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Three Forks: Headwaters of the Missouri

Montana has always been a place that has an uncommon ability to evoke romantic mental imagery. Its beautiful mountains, endless skies, and plentiful rivers have inspired countless scholars, politicians, artists, and outdoorsmen throughout the ages. At home, here on the Headwaters Ranch, we consider ourselves lucky to be able to look out our window every morning at its namesake, the Headwaters of the Missouri River, near Three Forks, Montana.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” – Norman Maclean

…And a river runs through it.

The Headwaters paint a particularly captivating landscape. Rugged limestone ridges and outcrops accent the cactus-covered hills of the Clarkston Valley as the young Missouri meanders north towards Great Falls. Lush cottonwood trees and willows line the wide river bottoms, providing ideal habitats for countless wildlife, birds, and supreme fishing holes. Off in the distance, the snow-capped peaks of the Tobacco Root Mountains, the Bridgers, and the Gallatin Range rear up suddenly from the golden plains.

It’s hard not to be biased, but we think it’s a pretty special place to call home. Luckily, you don’t have to just take our word for it –– the Headwaters of the Missouri River have always been an important crossroads of the American West.

Geographically speaking, the confluence of the Missouri is one of the most significant in North America. The Gallatin, Jefferson, and Madison Rivers collide to create the longest river system in the United States, eventually emptying into the mighty Mississippi River on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The river system of the Mighty Mo is the heartbeat of America even to this day. Its half a million acres of drainage provides water to a large majority of Midwestern agriculture, supplying millions of Americans with food.

A convergence of cultures.

three forks montana, headwaters of the missouri

Because of its unique geography, the Headwaters of the Missouri has long been an important part of the human history of the area. The “Big Muddy” has been the lifeblood of the Great Plains and the West ever since the first inhabitants arrived in North America, providing efficient transportation, ample food, and lucrative trade routes to the first peoples. Vast herds of bison, deer, and elk once roamed the fertile plains surrounding the headwaters, bringing countless indigenous tribes together to hunt and trade for millennia. Several notable state parks in the vicinity such as the Madison Buffalo Jump and Missouri Headwaters State Park preserve important petroglyphs, teepee rings, and remnants of a long and rich cultural past.

The Headwaters area also served as a liquid highway for the early European and American explorers of the American West. Famously, Lewis and Clark traveled through the area in 1805 on their quest to discover the Northwest Passage and named the Jefferson, Gallatin, and Madison rivers in honor the President, Secretary of Treasury, and Secretary of State of the United States government, respectively. After traveling up the Missouri River for thousands of miles, reaching the end of the mighty river and deciding which of the three branches to follow was a notable landmark for the Corps of Discovery.

A picture-perfect metaphor.

Since we first laid eyes on it, we knew that the Missouri Headwaters was a special place. From the Ranch, guests can spy the majestic river snaking across the plains as it begins its two-and-a-half thousand mile journey across the heart of America. To us, the Headwaters perfectly captures the symbolism of marriage — lovers joining together to become one single, unstoppable force on a never-ending journey.