How Fast is the Mississippi River?

Written by Jeremiah Wright
Published: May 11, 2022
Image Credit Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com
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The Mississippi River is the second-longest river in North America, flowing for 2,340 miles. Its origin is Lake Itasca, Minnesota, and it overflows into the Gulf of Mexico. This river passes through ten states and has a drainage basin of over one million square miles, making it the thirteenth-largest river globally by discharge.

In other words, the Mississippi River flows for quite a distance. While its flora and fauna are undoubtedly fascinating, just like its history, there are other interesting facts worth knowing. One of them is the river’s speed.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the speed of the probably most-known river in America, the information below is what you’re searching for!

What does “fast” mean for a river?

Flaming Gorge Reservoir Utah
When talking about a river and its waters, “fast” can mean either the speed at which it flows or its average annual discharge rate.

iStock.com/ablokhin

When talking about a river and its waters, “fast” can mean either the speed at which it flows or its average annual discharge rate. The latter is related to the speed of the water, as an increased speed translates to an increased discharge rate. The discharge rate is calculated by multiplying a river’s area by its mean or average water flow velocity. 

For example, the Amazon River is the fastest in the world, with a mean annual discharge rate of 209,000 m3/second. However, this doesn’t tell us anything about the speed of the water flow. The water flow velocity of the Amazon River is 1.5 miles per hour.

How is water flow speed determined?

The Passaic River has a speed of 70 miles per hour – but only when approaching its falls. This is why the water flow speed is calculated differently and takes into account other portions of a river.

In rivers with long straight portions, the fastest water flow is in the river’s middle area or where it bends. Once again, rivers can be very long, as the Mississippi River is. There is no constant speed since water and terrain levels rise and fall from time to time.

How fast is the Mississippi River?

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
The Mississippi River has an average speed of 1.2 miles per hour.

NPS/Gordon Dietzman / This image or media file contains material based on a work of a National Park Service employee, created as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, such work is in the public domain in the United States. See the NPS website and NPS copyright policy for more information.

The Mississippi River has an average speed of 1.2 miles per hour. This is the average surface water speed at the headwaters of the river. For comparison, a person can walk twice as fast as the Mississippi River flows.

However, the speed changes as the river travel through the North American continent. When it reaches New Orleans, the Mississippi River flows at about three miles per hour, almost as fast as a person can walk.

On average, it would take a drop or a bucket of water almost three months to reach the Gulf of Mexico from the river’s source, Lake Itasca. The duration is affected by various aspects, such as wider, narrower, or shallower parts of the river.

How fast can the Mississippi River get?

Since speed is variable, it’s clear that the river has portions when it is at its fastest and portions when it is at its slowest. Historically, the river can get as slow as 0.6 miles per hour at the Carrollton Gauge in New Orleans. This happens when the river is at the 1-foot stage.

As the water level rises and reaches the 18-foot stage, the Mississippi River can get as fast as 6.0 miles per hour – jogging speed, in human terms. Therefore, depending on the area/portion of the Mississippi River that you visit, its speed can vary – it is not a fixed, certain value. 

What are the widest and deepest points of the Mississippi River?

Mississippi River - New Orleans
Mississippi River’s deepest point can be found in New Orleans, near Algiers Point.

Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

Given that speed is affected by the width and depth of a river, it’s useful to know the widest and deepest points of this river. At the same time, if you know where the river flows the fastest, you’ll be able to pinpoint its widest and deepest portions.

For example, the River’s deepest point can be found in New Orleans, near Algiers Point. There, the Mississippi River is 200 feet deep. On the other hand, the widest part of the river can be found near Bena, at Lake Winnibigoshish. There, the Mississippi River is wider than 11 miles. In contrast, the thinnest parts of the river are only 20 to 30 feet wide. 

Interestingly enough, the distance between the widest and deepest points of the river is only 50 miles!

What fish species can you find in the Mississippi River?

The Mississippi River hosts more than 260 fish species.

iStock.com/Willard

The Mississippi River hosts more than 260 fish species, mainly thanks to its impressive length. This number represents 25% of all the fish species that you can find in North America. If you happen to find yourself fishing here, you could pull in catches like channel catfish, shovelnose sturgeon, lake sturgeon, northern pike, long-nosed gar, walleye, paddlefish, white bass, Asian carp, and many more.

Obviously, the Mississippi River has more than just fish. It is rich in flora – cattails, cypress trees, swamp rose, orchids, spider lilies, etc., and endangered fauna – piping plover, Louisiana black bear, green sea turtle (on the Mississippi River Delta).

Nature lovers can find here 145 species of reptiles and amphibians, over 50 species of mammals, around 90 species of mussels, 326 species of birds (Mississippi River Basin), and 40% of the country’s migratory waterfowl population.

What parts of the Mississippi River can you sail on?

Boating is allowed throughout the entire length of the Mississippi River. However, only kayaks and rowboats are allowed on the first 482 miles of the river after it flows from Lake Itasca.

Coon Rapids Dam, found in Minneapolis, marks the start of the river’s navigable section. Then, until the Gulf of Mexico, you can rely on almost any type of motorboat to explore and discover the mighty river. However, make sure to stock up on fuel – there’s a 400-mile-long river section with no fuel stations.

In case you plan a long, experimental journey, you should know that it takes up to 10 days to reach the Gulf from the Dam on a boat with a speed of 15 miles per hour if you sail for 12 hours a day.

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