The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail


St. Louis to Caruthersville

The journey begins in the heart of America, where the muddy, silty waters of Montana mix with the clearer waters of Minnesota, at the confluence of the “Big Muddy” Missouri and the black tannin rich waters of the Upper Mississippi. After confluencing the river rolls along rhythmically between the limestone bluffs of the Missouri Ozarks and the granite Illinois Pawnee Hills, affectionately known as the Mississippi Hill Country, and then burst into the bottomlands of the Missouri Bootheel. Mike Clark calls it “The Freedom Trail:” it was Huck and Jim’s road to freedom; it was one of the main routes for the Underground Railroad; Abe Lincoln piloted a flatboat to New Orleans and was mmeasurably effected by the slave trade.   The Appalachian green waters of the Ohio River pour into the muddy brown waters of the Mississippi at the southern tip of Illinois (Cairo) forming the Lower Mississippi. The combined waters now roll along bouncing back and forth between the Kentucky Hills and the Missouri Bootheel past Reelfoot Lake and on southward into the largest and longest floodplain in North America, which blossoms outwards here and opens up into a one-hundred mile floodplain almost a thousand miles long. Once 22 million acres of bottomland forest, now mostly leveled for agriculture, the remaining floodplain preserved between the levees bordering the big river creates a vibrant ribbon of life thriving with deer, coyotes, possum, coon, beaver, turtles, gar, sturgeon, egrets, thrushes, warblers, hummingbirds -- more mammals, amphibians, birds and fish than any other single habitat in this region of mother earth. This dynamic landscape parallels the river for almost a thousand miles downstream to the Gulf of Mexico and is known as the Wild Miles. (see for full description).


195 miles of the Middle Miss from St. Louis confluence to Cairo. 112 miles of the Lower Miss from Cairo to Caruthersville. 307 miles total. Put in at Columbia Bottoms (Missouri River) or Maple Island (Upper Mississippi) and paddle into their confluence which forms the Middle Mississippi River, the muddy Missouri winning in color, but the Upper Mississippi usually the larger of the two. Continue on under the Great Arch through St. Louis and downstream (now on 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 a 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, with the beautiful Mississippi River Hills in the distance, undulating along rhythmically to the music of the river, paddlers being drawn into the mesmerizing effect the vanishing point! 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, Sainte 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 creating swirling water dervishes that command careful attention for the paddler. 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 below 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. The river is still muddy. 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 pieces of this section as daytrips, overnights, long weekends, or do the whole thing with a two week expedition including Sainte Genevieve, Grand Tower, Tower Rock, Cape Girardeau, Trail of Tears, Thebes, Cairo, Hickman, Reelfoot Lake, Bessie’s Bend, and Caruthersville.


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