The 15 Largest Rivers in the United States

Written by Kyle Glatz
Updated: May 28, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/Willard
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The United States is home to some vast rivers. These rivers have served as means of transport, livelihoods for fishers, boundaries, and more. It’s only natural to wonder, what are the 15 largest rivers in the United States? Don’t worry, we have you covered. Take a look at our list and learn about these interesting bodies of water!

What is a River?

A river is basically a flowing source of water that drains into a bigger body

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A river is defined as a moving stream of water that flows into a larger body of water, usually an ocean, and has defined banks. That definition is a little vague, but it should give you an idea of what we’re talking about. Now, how do we define the largest rivers?

When we consider the largest rivers, we are looking for length rather than discharge amounts. We could measure them by greatest width or another measure, too. However, measuring length is an easy and fair way to determine the largest rivers in the U.S.  

The Largest Rivers in the United States

The largest rivers in the United States occur throughout the nation

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In our longest rivers in the world list, we measured river systems. So, as an example, the Missouri River flows into the Mississippi and is part of a single watershed. However, in this list of the largest rivers in the United States, we’ll only examine individual rivers. So, for the sake of this list, where the Missouri connects to the Mississippi is where its length ends.

15. Green River- 730 miles

Green River is a rather deep river

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The Green River flows through Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. This river has many cities on its banks, but it also flows through a lot of rural areas like Split Mountain Canyon. The river is known for being very strong and deep, over 50 feet in depth. Also, the Green River measures between 100 to 1,500 feet wide throughout its course, making it a very significant span of water.  

14. Brazos River- 840 miles

The river’s name is Spanish for “the arms of God”

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The Brazos River only flows through Texas, and it flows across a very large portion of the state. The river starts in the north-central portion of the state and flows to the Gulf of Mexico by Freeport. Although Brazos River is known for being an important recreational area, the fact remains that the water quality is troublesome. The river gets runoff from farms and industrial sites alike. Yet, it’s a popular destination for hunting, fishing, and camping.  

13. Colorado River of Texas- 862 miles

While confusing, the Colorado River in Texas doesn’t leave the state

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The Colorado River in Texas is another large river that flows across a large portion of the state. This one starts in the northwest part of the state, near Lubbock. From there, it passes through the state, into Austin, and then empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The name doesn’t come from the state, though; it refers to a reddish color. The river is significant to farming efforts throughout the state as well as hydroelectric power production.

12. Canadian River- 906 miles

The Canadian River’s name origin is a mystery

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The Canadian River is nowhere near Canada. It flows through Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. Due to its remote nature, sometimes shallow depth, and somewhat low discharge rate, the river doesn’t get many visitors. The Canadian River’s mouth is the Arkansas River, which it joins and continues to flow.

11. Tennessee River- 935 miles

The Tennessee River is a famous recreational setting

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The more aptly named Tennessee River is a large body of water that flows through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky. It snakes through the western portion of its namesake state, dips into the south, and then comes up the eastern part of the state. The river has many cities on its banks, and it is famous for being dammed several times. The river is famous for its recreational purposes including riverboats.

10. Ohio River- 981 miles

The Ohio River sustains many cities

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The Ohio River is a very large river that flows into Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana along with its nearly 1,000-mile flow. The river has been used for transport and as a state boundary in the past. It is home to many large cities including Louisville, Kentucky, and Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. This river is rather wide, too, reaching over a mile in width at some parts. Ultimately, the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi River.

9. Snake River- 1,040 miles

Snake River’s name comes from misinterpreted sign language

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The Snake River has been home to Native Americans for over 10,000 years, and it was one of the areas explored during the Lewis and Clark expedition. The name stems from misinterpreted sign language that was supposed to mean basket weaving, but it was interpreted as “snake”. The river winds through Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho in the Pacific Northwest. This river is very important to salmon spawning, hydroelectric power generation, and agriculture. However, it has been greatly polluted from runoff in recent years.

8. Columbia River- 1,243 miles

Columbia River has the biggest discharge into the Pacific Ocean of any river

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The Columbia River flows through Oregon and Washington in the United States. However, it also flows into British Columbia in Canada. The river’s mouth is in the Pacific Ocean. The river is famous for having the largest river discharge into the Pacific in North or South America. The discharge amount is 265,000 cubic feet per second, a vast amount. The river was a boundary and a source of food for indigenous peoples for about 15,000 years.

7. Red River- 1,360 miles

Red River is famous for being a saltwater river

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Although it’s sometimes called the Red River of the South, the name comes from the reddish color of the water. The Red River flows through Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Unlike most other rivers in the U.S., this river is saline. The river’s mouth is in the Atchafalaya River where it continues to flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

6. Colorado River- 1,450 miles

The Colorado River helped carve the Grand Canyon

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The Colorado River flows through many states including Colorado, Utah, Arizona, California, and Nevada. Eventually, the river flows into the Gulf of California which is located in Mexico. This river flows through the Grand Canyon and was used by early explorers in this part of the world for navigation. The Colorado River was integral to the lives of Native Americans for thousands of years. Also, the river continues to benefit people today as a source of water and power.

5. Arkansas River- 1,469 miles

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Flowing through the Great Plains, the Arkansas River crosses Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. The mouth of this river is the Mississippi River. The Arkansas River is the second-largest tributary of the Mississippi River. Although the river is popular for fishing today, it had serious strategic value during the American Civil War as a source of moving troops.

4. Rio Grande- 1,885 miles

Rio Grande is a famous crossing between the U.S. and Mexico

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The Rio Grande flows between the U.S. and Mexico. In the United States, it flows through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. The river is not very deep, with the deepest portion only reaching 60 feet of depth. The river’s mouth is located in the Gulf of Mexico. Rio Grande is used as a boundary between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, cities located in the U.S. and Mexico, respectively.

3. Yukon River- 1,982 miles

Yukon River flows across the entire width of Alaska

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Although some people only measure the length of the Yukon River in the U.S. when considering its size, we’re going to include the entire thing on the list to ease potential confusion. The Yukon River flows from Yukon and British Columbia into Alaska, where it runs clear across the massive state and drains into the Bering Sea. A modern project by the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council is seeking to return this river to its former glory, making the water drinkable.

2. Mississippi River- 2,320 miles

The Mississippi River is similar in size to the Missouri River

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The Mississippi River is an immense river that flows through 10 different states before it eventually finds its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The river has been used for transport, a source of food, and a source of water. As such, nearly a dozen major communities have been built along the river. The Mississippi River is also home to many engineering projects, including keeping the flow of water into the Atchafalaya River in check.

1. Missouri River- 2,341 miles

Missouri River is the largest river

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Although the Mississippi River gets all the attention, the Missouri River is the largest river in the United States! This river flows through 7 states and eventually flows into the Mississippi River. In some ways, these rivers comprise a larger body of water as part of a unified system. In St. Louis, the place where the rivers meet, the two rivers have noticeable differences in terms of color, with the silt in the Missouri River making it seem a lot lighter.

What is the Largest River in the United States?

The Missouri River is the largest river in the United States. Although it is close in length to the Mississippi River, the Missouri River is the clear winner. The interesting thing about measuring these rivers is that a fair number of disagreements exist regarding their lengths. Some measurements would put the two largest rivers within one mile of each other in terms of length!

 

Aerial shot of a road along the Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is similar in size to the Missouri River
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About the Author

I'm a freelance writer with 8 years of experience. I've written in a variety of niches such as video games, animals, and managed service providers. I graduated from Rowan University in 2014 with degrees in English and Education. When I'm not working, I enjoy playing video games, reading, and writing for fun.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What are the prettiest rivers in the United States?

Some of the prettiest rivers in the United States include:

  • Hudson River: The river that flows through New York City and has scenic vistas throughout the state.
  • Columbia River: Cuts through Washington and Oregon. Features large gorges and recreational activities.
  • Colorado River: Runs through the Grand Canyon. One particularly beautiful setting is Horseshoe Bend. At this point the Colorado river turns at a 270-degree angle.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.