Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, Montana

Mark Barnett
Last Updated: February 27th, 2023

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is an area in Montana covering 375,000 acres of public land featuring a combination of biological, geological, and historical aspects.

Covering an area of land between Fort Benton and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the monument stretches almost 150 miles along the region of the Upper Missouri River which includes national monuments, conservation and wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, and national scenic and historic trails.

This entire region of natural Montana beauty has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years, and today provides access to endless recreation options like fishing, river floating, hiking, hunting, and scenic driving.

missouri river breaks
Image: Mountain-Prairie Region

The History of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument

The Missouri River was an oft-employed tool of western expansion. Lewis and Clark spent three weeks in 1805 exploring the area now known as the Upper Missouri National Wild & Scenic River, in a section known today as the main stretch of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

During the years following the expedition’s passage though, the Blackfeet Indians did their utmost to prevent any further encroachment on what they considered their territory by trappers and others of European descent coming into the region.

Image: Bureau of Land Management

The American Fur Company did manage to successfully open the upper river to trade in 1831, and in the same year, they established Fort Piegan at the Marias River’s mouth.

A year after that they established Fort McKenzie, although this site was abandoned in 1844 when it was decided to move the operations downriver towards the mouth of the Judith River.

After that Fort Chardon was established, although it was also subsequently abandoned another year after that when Fort Lewis was established just a few miles further up from Fort Benton.

In 1846, Fort Lewis was again abandoned and Fort Clay was established, eventually being renamed Fort Benton in 1850.

Five years down the line Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens hosted a treaty council with the Blackfeet, the Flathead, the Gros Ventre, and the Nez Perce tribes.

This set up boundaries and also led to roads, railroads, telegraph lines, and military post access in the region now classified as northern Montana. The fur trade had been the catalyst for the increasing use of the Missouri River as a means of transportation.

Steamboats first appeared in 1859, and Fort Benton was established as the head of navigation for the vessels in 1860. Steamboats lasted for around 30 years before the railroad found its way to Fort Benton in 1887.

Buffalo across the plains had all but disappeared and been replaced by livestock, which caused Fort Benton to transition into an agricultural hub as homesteaders started to show up around the early 1900s.

After the war had broken out again between the government and the Nez Perce, the tribe headed to safety by crossing the Missouri River near Cow Island, continuing up Cow Creek until they were close to the border with Canada where they stopped to rest after a 1,000-mile journey.

The US military gained on them and closed in on the region now known as the Bear Paw Battlefield, just north of the Monument.

A five-day battle and siege ensued, and the Nez Perce famously ceased fighting in 1877 when Chief Joseph gave the command.

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument Interpretive Center in Fort Benton 

national monument interpretive center in fort benton
Image: Bureau of Land Management

During the busy summer months between May and September, the Interpretive Center in Fort Benton helps to expand community knowledge with its outreach programs. The facility and its programs provide educational activities specifically to suit school-aged children.

The ‘Friends of the Missouri Monument‘ team works in tandem with local schools to produce practical educational programs covering topics such as watershed health, local agriculture, and the history of the monument.

One of the most prominent activities and educational events of the year is the Friends’ annual clean-up days for classrooms.

This generally happens in schools and communities in the vicinity of the monument, and children learn valuable information relating to the importance of complete watershed health.

The most recent aspect of the educational programs in the Interpretive Center is focused on events for adults, providing hands-on educational opportunities to all age groups.

Some major past activities have included a full monument, ecologically-themed float led by a local botany professor, as well as a workshop about astronomy hosted by the Central Montana Astronomy Society, and a birding expedition guided by members of Montana Audubon.

Missouri River Breaks Monument Access Points

monument access points
Image: Cmichel67

The monument spans 149 miles of the Upper Missouri River, and in the adjacent Breaks country features sections of Arrow Creek, Antelope Creek, and the Judith River. Boating is one of the main activities in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument as it gives participants access to the sweeping views of the Breaks, as well as other recreation like camping, hiking, hunting and fishing.

Anyone planning on boating in the area should consult the available guide information related to the area and its put-in points like the one between Fort Benton and Judith Landing, and another between Judith Landing and James Kipp Recreation Area.

The waterproof guide information available from the Interpretive Center provides the latest versions of river mile maps which include information about land ownership in the region as well as the topography and locations of developed campsites and other information about the river and the surrounding area.

It is recommended that anyone boating first register their party at the Interpretive Center, and use the Fort Benton, the Wood Bottom, the Coal Banks, or the Judith landing points.  Self-registration boxes exist at these locations in the event that no staff are present.

The Missouri Breaks Wilderness Study Areas

The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge runs along the last 10 miles or so of the Scenic River region, and the refuge includes large wildlife populations as well as paleontological and recreational opportunities.

The six wilderness study areas within the monument are as follows, and while the first two WSA’s are recreation areas, the others are not for various reasons.

Cow Creek WSA covers 34,050 acres on the river’s north side, and 21,590 acres of this is a designated wilderness area. Primitive recreation is abundant here, as is the opportunity for some solitude if required.

One of the area’s outstanding features is the four-mile-long sandstone wall.

Antelope Creek WSA covers over 12,000 acres on the river’s north side, and a total of 9,600 acres were designated as wilderness.

Needless to say, outstanding opportunities for recreation and solitude exist here, and the region is also rich in historical significance.

Woodhawk WSA covers almost 5,000 acres on the river’s northern side, in a rugged section of the Missouri Breaks.

Due to its small land area this region was not recommended as a designated wilderness area, as well as the fact that it has a high potential for natural gas development, hence no recreation opportunities exist here.

Stafford WSA covers 10,200 acres on the river’s northern side, and again this area was not recommended for wilderness designation due to various conflicts over resources and management.

Ervin Ridge WSA is on the river’s southern side and includes 5,150 acres. This is another area not recommended as suitable for wilderness designation due to its high potential for natural gas development and more management issues—thus it holds little recreation.

Dog Creek WSA is an 8,100-acre region on the south side of the Missouri River, and none of this region qualified for wilderness designation due to its small size, the usual conflicts over resources common with these areas, and the fact that there is a road running through it.

There is no recreation to speak of in this area, but it does contain a few prehistoric occupation archaeology sites.

The Missouri River Breaks Backcountry Scenic Byway

backcountry scenic byway
Image: Bureau of Land Management

The Missouri Breaks National Back Country Byway is a route charting one of the most unique geological and historical areas in the state.

It was designated as a preservation area in 1976, and the terrain is ruggedly spectacular in parts, first described by Lewis and Clark as ‘the Deserts of America’.

The Byway features some amazing scenery overlooking the Upper Missouri National Wild & Scenic River, which qualifies as some of the main stretches of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

The Byway also follows the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, and much of it is remote and pretty much inaccessible except by river or something like a 4-wheel drive. There is also picturesque scenery and the opportunity for a spot of quiet, albeit primitive recreation.

The Byway begins in the small Winifred community about 40 miles north of Lewistown, and the roads are largely gravel and other rough surface roads that are virtually impassable in rain. The drive is about 80 miles and typically takes 2 or 3 hours to complete.

Some stretches of the byway are deemed unsuitable for large RVs, namely in the region of Highway 191, the Two Calf Creek crossing, or any of the small side roads off the Byway.


The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is an important region of Montana in both historical and cultural terms. It is also the location of an impressive array of plant life and wildlife, as well as a fair few unique geological features.

If you ever feel the need to visit Montana in search of virtually unlimited recreational opportunities on the primitive side, then head out to the inspiring region of preservation and history in Montana at the River Breaks National Monument.

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About The Author

Mark Barnett

Mark Philip is a writer and lifestyle enthusiast from the Midlands in the U.K. With a background in martial arts and fitness, Mark headed out to Bangkok, Thailand where he now lives and works. Mark has authored e-books, articles, and blogs across a wide range of topics for commercial, educational, factual, lifestyle and leisure-based purposes.

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