Missouri Headwaters State Park, Montana – the place where three rivers conflue into one. I’m not entirely sure that’s an appropriate use of “conflue.” In fact, I’m relatively certain “conflue” isn’t a real word.
Ok, so according to Google, it isn’t. But a confluence is a place where two or more streams/rivers flow together to become one. In this case, there are three rivers: the Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson. Technically speaking, the Madison and Jefferson join to become the Madison-Jefferson River about a mile before meeting up with the Gallatin. If you ask someone not from the area, they’ll tell you that the Missouri begins when the Madison and Jefferson flow together, but for us locals it’s not the Missouri until the Madison-Jefferson meets the Gallatin.
In addition to being the headwaters of one of the major rivers in the US, the Missouri River is very important in the history of the Lewis and Clark expedition, as it was the waterway they followed in 1805 on their quest to find the Northwest Passage. I remember in high school history, we had a class debate about whether their mission was a success or a failure. I maintain that they didn’t fail because you can’t find something that doesn’t exist, and finding out that such a passage can’t possibly exist was also important. But our teacher assigned us to a side and I had to argue that they’d failed. As you can see, I’m clearly still irritated about it.
But I’m getting a bit off topic. The Missouri River is the longest river in North America, traveling over 2,300 miles from its headwaters in MT to St. Louis, MO where it flows into the Mississippi River. Tributaries of the rivers that join at the headwaters all arise in either Montana or Wyoming, flowing north and eventually converging just outside of Three Forks, MT. The town is even named for the rivers, though technically it’s three rivers becoming one and not one river splitting into three, so it’s more of a reverse fork.
Anyway, upon their arrival at the headwaters, Lewis and Clark took it upon themselves to name each river; the left fork became the Gallatin after US Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, the middle the Madison for Secretary of State (and future president) James Madison, and the right (and largest) the Jefferson for President Thomas Jefferson. Lewis mapped the area, and included a statement in his journal about how a large rock between the Gallatin and Madison-Jefferson Rivers would be a prime spot for construction of a fort. This boulder is now known as Fort Rock, though a fort was never built. Today, Fort Rock is the site of interpretive plazas and the main trailhead at the Headwaters.
After camping for three days near the Headwaters, Lewis and Clark then began making their way up the Jefferson River, which today is part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
All of this information and more can be found at Missouri Headwaters State Park. The park also has picnic areas, a campground, a few structural remains of the former Gallatin City, and provides access to all four rivers for recreation. There’s even a short trail to some pictographs! For having grown up in the area, it’s a bit sad that I haven’t spent more time here. It’s nearby, has a lot of history, and offers plenty of recreational opportunities. Not to mention the opportunity to stand at the beginning of the longest river in North America!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: 1585 Trident Road – off the I-90 Frontage Road in Three Forks, MT
- Fees & passes: none for Montana residents; $6 for non-residents or $35 for an annual MT state parks pass
- Camping: 17 campsites plus 1 tipi available – some can be reserved, some are first-come-first-served; $28/night for campsites, $42/night for the tipi
- Hiking: 5 short trails available in the park – stroll along the rivers, hike to the confluence, climb to a viewpoint, or see some pictographs
- Other: Beware of rattlesnakes! I’ve never seen one, but they do live in the park. Also keep an eye on the weather, afternoon thunderstorms are very common in this area. The good news is that they pass by quickly.