The 10 Longest Rivers in North America

December 12, 2023

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the longest rivers in north america

Rivers have played a vital part in North American life for thousands of years. They provide millions of people with drinking water, food, and transport links. Thousands of species are found in the rivers, many of which are endemic (found only in these waters).

28% of North America has borders defined by rivers. However, these rivers don’t only divide; they are also important routes for transport and trade between states and countries. Without them, trade and transport between cities and states would be difficult or near impossible.

We’ve compiled a list of the ten longest rivers and river systems in North America. Take a look to see how many you recognize!

1. Mississippi-Missouri river system

Picture showing a long red barge sailing down the Mississippi River
Barge moving over the Mississippi River
Length: 6,270 km (3,896 miles)
Countries: United States, Canada
Outflow: Gulf of Mexico

The Mississippi-Missouri River System is the longest river system in North America and the fourth-longest river system in the world. It’s formed from the Mississippi, Missouri, and Jefferson Rivers, which are individually the three longest rivers in the US.

It begins in the Red Rocks River in Montana and flows 6,270 kilometers (3,896 miles) to the Gulf of Mexico. The river system has a drainage area of 2,980,000 kmΒ² (1,150,584 square miles) and an average discharge of 16,200 mΒ³/s (572,098 ftΒ³/s).

There are six major tributaries of the Mississippi River System: the Upper Mississippi River, Arkansas River, Illinois River, Missouri River, Ohio River, and the Red River of the South. The narrowest stretch of the river is between six to nine meters (20 to 30 feet) in Lake Itasca. The widest part is over 17 kilometers (11 miles) in Lake Winnibigoshish.

This river system has played an important part in the lives of local people for centuries. Historically, several Native American communities, such as the Ojibwa, Ho-Chunk, and Meskwaki, lived in the region. It provided food, water, and other resources to those living in the surrounding area.

Today, the river system is used to transport manufactured and agricultural goods. In 2019, it was estimated the Mississippi River carried over 500 million short tons (500 billion kilograms) of imported and exported goods.

2. Mackenzie-Peace-Finlay river system

picture of a Mackenzie riverbank. A few wooden structures are visible at the top of the bank, in front of a forest of tall, thin trees
Banks of the Mackenzie River
Length: 4,241 km (2,635 miles)
Country: Canada
Outflow: Beaufort Sea

Canada’s longest river system, the Mackenzie-Peace-Finlay River system, measures 4,241 kilometers (2,635 miles). It has over 40 tributaries, including Liard River, North Nahanni River and Redstone River.

The Mackenzie River begins in Great Slave Lake and flows north until it reaches the Beaufort Sea. The river’s peak discharge is in June, following the ice break-up in Liard River during April and May. By early June, the river is free of ice until it begins to form again in November.

The Dene people (indigenous group of First Nations) called the river Deh Cho, which means ‘big river’. In the Inuvialuktun language, the river is called Kuukpak, which translates to ‘great river’. The river’s English name comes from Alexander Mackenzie, a Scottish explorer who was the first person to travel the length of the river in 1789.

Few people live in the Mackenzie River basin. It has a population of around 400,000, which accounts for approximately 1% of Canada’s population. Most people live in the Peace and Athabasca River basins in Alberta.

When the river is free of ice, it provides a major transportation link through Northern Canada. Various isolated communities are linked via the river. Seaplanes are commonly used along the wider, calmer points of the river system.

3. Yukon River

aerial photograph of the Yukon River winding its way through a rural landscape of trees and hills
Yukon River near the North Klondike Highway in Yukon Territory, Canada
Length: 3,184 km (1,978 miles)
Countries: United States, Canada
Outflow: Bering Sea

Beginning in British Columbia, the Yukon River flows through Yukon territory (which is named after the river). Its name is a shortened version of the Gwich’in phrase ‘chΕ³Ε³ gΔ…Δ―Δ― han’, which translates to ‘white water river’.

The river flows for 3,184 kilometers (1,978 miles) before it discharges into the Bering Sea. It has over 25 tributaries, divided between four river sections (Delta, Upper, Middle, and Lower).

In 1997, 70 First Nations and tribes in Canada and Alaska formed the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. The council aims to clean and preserve the river for future generations. Its 50-year vision is to make water directly from the Yukon River safe to drink.

The Yukon River is one of the world’s most important salmon-breeding grounds. Some of the most common types include the Chinook, Coho, and Chum salmon. Many villages along the Yukon rely upon salmon for domestic and commercial needs. The fish are typically caught with driftnets, gillnets, fish wheels, and dipnets.

Although it’s the third-longest river in North America, the Yukon only has four bridges that are suitable for vehicles. They can be found on the Alaska Highway, Whitehorse suburb of Riverdale, Carmacks, Yukon, and on the Dalton Highway.

This river system has played an important part in the lives of local people for centuries. Historically, several Native American communities, such as the Ojibwa, Ho-Chunk, and Meskwaki, lived in the region. It provided food, water, and other resources to those living in the surrounding area.

Today, the river system is used to transport manufactured and agricultural goods. In 2019, it was estimated the Mississippi River carried over 500 million short tons (500 billion kilograms) of imported and exported goods.

4. Saint Lawrence – Niagara- Detroit- Saint Clair- Saint Marys- Saint Louis

Photograph showing the tails and heads of several Beluga whales in the St Lawrence River Description: Pod of Beluga whales swimming in the St Lawrence River. The river is rippling around the whales and the whale's tail is splashing into the water
Pod of Beluga whales in St Lawrence River
Length: 3,058 km (1,900 miles)
Countries: Canada, United States
Outflow: Gulf of Saint Lawrence

The Saint Lawrence River System flows 3,058 kilometers (1,900 miles) from the outflow of Lake Ontario to its outflow in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

The river system features a variety of fish, such as herring, smelt, and sturgeon. Beluga, sperm, and humpback are just some of the whale species found in the river. Endangered species such as blue and fin whales also call the river home.

Historically, the river was only navigatable to Montreal due to the Lachine Rapid. However, the Lachine Canal (opened in 1825) enabled ships to pass by the rapids for the first time. A further series of canals and locks called the St Lawrence Seaway was opened in 1959. This system now allows ocean-going vessels to travel along the river to Lake Superior (the largest freshwater lake in the world).

Indigenous nations call the river by various different names, such as Kchitegw, meaning ‘Great River’, and Kaniatarowanenneh, which translates to ‘big water current’. The river has had its current English name since at least 1604 when it was named on a French map.

5. Rio Grande

Rio Grande river flowing through Texas
Rio Grande river flowing through Texas
Length: 3,057 km (1,900 miles)
Countries: United States, Mexico
Outflow: Gulf of Mexico

Along with the Colorado River, the Rio Grande is one of the principal rivers in the southwestern United States and in northern Mexico. The river forms part of the United States-Mexico border. It often attracts migrants who hope to cross from Mexico into the US.

The Rio Grande, along with its 12 tributaries, is an important water source for seven states in the US and Mexico. However, since the mid-1900s, only around 20% of the river’s flow reaches the Gulf of Mexico. This is caused by a combination of droughts, arid land in the region and, agriculture and municipal use.

A large swingbridge called the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge allows vehicles to cross between the United States and Mexico. The bridge is one of three that crosses the border from Brownsville, Texas, to Matamoros, Tamaulipas.

The river isn’t typically navigable by cargo barges or passenger riverboats. It’s extremely shallow in places and features natural obstacles that prevent vessels from sailing any great stretch of the river.

Although it once was home to 24 native fish species, the Rio Grande now only has 15. This includes the Rio Grande sucker, Rio Grande chub, and the Rio Grande cutthroat trout in cold tributaries.

6. Nelson – Saskatchewan

picture showing a small town and hills overlooking the Nelson River on a sunny day
Small town overlooking the Nelson River
Length: 2,570 km (1,597 miles)
Countries: Canada, United States
Outflow: Hudson Bay

Beginning in Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, the Nelson River flows 2,570 kilometers (1,597 miles) to flow out into the Hudson Bay.

In 1612, Welsh explorer Sir Thomas Button named the river after Robert Nelson, a ship’s captain who died at the river’s mouth. The Cree people, who lived along the riverbanks, called it ‘Powinigow’, which translates to ‘the Rapid Strangers’ river’.

Fierce competition surrounding the fur trade led to multiple trading posts popping up near the river’s mouth. However, the nearby Hayes River eventually became the main route inland.

Due to the drop and huge volume of the Nelson River, it’s now used to produce hydroelectricity. However, damming of the river led to increased flooding, which provoked disputes with the First Nations before the Northern Flood Agreement was created in the 1970s.

Beluga whales swim in the depths of the Nelson River, as do fish species such as southern black bream,  yellow-eye mullet, and estuary perch.

7. Arkansas River

picture showing the Arkansas River flowing past fields at sunset. The sky is a deep blue and the clouds are a patchy gold
Arkansas River at sunset
Length: 2,348 km (1,458 miles)
Country: United States
Outflow: Mississippi River

The Arkansas is one of the Mississippi River’s major tributaries. It originates in the Rocky Mountains near Leadville in Colorado and travels 2,348 kilometers (1,458 miles) through Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. It eventually flows out into the Mississippi.

This river has over 30 tributaries, including the Apishapa River in Colorado and Bayou Meto in Arkansas. Historically, Kansas has claimed Colorado takes too much of the river’s water. The state has issued several lawsuits against Colorado since 1902, but the dispute is still ongoing.

In 1965, the Kansas–Oklahoma Arkansas River Basin Compact was created. It aims to promote mutual consideration and equal sharing of the river’s water between the states that share the river.

Various Native American nations lived along the river’s route for thousands of years. The first Europeans to see the river in 1541 were part of a Spanish expedition. However, the name ‘Arkansas’ wasn’t given to the river until 1673 by a French explorer.

The waters in this river are renowned for exceptional trout fishing. Brown trout and rainbow trout are particularly common. Thanks to the popularity of fly fishing in the river, the Arkansas is lined with numerous fishing shops, and Colorado Division of Wildlife gives regular updates on fishing reports.

8. Colorado River

photograph showing the Colorado River flowing through the high rock structures in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on a sunny day
Colorado River flowing through Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Length: 2,333 km (1,450 miles)
Country: United States, Mexico
Outflow: Gulf of California

Beginning in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, the river flows 2,333 kilometers (1,450 miles) until it reaches the Gulf of California. It passes through the Colorado Plateau, the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead, where it curves south towards the United States-Mexico border.

The Colorado River flows through an impressive 11 US National Parks, including the Canyonlands, Rocky Mountain, and Arches National Parks. The river also has an extensive network of dams, aqueducts, and reservoirs. These help control the river’s flow for agricultural use and urban water supply.

It’s estimated that the Colorado River supports a $26 billion tourist and recreation industry. The river and its tributaries are the main water supply for around 40 million people along its route.

Thirty native fish species are endemic to the river. However, 16 of these species are classed as endangered or threatened. This includes the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker and ponytail species. The humpback chub is also a threatened native species that isn’t found in any other river.

Native Americans have lived along the river for at least 8,000 years. Spanish explorers visited the river and started mapping it in the 1500s, although much of the river’s course was unknown until the mid-1800s. Large-scale management of the river didn’t start until the early 1900s.

9. Red River of the South

picture showing a bridge over the Red River of the South. The water is a brownish red and the trees lining the bank are a light green and brown
Bridge over the Red River in Texas
Length: 2,188 km (1,360 miles)
Country: United States
Outflow: Mississippi River

Named after its reddish-colored water, the Red River of the South begins in Oklahoma and flows through Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. It is officially called Red River of the South to differentiate it from the Red River of the North, which flows through Minnesota and North Dakota to Manitoba in Canada.

The river has a high salt content due to a natural phenomenon that occurred 250 million years ago. An inland sea used to occupy the space that the river now flows in. Over time, the sea evaporated and left behind salt deposits which now leak into the tributaries above Lake Texoma. This salty water flows into the rest of the Red River.

Between the 12th century and the 1830s, a series of ‘rafts’ (fallen trees) blocked the Red River for 282 km (175 miles). This meant the river was unnavigable until the river was cleared of the log jam. Although the clearing began in the 1830s, it wasn’t until the 1870s (when dynamite was available) that the fallen trees were fully removed.

The Red River is known for its large catfish population. Common species include the channel catfish, blue catfish, and flathead catfish. Alligator gar, sturgeon and both smallmouth and largemouth bass are also found in the river.

10. Ohio River

picture showing the riverbank and jetty on the Ohio River. A small boat is moored at the jety and a bridge is visible across the water
Looking out onto the Ohio River from Wheeling Island in Ohio County, West Virginia
Length: 2,102 km (1,306 miles)
Country: United States
Outflow: Mississippi River

Not only is the Ohio the tenth longest river in North America, but it is also the sixth oldest river on the continent. Approximately 10% of the US population lives in the Ohio basin, and the river provides drinking water to over five million people.

Some of the river’s major tributaries include the Tennessee River, the Cumberland River, and the Wabash River. The river is naturally shallow, although it has been deepened through the introduction of over 20 dams. These dams have changed the river from free-flowing water to multiple slow-moving reservoirs.

Barges carrying industrial goods such as steel, coal, and oil regularly travel the river. Over 184 million tons of cargo are transported via the Ohio River each year. Thirty-eight power-generating facilities also operate on the river.

The Ohio River passes by some of the largest cities in their respective states. This includes Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, Cincinnati in Ohio, and Louisville in Kentucky. Alongside these large cities are hundreds of towns and villages, many of which have small populations.

Largemouth and smallmouth bass are found in the river, as are white, striped and hybrid striped bass. Sauger and walleye are also common, and there is a large population of channel, flathead, and blue catfish.

Overview: North America’s longest rivers

RankRiver systemLength (km)Length (miles)CountryOutflow
1Mississippi-Missouri river system6,2703,896United States, CanadaGulf of Mexico
2Mackenzie-Peace-Finlay river system4,2412,635CanadaBeaufort Sea
3Yukon River3,1841,978United States, CanadaBering Sea
4Saint Lawrence-Niagara-Detroit-Saint Clair-Saint Marys-Saint Louis3,0581,900Canada, United StatesGulf of Saint Lawrence
5Rio Grande3,0571,900United States, MexicoGulf of Mexico
6Nelson-Saskatchewan2,5701,597Canada, United StatesHudson Bay
7Arkansas2,3481,458United StatesMississippi River
8Colorado River2,3331,450United States, MexicoGulf of California
9Red River of the South2,1881,360United StatesMississippi River
10Ohio River2,1021,306United StatesMississippi River

North America is home to some of the world’s longest rivers. The longest is the Mississippi-Missouri River System, which consists of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Jefferson Rivers and numerous tributaries. The combined rivers measure 6,270 kilometers (3,896 miles).

Many of the rivers mentioned in this list provide transport routes, food, and water for the nearby towns and cities. They also provide billions of dollars to the local tourist and recreation industries.

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