Why the Mississippi River is Only the Second Longest River in the United States

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Updated: February 24, 2023
© Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com
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Key Points

  • The Mississippi River is 2,340 miles long, whereas the Missouri River is 2,466 miles long.
  • This makes the Mississippi River the second-longest river in the United States by 126 miles.
  • The Mississippi River flows through ten different states in the US.

Water is life, and this simple fact explains why there is always a lot of conversation about the United States Rivers. The Mississippi River, however, needs no introduction, being about 70 million years old and a crucial part of the USA’s economy.

It is the first river that comes to mind when the longest river in the US is debated. However, it is not the longest. Discover why the Mississippi is only the second-longest river in the United States.

How Long Is The Mississippi River?

According to the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the Mississippi River is about 2,350 miles long.

©Milen Mkv/Shutterstock.com

Length is often the judging feature of a river, and the Mississippi does itself a lot of favors in this regard. According to statements by the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the Mississippi River is as long as 2,350 miles (3781.96 kilometers). In the 1930s, a post was erected at the headwater of the Mississippi River, indicating that the river once was 2,552 miles (4107.05 kilometers) long.  

The Old Man River flows past ten states in America, from Itasca in northern Minnesota down south to the Gulf of Mexico. This extensive length ranks the Mississippi as the second longest river in the North American continent.

Why the Mississippi River is Only the Second Longest River in the United States

Mississippi River - New Orleans
The Missouri River is longer than the Mississippi River.

©Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

Despite the impressive length of the Mississippi River, it is still not the longest river in the United States, and this is because the Missouri River exceeds it. The Big Muddy, as the Missouri River is commonly called, has a length of about 2,466 miles (3968.64 kilometers), making it at least 100 miles (160.93 kilometers) longer than the Mississippi. America’s longest river rises in the Rocky Mountains in Southwestern Montana, flowing east and south before ending and joining the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis in Missouri.

Combined, the two rivers are ranked as the fourth longest river system worldwide, surpassed only by the Nile, Amazon, and Yangtze Rivers. The Missouri River is a tributary to the Mississippi River, as it does not lead into the sea or ocean.

Why Is The Mississippi River So Important to Americans?

The Mississippi River is a source of water for millions of people.

©iStock.com/Willard

Rivers are important for many reasons. The flowing watercourses carry freshwater toward lakes, seas, oceans, or other rivers like the Missouri and the Mississippi. Rivers are important to residents along their banks as water sources for industry and households, recreation, and transportation.

The Mississippi River’s impressive stretch across the country is quite important to the United States. Along the river banks are the states of Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. According to American Rivers, the river supports the country’s economy by supporting the 12.6 billion dollar shipping industry and providing more than 35,000 jobs in tourism, fishing, recreation, commerce, and food.

The river also provides drinking water to millions and supports more than 400 diverse wildlife species and about 25% of all fish species in the North American continent. Some fish species in the Mississippi are the blue catfish, the gulf sturgeon, the white bass, and the American eel.

The Mississippi River is also responsible for draining more than 40% of the country’s waters, making it the second largest drainage system, second to Hudson Bay.

Mississippi Delta
PILOTTOWN, LOUISIANA March 25 2017: Delta of Mississippi River in Louisiana seen from space ‚Äď contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data from ESA

©lavizzara/Shutterstock.com

5 Secrets about the Mississippi You May Not Know

The Mississippi River has been running its cycle for millions of years, and in that time, a number of its tales have become less popular. Here are 5 secrets about the Mississippi River you may not know:

Water Skiing was Invented on the Mississippi

In 1922, Ralph Wilford Samuelson from Lake City in Minnesota invented water skiing on Lake Pepin, a wide part of the river between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Samuelson’s first showcase of water skiing was before his 19th birthday, and he was later inducted into the Water Skiing Hall of Fame on January 22, 1977.

Humans Have Swum the Mississippi

Despite the incredible length of the Mississippi River, two humans on record have swum its entire length. The first man was Slovenian swimmer Martin Strel, who covered its entire length in 68 consecutive days in 2002. In 2015, Chris Ring attempted the long swim and was successful. According to CBS News, Ex-American Navy SEAL Chris Ring swam the Mississippi to honor the families of the families of fallen SEALs. He completed his swim in 181 days.

Martin Strel
Martin Strel was the first person documented to swim the entire length of the Mississippi RIver.

¬©Borutstrel / CC BY-SA 3.0 ‚Äď License

The Mississippi Has Flowed Backward Not Once But Four Times

The Mississippi has been known to complete its tri-monthly cycle from Itasca down to the Gulf of Mexico for many years, but this changed four times in 1812, 2005, 2012, and 2021. The anomaly was caused by a series of earthquakes between 1811 and 1812 and hurricanes in the years after. The earthquakes were named the New Madrid earthquakes, while the hurricanes were Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Isaac, and Hurricane Ida.     

The Mississippi Contains the Last Known Species of Paddlefish in the World

Up until the year 2020, the world had two remaining species of paddlefish; the American paddlefish, which lived in the Mississippi, and the Chinese paddlefish. However, that year, the Chinese species were declared extinct, leaving America’s second longest river home to the last paddlefish species.

American Paddlefish swimming in a stream
The American Paddlefish uses its distinct paddle to pick up electromagnetic frequencies in the water emitted by other creatures.

©Saran Jantraurai/Shutterstock.com

Jacques Marquette Was One of The First To Explore The Upper Mississippi River

Jacques Marquette, a French explorer, is largely considered the first person to explore the mouth of the Mississippi River. Alongside Louis Jolliet, the two explorers mapped the northern part of the Mississippi River Valley in 1673. However, the first man to reach the river did so in 1519. His name was Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, a Spanish explorer and cartographer who mapped the Gulf Coast.     

America’s 5 Longest Rivers

After the Mackenzie River, the next five longest rivers in North America are located in the United States. In order of increasing length, the 5 longest rivers in the United States are as follows:

  • Arkansas River: The Arkansas River is approximately 1,460 miles
  • Rio Grande: The Rio Grande is approximately 1,896 miles
  • Yukon River: The Yukon River is approximately 1,980 miles
  • Mississippi River: The Mississippi River is approximately 2,350 miles
  • Missouri River: The Missouri River is approximately 2,466 miles

¬†Of these rivers, only the Mississippi made the American River Association‚Äôs 2022 list of the ‚ÄúMost Endangered Rivers‚ÄĚ. However, this is still a huge problem, considering just how vital the river is to Americans. In order to preserve America‚Äôs natural rivers, it‚Äôs important to advocate for better river laws and volunteer at your local river preservation organization.

Animals Around the Mississippi River

Given its vast span across a diverse array of American landscapes, the Mississippi and its banks are home to some of the country’s most fascinating and precious wildlife. More than 120 species of fish can be found swimming within the waters of the Mississippi River, including the previously mentioned paddlefish, as well as lake sturgeons, American eels, catfish, carp, smallmouth bass, and long-nosed gar.

Above the water and offshore there is no shortage of gorgeous creatures to encounter such as otters, beavers, white-tailed deer, bullfrogs, treefrogs, salamanders, and mudpuppies. Mountain lions, coyotes, black bears, and many kinds of snakes are all animals around the Mississippi that should be avoided if encountered, as they can be incredibly dangerous if provoked, but they are still integral and irreplaceable parts of their ecosystem deserving of our respect and understanding.

What do beavers eat - beaver with twig
Beavers are a common sight on the Mississippi, especially farther north along the water.

©P Harstela/Shutterstock.com

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Mississippi River - New Orleans
© Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

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