The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is a natural treasure in Montana unlike anything else. This is a protected area whose beauty unveils itself only through a deep immersion into the heart of the monument, while slowly floating in a canoe. Although many travelers come to relieve an experience similar to that of others throughout centuries, including the famous Louis & Clark expedition from 1805, you’ll still encounter plenty of solitude on the Missouri. This river is America’s longest, meandering through beautiful cliff formations which rise like natural fortresses. The national monument was designated in 2001 by President Clinton, encompassing a previously created Wild & Scenic River area. At 378,000 acres (152,000 ha), it encountered plenty of opposition among the ranching community. The inclusion on the review list in 2017 revived some of the bad blood, which clashed this time around with the numerous businesses and outfitters who rely upon the existence of the monument. Despite fears, the monument was left untouched. The BLM map of the monument is actually quite well done. The closest bigger towns where you can stay or buy supplies are Winifred to the south of the monument, and Fort Benton to the west. The latter is more touristy, and has a visitor center and museum dedicated to the complex heritage of the Missouri River. Another option for a pretty unique experience is the bed&breakfast and renovated small historic settlement of Virgelle, right next to Coal Banks Landing from where a majority of canoe trips start. We hired a canoe from an outfitter based in Fort Benton, Missouri River Outfitters, but we started the trip from Coal Banks Landing which was arranged on site by the BLM staff at the visitor center. We only rented the canoe and the pick-up shuttle from Judith Landing, but there are options for guided trips as well. We spent the night along the river at the different wild campsites, and it took us 4 days to float down to Judith Landing. An 8-day trip all the way to James Kipp National Wildlife Refuge at the eastern border of the Upper Missouri River Breaks will take you to a wilder part of the river and the monument, where you can spot elk and bighorn sheep roaming in large numbers since protection was established in 2001. When we did it in August the hot days would turn to pleasant evenings under the stars, and if we needed to cool down the Missouri would provide a refreshing, lively respite. At the campsites you’ll get to experience a piece of the remaining prairie, although the few centuries of agriculture and cattle ranching have left their mark. We got to see some huge prairie dog towns right behind our camping spots, and sleep under beautiful cottonwoods. These old trees which line up the river banks are becoming rarer and rarer, due to dams and controlled floods upstream. In the past the river’s muddy waters would bring with them saplings and the lack of constant grazing from cattle on the banks allowed for the young trees to survive and grow. Now, local organizations and scientists have created enclosures where they plant cottonwoods to insure that species survives. While at stops along the river you can also go on short hikes to beautiful lookouts where bald eagles soar. All in all this is an amazing experience that we strongly recommend. If you wish to support the monument and learn more about it, you can get in touch with the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument.
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