The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

St Louis to Caruthersville


St. Louis to Caruthersville


The Middle Mississippi River is measured upstream from the Ohio-Mississippi Confluence at Cairo Illinois.   Lower Mississippi River is measured upstream from the “Head of Passes,” the center of the birdsfoot of the Mississippi Delta, where all the major channels split and drain into the Gulf of Mexico.


----Middle Mississippi River ----

196 Missouri-Mississippi Confluence

190 Chain of Rocks

188 Mosenthien Island

180 Ead’s Bridge/Great Arch

169 Jefferson Barrack’s Bridge

148 Calico island

139 Salt Lake Chute

134 Fort Chartes Island

123 Ste. Genevieve, MO

122 Moro Island

118 Kaskaskia River

110 Chester, IL

102 Rockwood Island

94 Red Rock Landing

81 Grand Tower, IL

80 Tower Rock, MO

76 Big Muddy River

67 Moccasin Springs

52 Cape Girardeau, MO

44 Thebes, IL

24 Dogtooth Island

14 Missouri Sister Island

0 Fort Defiance/Cairo, IL

----Lower Mississippi River ----

952 Wickliffe, KY

937 Columbus, KY

934 Wolf Island Bar

919 Hickman, KY

911 Chute of Island No. 8

890 New Madrid, MO/Kentucky Point

872 Tiptonville, TN

859 Lee Towhead

855 Hathaway, Island No. 14

846 Caruthersville, MO

307 miles total


Towboats and Buoys


Red “Nun” Buoys = LBD navigation channel

Green “Can” Buoys = RBD navigation channel



Upstreamers = towboats going up the river

Downstreamers = towboats going down the river


Towboats and buoys provide endless fascination for Lower Mississippi River paddlers, but also present two of your gravest dangers. Red “nun” buoys mark the left side of the navigation channel (descending) while green “can” buoys the right side. To broadside a buoy would end in certain capsize. Be ever vigilant of their position, and keep a safe 100 foot distance away. Buoys endlessly twist and yank on their cables in the current and seem to come towards you at times. Watch for “diving ducks” the buoys that become submerged by powerful waters and unexpectedly bounce back up. When towboats are present your safest route is outside of the navigation channel. Towboat pilots might notice you on their radars, but they can’t tell the difference between a flotilla of canoes & kayaks and a pile of driftwood. Their packets are so sometimes so long that the pilot might lose sight of you within a quarter mile away as you dip below their line of sight over the nose of the barges they are pushing. Wherever possible the Rivergator will describe common lines of travel for towboats. “downstreamers” refers to towboats steaming down stream with the flow of the river, and “upstreamers” refer to those plowing up the channel against the flow of the river. Upstreamers normally create the biggest and most hazardous sets of wave trains, but there are exceptions. Wave trains sometimes trail the passage of a tow for one mile or more. The safest practice around any tows is to keep watching them for any changes in progress and give them wide berth. Never cross the nose of a towboat/barge packet. Make your crossings after they have passed and their waves have subsided. The safest place around a towboat is far behind a towboat.


VHF Marine Radio

Towboat pilots use VHF marine radios for communication between vessels, and also with harbor tows, lockmasters, the US Coast Guard, and recreational craft. Commercial traffic uses VHF cannel 13 while recreational VHF channel 9. Channel 9 is rarely used because there are so few pleasure boats on the river! Some paddlers carry radios and monitor VHF channel 13. Any frequent paddlers and any long-distance paddlers should carry one, at the very least for emergency purposes. When in doubt alert tow pilots of your presence with simple statements like “canoe heading downstream right bank descending along green can buoys, crossing over and making landing left bank descending at Such-and-Such Landing.” Most tow pilots will appreciate the information and respond with encouragement and good advice. Others will swear at you and tell you to get the **** out of the way, which is not helpful at all, and might lead you to making bad decisions. If you are using one, be a wise user. Tow pilots know the river like no others. But they don’t understand canoes or kayaks very well, and have little to no idea about how canoes & kayaks & stand-up-paddleboards move through the water, and what our special abilities are -- as well as our limitations. So, if you have one, and can use it, great. You are well-prepared. But if you don’t have a VHF marine radio, or aren’t comfortable with using one, don’t worry. Thousands of successful expeditions have completed their journey without one. Note: Commercial Traffic use VHF channel 67 between Baton Rouge and the Gulf of Mexico.


Introduction: St. Louis to Caruthersville

Put in at Columbia Bottoms (Missouri River) or Maple Island (Upper Mississippi) and paddle into their confluence which forms the Middle Mississippi River, and continue on under the Great Arch through St. Louis and downstream the Middle Mississippi to the Ohio River confluence and onward. The twenty mile long St. Louis Harbor is the most industrial stretch of river until Baton Rouge, and requires safe paddling for expert paddlers only. The Middle Miss carves an wide elegant valley in between the Pawnee Hills of Illinois and the Missouri Ozarks, bouncing back and forth between broad swaths of rich forested floodplain and steep outcroppings of rock and bluffs. The bluffs rise majestically and form striking backdrops and strongholds of river industry (such as power plants, gravel and cement operations, and grain elevators) as it courses southward through Kimmswick, Crystal City, and then again at Brickeys, St. Genevieve, again at Trail of Tears. At Grand Tower bluffs crowd the river on both sides and Tower Rock rises prominently out of one side of the channel. Below Cape Girardeau the river bounces off Cape Rock, and then dives through the last of the Middle Miss bluffs below Thebes where it cuts through the hard granite Pawnee Hills and explodes into the floodplain with two giant bends of river colorfully named Dogtooth and then Greenleaf. At Cairo Illinois the Ohio River and the Mississippi meet, shake hands and continue on downriver as the Lower Mississippi River. At this point the Mississippi becomes the biggest volume river in North America. Continue on 108 miles of the Lower Miss to Caruthersville with the Kentucky Bluegrass Hills on your left and Missouri Bootheel on your right. The chalky Loess Bluffs of Kentucky border the river at Wickliffe, Columbus and then Hickman, and then fall away as the river edges westward into the ever-widening floodplain, up to sixty miles wide east to west. At Bessie’s Bend the entire Mississippi makes a giant 20 mile loop to cover one mile of distance, the biggest and most prominent bend on the entire Mississippi River system (New Madrid at its crown), so big it can be seen from outer space. You can paddle this section as daytrips, overnights, long weekends, or do the whole thing with a two week expedition including St. Genevieve, Grand Tower, Tower Rock, Cape Girardeau, Trail of Tears, Thebes, Cairo, Hickman, Reelfoot Lake, Bessie’s Bend, and Caruthersville.