The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

St Louis to Caruthersville

Quick Orientation:

There are several great options for starting your Middle Mississippi Adventure, which could be a daytrip down to the confluence, an overnight to the arch, or a month-long expedition to the Gulf. Regardless of your ultimate destination, paddlers can put in at either Columbia Bottoms Boat Ramp three miles up the Missouri or the Maple Island Boat Ramp at the base of the Mel Price Lock and Dam on the Upper Mississippi. Another choice is the canoe & kayak access below the confluence below Duck Island.


The adventure begins with a bang. Expert paddlers only in the St. Louis reach, familiar with big water extremes. Go to Safety Page for complete description of what you should know to safely paddle through St. Louis. If you are a moderate paddler, or are troubled by the challenges looming in front of you, you would be best advised to start your expedition downstream of the industrial reach. The best start place to start and avoid the industrial stretch would be either the Flamm City Boat Ramp (located 1.5 miles up the Meramec River near the 231 Bridge), or Hoppie’s Landing (near Kimmswick).


Starting your Middle Mississippi Expedition

Most Middle Miss paddlers put in on the cobblestones below the Great Arch and start paddling downstream from there. This choice is sometimes made due to the fear of the notorious Chain of Rocks. But don’t let healthy fear turn into paranoia! You can run the Chain at certain water levels (above 16SLG) and portage if it’s below. Like all matters concerning the big river there is a safe time to go, and a dangerous time to go, and it’s all related to water level. If the St. Louis gage is above 16 and you are an expert paddler, and your canoe (or kayak) is not overloaded, you will be fine running over the Chain. If it is above 20SLG almost anyone who knows how to read a river will be okay. Keep reading below for how to run the Chain safely.


When I first came down the river in the fall of 1982 my raft-mate and I were misled by the bad advice of well-intentioned people that we would die if we ignored the entrance to the Canal and went over the chain. The river that fall was high and we could have slipped over the chain easily and without any danger. In fact, as high as it was (around 35 SLG) we wouldn’t have even noticed the Chain as we passed over it. But we followed the bad advice given us upstream and entered the canal. Our raft was very slow to move. The long sweep oars proved ineffectual in the canal. We ended up dragging it manually by ropes down the boring mind numbing nine-mile length of the canal. It required 2 days of hard labor. 2 days of cordelling a raft slipping and tripping over the rip-rap of the hellish canal made us mad as hornets. When we finally got to the lock it was dark so we tied up to the rip rap lining the steep walls and fell into an uneasy slumber. Sometime during the night a tow flushed out the edges of the canal as it powered out of the lock chamber making the water level drop several feet. One edge of our raft was caught on the rip-rap and as the water dropped the whole raft tilted at an angle and we both slid into the cold water along with all of our loose gear on the raft, much of which we lost. This was the first and last time I will ever go down this canal, or any canal if I can help it. When it comes to deciding between the Canal or the Chain of Rocks make your own choice of course. But personally I would much rather make one short portage than paddle nine miles of flat water with a required lock passage.


16 SLG is the Cutoff. The secret to the Chain is river level. Check the daily gage for St. Louis. If the river is below 16 SLG then yes, you should avoid the Chain and instead find a safe place to put-in along the St. Louis waterfront. Or portage. Below 16SLG you can still paddle cautiously up to the Landing above the falls, take out, and portage several hundred feet downstream across the parking lot to the south side, and the get back in the river. But if the gage at St. Louis is 16 or above expert paddlers will be happy to know that you can safely paddle over the Chain. Wait until its at 20SLG if you are a moderate paddler. (WARNING: You should NEVER run any part of this stretch of river if you are a beginner paddler!)  


You can start your expedition down the Middle Miss at one of two fantastic alternatives for put-in found several dozen miles upstream of the Arch on the two big rivers that come together to form the Middle Miss. Starting above St. Louis greatly adds to the experience of paddling through the city. It also means that you will be able to paddle on the waters of three different rivers, the Upper Miss, the Missouri and the Middle Miss.   The first access option is the Maple Island Access Ramp RBD 200.6 below the Melvin Price Lock and Dam on the Upper Mississippi. And the second is the Columbia Bottoms Boat Ramp RBD at Mile 3 of the Missouri River.


Best Camping on the Middle Mississippi:

The best camping is usually found on the big islands along the length of the Middle Mississippi, which can be counted on the fingers of your two hands. If these locations concur with your paddling itinerary, and you end up near one of these at the “it’s time to find a campsite” time of day, by all means make your choice and stop on one of the below. As always, don’t camp on an open bar in threat of wind or inclement weather. Seek the protection of low scrubby trees, wing dams, or other natural features that will break the fury of the storm.


Mosenthein Island

Moro Island

Marquette Island

Burnette Bar

Brown’s Bar

Angelo Towhead


Locating good picnic and campsites on the Middle Mississippi River

As you read through the Rivergator you will find descriptions of the best campsites and picnic sites. Below 18 SLG there are endless choices along the banks and on the edges of the islands, some big, some small, some nothing more than a pile of sand thrown up against the forest. We’re not going to try and describe them all. We’re just going to describe the best ones. The quietest campsites with the best views. The places where you can make easy landings, find firewood, and enjoy some of the natural habitat of flora and fauna. As always, the river is in constant flux, and the nature of various campsites change from year to year, season to season. So use the Rivergator as a general guide, but let your common sense rule. At times it might be necessary to use some creative imagination to find the best campsites, especially within heavily trafficked places and amongst the industrial reaches. If you find yourself at nightfall in the St. Louis harbor you might be forced to take refuge on a pillow sized piece of sand behind a long line of fleeted barges, or maybe in an eddy below a giant grain elevator. Always respect private property. Stay below the average highwater line when possible. The most important thing is to secure your vessel and find a place where you won’t be blown away by any surprise thunderstorms or changes in the wind.


Leave No Trace:

Leave No Trace is for individuals who love the river and surrounding floodplain -- and want to embrace a personal role in preserving outdoor experiences for future generations.


Mississippi River paddlers are encouraged to practice the Leave No Trace principles, which are based on common sense. Leave No Trace includes picking up after yourself and not destroying nature. Adopted by the National Park Service and taught to Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Mighty Quapaws, Leave No Trace is all about respecting the environment you are in and being a good visitor. Just the same as entering someone’s home, you are entering the homes of animals, birds, fish, insects and a unique floodplain ecosystem. It’s always best to be gentle and ask permission when possible. Pick up all trash and leave nothing but footprints. Pick a spot 100 yards away from the water’s edge and dig a hole at least a foot deep when going to the bathroom. Don’t leave toilet paper on the ground. Your consideration will make the journey much more enjoyable for future paddlers not to mention fisherman and other locals who also use the river. For more information about Leave No Trace, please visit their website: