In our modern world of Google Maps and GPS systems, finding the real headwaters of the Missouri River might not sound like much of a challenge. All it takes is a quick internet search and you will easily find the Missouri Headwaters State Park in Montana. The point where the Jefferson and Madison Rivers (followed closely by the Gallatin River) collide to create the Missouri River. However, while this does dedicate the spot where the river first claims the Missouri monicker on its flow towards the Mississippi River, it is not the real headwaters of the Missouri River. To find that one must venture a little further off the beaten path, hiking to Brower’s Spring.
The Real Headwaters of the Missouri River – Hiking to Brower’s Spring
- Utmost Source of the Mississippi-Missouri Watershed
- History of the Missouri
- Geography and Flow of the River
- Stats for Hiking to Brower’s Spring
- What You Are Looking For
- Location & Parking
- Hiking Season
- The Hike
- After the Hike
Utmost Source of the Mississippi-Missouri Watershed
Before setting out to find the real headwaters of the Missouri River you must first understand what you are looking for. You are searching for the utmost source (AKA: true source) of the fourth-longest river in the world. The utmost source is the farthest source of water that flows to the mouth of a river. In the case of the Missouri River, the mouth is actually where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The Missouri River is extremely misunderstood. The true source principle dictates that a river should hold the name from the farthest source to the eventual mouth of the river (sourcephys.org). For this reason, many call the fourth-longest river in the world the Mississippi-Missouri River. A system whose drainage collects the water from 31 states and deposits it into the Gulf of Mexico. However, for simplicity, we will just call it the Missouri River.
8emessourit – History of the Missouri
Appropriately the name “Missouri” has a meaning that is almost as hard to distinguish as the headwaters. Jacques Marquette, a French explorer, put the name “8emessourit” (the 8 has an “ou” sound) on his map of the Mississippi River in 1673. This was the name his translator gave the tribe living nearing the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. 8emessourit roughly translates as, “the people with the canoes.” Over time the spelling became “Missouri.”
Lewis and Clark Expedition
In May of 1804, an expedition known as the Corps of Discovery was sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the lands recently acquired by the Louisiana Purchase. The party was led by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. Better known today as the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The primary objective laid out by President Jefferson was to explore the Missouri River and discover if a water route could be found that flowed all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They were still looking for the fabled northwest passage dreamed about since the days when Columbus tried to sail to Asia and instead discovered the Americas. Ultimately, Lewis and Clark put the idea of a northwest passage through the heart of the continent to rest as they discovered the formidable Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains.
Misnaming the Headwaters of the Missouri River
In July of 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived at the confluence of three major rivers. They were uncertain as to which had the most powerful flow. As such they could not with any certainty determine which would hold the source of the Missouri River. Instead, they named each tributary after their expedition’s benefactors: President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison, and the Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin. They left the confluence following the newly named Jefferson River upstream and eventually declared that Trail Creek near Lemhi Pass (Montana) was the utmost source of the Missouri River. It wasn’t until 1888 that a surveyor found a small spring at the head of Hell Roaring Creek. In 1895, Jacob V. Brower visited the spring and determined that it was in fact the utmost source of the mighty Missouri River.
Geography and Flow of the River
Brower’s Spring is found in an inverted U-shape curve in the Continental Divide on the border of Montana and Idaho, west of Yellowstone National Park. In this location, the continent’s watershed folds back on itself. The water that flows east counterintuitively finds its way to the Pacific Ocean while the water that initially flows west spends a long time traveling north, then east, and finally south into the Gulf of Mexico. The real headwaters of the Missouri River is amazingly found on the west side of the Continental Divide.
The Missouri River flows west through Hell Roaring Creek from Brower’s Spring. The flow then becomes known as the Red Rock River, Beaverhead River, Big Hole River, and the Jefferson River before it finally reaches the confluence with the Madison River and is officially named the Missouri River. It is a treacherous 280-mile journey from the real headwaters to the named confluence. A few brave souls have even paddled the entire 3,902 miles of the Missouri River from Brower’s Spring to the Gulf of Mexico.
Stats for Hiking to Brower’s Spring, The Real Headwaters of the Missouri River
- Trailhead: Trail #037 on Sawtell Peak Road
- Type: Out-N-Back
- Rating: Difficult
- Distance: 5 – 6 miles (varies based on route)
- Total Elevation Gain: Approximately 1,115’ (varies based on route)
- Highest Elevation: 9,315’
- Brower’s Spring Elevation & Corridinates: 8,790’ (44º 33’ 0.74” N 111º 28’ 25.2” W)
- RecommendedTime: 2.5 – 4 hrs
- Season: Early June – Late October
The Destination: What You Are Looking For
Before we describe the journey, it is helpful to know what you are looking for. Very few people visit Brower’s Spring—the real headwaters of the Missouri River—and there is no established trail to get there. Most people will hike the Continental Divide Trail and then venture off-trail in search of the tiny spring. It is not an easy place to find in the middle of the wilderness. If you don’t know what you are looking for you are liable to pass right by it.
Brower’s Spring is a small pool of water. It’s about 2’ in diameter, seeping out of a crack in the rock. It is found about mid-way through a series of small waterfalls on Hell Roaring Creek. While the creek starts above the spring it typically runs dry by mid-summer. The spring itself never runs dry and therefore is given the title of being the utmost source of the Missouri River. When the creek is fully flowing the spring can be hard to locate as the water rushes over it. When the flow dries above, it can be nearly as difficult to locate. The flow is minimal and it seeps just beneath the surface of the creek bed until it reemerges several yards downstream.
The Headwaters Cairn
To help locate the real headwaters of the Missouri River, a cairn of rocks has been placed about 25’ above the spring in an open meadow. Placed on the cairn is an ammo can that houses several logbooks for signing in. As well as a few knickknacks left by those who have found their way to the real headwaters of the Missouri River.
Location & Parking
The most direct trail to the Headwaters of the Missouri River at Brower’s Spring starts at the trailhead for trail #037 on Sawtell Peak Road in Idaho. The 9,866’ Sawtell Peak is easy to distinguish with a large Radar Dome sitting atop. The pullout for the trailhead is located on the outside of a tight curve near the mountain’s summit and Google Maps will lead you there. There is only enough space for five or six tightly spaced vehicles. While this is a lightly trafficked trail you should still plan on arriving early due to the limited space. The 13-mile Sawtell Peak Road is gravel and well-traveled in the summer. It is well-maintained during the summer because of the radar and other antennas that grace the mountain top.
The Sawtell Peak Road typically opens on June 1st and closes on November 1st marking the beginning and end of the summer hiking season to the real headwaters of the Missouri River. I’ve read about people snowmobiling to Brower’s Spring in the dead of winter. But as this area of the Centennial Mountain Range receives a large amount of snow the spring is indistinguishable from the rest of the snow-covered terrain. Likewise, the area will still have lots of snow covering the ground in June making locating the spring harder. It is best to plan your hike to the spring between July and mid-September.
Our journey to finding the real headwaters of the Missouri River was a 5.5-mile total traverse with 1,164’ of elevation gain. Jennifer and I found the headwaters with relative ease, but did stack on about half a mile as well as 50’ of gain in our attempt to locate the spring. A lot of people misjudge the location of the spring and turn off the Continental Divide Trail too early. They either do not find the headwaters at all or rack up a lot of extra mileage and elevation gain. We passed one such person on our hike who had ventured off-trail too soon and was not able to locate the headwaters. With this guide to the real headwaters of the Missouri River you should not only be able to locate the spring but do so with very little extra mileage or gain in the process.
Hiking from Sawtell Peak Road
Leaving Sawtell Peak Road in a westerly direction, the trail quickly descends nearly 50’ through the pine forest. The trail then turns uphill and gains over 200’ before the first half mile is complete. During this climb, the pine trees give way to grass and ferns. The trail the quickly descends nearly 80’ before starting a more gradual 180’ climb to the Continental Divide and into Montana. Along the way, the path rounds the backside of an adjacent peak before revealing a great view of Sawtell Peak and Henrys Lake in the valley far below.
Crossing the Continental Divide
At 1.5-miles on the trail, you will cross the Continental Divide. While there is no sign announcing the divide or the state boundary it is easily distinguished by a National Forest Trail marker indicating Trail #165. Apparently, the Continental Divide Trail is known as such in this area of Montana. Beyond the trail marker, the path begins a gradual descent. There are steep eroded drainages leading into the bowl to the south of the trail. While these could eventually lead you to the real headwaters of the Missouri River, stay on the trail. There are far easier areas to enter into the bowl further down the trail.
Rounding the Drainage Basin
At 1.7-miles the trail goes through a U-shaped turn as it rounds a hillside above a drainage basin and enters back into a pine forest. On the backside of this U-turn, Mount Jefferson will appear to the west, and there will be an open meadow to the south below. If you look hard (and know what to look for) you can see a stack of rocks (a cairn). This is the marker holding the logbooks and indicating the approximate location of Brower’s Spring. If you don’t spot it now do not worry. You will soon find your way there.
The Seasonal Headwaters of the Missouri River
Continue your descent through another sharp U-turn that passes over a small wash. Depending on the time of year this will most likely be dry but the top of this wash is technically the farthest water will ever travel down the Missouri River. However, Brower’s Spring gets the title as the utmost source as it never runs dry. While this wash could be used to reach Brower’s Spring it would be a very steep descent. Stick to the main trail for just a bit further.
Several Options for Entering the Basin
At 2-miles on the trail, the path crosses over a moderately steep and wide wash. There is even a small cairn stacked about 20’ off the left side of the trail. This 1st useable wash is labeled on the map. It can be glimpsed through the trees but it is easy to miss. If you do miss it, don’t worry as all the washes on the left side of the trail (south) for the next 1/4 of a mile lead to Hell Roaring Creek. The views to the north are spectacular as they overlook the eastern slope of Mount Jefferson and the valley beyond. If you do linger on the trail too long, it will begin to round the east side of a hill on its way up Mount Jefferson. This turn is found at 2.3-miles. We made our way here and then backtracked to the nearest wash.
Our Strategy for Locating the Real Headwaters of the Missouri River
Before leaving, we had read that a common mistake when looking for Brower’s Spring was getting off the trail too early. Having to climb over trail-less ridges in an attempt to locate the headwaters. The other common mistake is searching between the various dry tributaries for Hell Roaring Creek. It is hard to determine what is the actual creek itself. We decided that we would stay on the trail and risk coming in below Brower’s Spring. Then, upon locating the flow of Hell Roaring Creek, climb back up towards the headwaters. This is why we stayed on the Continental Divide Trail for so long. This strategy worked out well for us.
Descent to Hell Roaring Creek
Once we stepped off the well-established Continental Divide Trail we followed the dry creek bed as it made its way into the basin. There isn’t anything fancy about the descent. The key is to follow whichever creek bed you choose towards the adjacent hillside covered in trees. Hell Roaring Creek is found at the base of the hillside. Upon reaching the valley floor we actually left our creekbed and made our way directly across the meadow to the rocky and steep Hell Roaring Creek channel. It was just over a quarter of a mile from the Continental Divide Trail to the creek.
Locating Brower’s Spring
Upon arriving at the creek we found it to be dry in mid-August. I wrongly assumed that this meant we were above Brower’s Spring. However, after only a few feet of rocky descent, we found a trickle of a flow in the creek. This spot did not look like the images we had seen of Brower’s Spring and the cairn was nowhere in sight. Jennifer and I debated on whether this flow was merely rainwater or was in fact the flow from the real headwaters of the Missouri River. After a bit more searching we spotted the 10’ dry waterfall where Brower’s Spring is located a few yards upstream. We summited the waterfall and found the cairn with the ammo can. We then climbed back down to the spring tucked into the second tier of the dry waterfall.
August at Brower’s Spring
In mid-August we found the spring to be a mere puddle of water about 2’ in diameter. Upon leaping into the seemingly dry creek bed my feet quickly located the outflow of the spring as they sunk into the water underneath. Not the most graceful way of locating the real headwaters of the Missouri River, but it worked.
After taking in the humble beginnings of the continent’s longest river and signing one of the logbooks we began our journey back to the main trail. This time we took a direct route across the meadow and straight up the hillside finding a wash and returning to the Continental Divide Trail. After stopping for lunch in the shade of a large pine tree we quickly made our way back to the truck completing our journey to the real headwaters of the Missouri River.
After the Hike
The closest town to the headwaters of the Missouri River in Island Park, Idaho. While there is a Subway Restaurant in town, Connie’s is a local establishment with a delectable selection of American food.
The Island Park Lodge is one of the only establishments nearby to find a room for the night. Although, if you are traveling in an RV or with a tent, there are a lot of great options in the valley. The Red Rock Pass Dispersed area is a great site for those who are self-contained, prefer seclusion, and appreciate a free campsite. Henry’s Lake State Park Campground is a nice option for those who need full-hookups. However, if you can make do with just electric hookups check out the more secluded Upper Coffeepot Campground.
The Real Headwaters of the Missouri River Guide
Many tourists travel to the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers. While this is the beginning of the named Missouri River, it is already a very wide river and a far cry from the real headwaters of the fourth-longest river in the world. To find the trickle that is the utmost source of this amazing river one must travel further into the wilderness. It is actually a surprisingly easy journey with modern GPS. But it does take some gumption and route-finding capabilities. There are no signs and very few landmarks. If you do find your way here you can count yourself amongst the few. I feel like one day soon an established path will guide the way. Make it all the more special by going now while it is wild, remote, and secluded.