18

James River

1,140 km

19

Kuskokwin River

1,130 km

20

Cimarron River

1,123 km

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