Rivers that flow north (html)


Note: this is the same text and (insofar as it was compatible) HTML formatting as the GeoCities website Rivers that Flow North. GeoCities is going out of the webhosting business in July, 2009, so I am migrating this page and the "Words that End in Gry" page to Google Sites, at least temporarily until I find another home for them. The background and illustrations don't seem to have made the migration, at least not yet.
-- Lois Fundis
June 16, 2009

This is an adaptation for the Web of a post I made to the Stumpers List in July, 1997, which was itself an adaptation of a list I compiled for our library a few years before that.  It's LONG: the printout will be 10 pages, give or take a page or two (it depends on the settings on your particular computer).

CAVEAT:   I have not mentioned every north-flowing river in the world, and I acknowledge that the list has a definite bias, radiating out from the Western Pennsylvania/West Virginia area where I'm from to the United States as a whole and then to North America generally.  Since the list is already so long, I really do not care to add any more rivers unless by some chance I've missed a really important one. (Do e-mail me at lfundis@weir.net , though, if you think there's one that is important enough to be added.) Nonetheless, there are a good many rivers listed here from every continent, except Antarctica, as explained later.

Niagara Falls -- flowing up?

 by Lois Aleta Fundis
 Reference Librarian, Mary H. Weir Public Library
last revised July 28, 2008; moved to Google Sites June 16, 2009

"To many Americans . . . , north is the wrong way for a river to flow,  which leads to geographic confusion."
-- Angus Phillips, "Simple Gifts of the Shenandoah", National Geographic, December 1996

From time to time, the library gets questions about rivers that flow north. There are many more of these than you might think.

The whole idea of rivers flowing north seems backwards to many people. Most maps have north at the top, so that rivers which flow toward that direction seem to be flowing upward, against nature. And even in an era where traveling by river is uncommon we speak of "downriver" and "upriver", and we know that "upriver" (or "up the creek") means against the current, while downriver, with the current, is much easier going.  So for "upriver" to be south of somewhere on a river that's flowing north really seems illogical, if you have the "north on top"  map in mind. Still, consider this: the Niagara River flows north, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.  Is the water at Niagara Falls going "up"?

Also keep in mind that north-on-top maps are purely a convention, albeit one practiced since at least the Middle Ages; there can be and occasionally are maps that put other points of the compass at the top. On a map with south at the top, for example, the Nile and the Monongahela would seem to flow "down" in a manner that would seem normal, and the Mississippi would flow "up".

The Earth is spherical, and so no direction is really more "up" or "down" than any other, no matter where you are on the planet.  And water (from which rivers are made, of course) cannot flow "up".  Water flows in only one direction: down.  The important thing to remember is that to a river, or more precisely to the drops of water that make up the river, "down" has nothing to do with compass points -- with latitude or longitude -- only with altitude. Water flows from higher altitudes to lower ones, and the river's channel has to be steep enough to overcome not only gravity and inertia, but also friction between water currents.  Otherwise, you get a lake.

 "Down" can therefore be in any compass direction, and most rivers wind around in all of them to one degree or another in what are called "meanders"  --  the very word comes from a river, the Maiandros (now Menderes) in Asia Minor, now the nation of Turkey, that was notorious to the ancient Greeks for winding around.  And most rivers flow neither north nor south, but east or west, or southeast or southwest, or northeast or northwest, and few of them flow in a straight course for long; they all meander to some extent.  As far as the water is concerned, though, all rivers flow in only one direction: down.

Here is the most meandering river I could find a picture of. It's the Sebaskachu River in central Labrador; the photo is from the Terrain Sciences Division of Natural Resources Canada. (There's an even better picture of the meanders at http://www.geosurv.gov.nf.ca/images/minjpg/73_2.jpg!)  Unfortunately for the purposes of this list, the Sebaskachu's main direction is east and a bit south, not north!

Probably some of these loops are flowing north, though. The atlases I have access to aren't detailed enough to show the meanders.  But some rivers loop around and meander in larger loops that do show on maps.  For a good example of a large, famous river that loops around in all sorts of directions, look closely at a map of the Ohio River, which flows mainly west-southwest for 981 miles from Pittsburgh until it meets the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. But during that route, you can see it head north-northwest from Pittsburgh to East Liverpool, and loop north again a few times -- near Marietta, Ohio, a bit farther down near Point Pleasant, W.Va., and still further along between Huntington, W.Va. and Portsmouth, Ohio. In fact it continues roughly northwest to Cincinnati, and doesn't take a more southerly direction again until the Indiana border; there are more such loops between Kentucky and Indiana, too.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center has a site, "Is it true that there are few rivers that flow north toward the sea?", which is one of the few other sites I have found that discuss this question. In addition to the points I've already mentioned, NASA notes that

                                                                  Surprisingly, four of the world's ten longest rivers flow generally in
                                                            a northern direction. The Nile in Africa, the Ob-Irtysh and the Lena
                                                            in Eurasia and the Mackenzie-Peace in North America. An argument
                                                            can be made that there could be more north-flowing rivers than there
                                                            are rivers flowing in other directions. Since the center of the continent
                                                            of Antarctica is positioned near the South Pole, and the ice here is
                                                            almost two miles thick, if it began to melt, the meltwater would have
                                                            to move to the north to reach the sea. There's no land at the North
                                                            Pole (except for that little island where Santa lives), and so the balance
                                                            would favor north-flowing rivers.


In July, 1993, a Pittsburgh-based supermarket chain which operates a store in Weirton ran a contest featuring questions on American history and geography, so that its customers would learn more about our country.  This is a laudable goal.  However, one question read as follows:

 "There are three rivers in the United States that flow north, one is the St. John's River (FL), another is the Willamette River (OR), what is the third?"
(Some readers of this page have noted that Floridians spell the name of the St. Johns River without an apostrophe. However, the original question was spelled with one, and so I am letting that usage stand here.)

Overlooking the run-on sentence, the fact remains that there are many more than three rivers that flow north, even if you limit it to rivers in the United States. Searching through maps, books on rivers, and the "Geographic Names" list in Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary  led to a fairly lengthy list.  (In fact this question somewhat resembles the riddle about the third word that ends in -gry.)  Thus the problem became, since there are quite a few more than three such rivers, which was the "correct" answer?

And the answer is . . .  the Monongahela River.

            We determined this in three ways:

  • The "Mon" (as most folks in our area call it) is the "local favorite", the best nearby example of a north-flowing river. The Mon flows from West Virginia through Morgantown,  crosses the Mason-Dixon line and continues northward to Pittsburgh, where it joins the Allegheny to become the Ohio River. Since the contest was from a Pittsburgh-based company, it seemed likely that this was the one they meant.
  • The Mon, winding as it is, flows more directly straight north than even the two mentioned in the question.
  • Last but not least, we called the headquarters of the supermarket chain and asked them which one they were looking for!

Downtown Pittsburgh as seen from Mount Washington after a flood.
The Monongahela is in front, coming in from the right side; the Allegheny is coming in from the top center;
Three Rivers Stadium is at center left.
The muddy floodwater of the Mon shows how the two rivers meet at the Point to form the Ohio.

In the meantime, we had discovered quite a few

(Note that this list does not include streams named "Creek", "Run", etc., only those named "River".   There are quite a few more creeks, runs, and so on flowing north, too. Since local opinions differ and what might be only a "creek" in one part of the country could be considered a "river" in others, this very terminology does not help create a complete list. However, it's somewhat built into the original question, so I decided to continue using it as a limiting factor.)

  •  WILLAMETTE -- pronounced "wi LAM et", it flows inttto the Columbia River.  It is not nearly as straight as the Monongahela (not that the Mon is all that straight).
  •  ST. JOHNS (FL) -- Webster's describes its flow as "N & NE"; in fact, near its mouth its flow is more directly east than north.
  •  NEW RIVER -- north and northwest from North Carolina through Virginia and southern West Virginia, where it meets with the Gauley to form the Kanawha.  (Geologists say the New is, ironically, one of the oldest rivers in North America, and that before the Ice Age it used to flow south.)  Several tributaries of the Tennessee also begin nearby, but flow in a westerly direction, although they eventually end up together in the Ohio River. This is not to be confused with another, shorter New River in North Carolina, which flows into the Atlantic near Camp Lejeune.
New River Gorge, West Virginia
  • YOUGHIOGHENY -- and you thought "Monongahela" was haaard to spell!  The "Yough" (pronounced "yok" or "yok oh GAY nee") flows north and northwest from the border of West Virginia and Maryland to McKeesport, Pa., where it flows into the Mon only a few miles from where I grew up.
  • CHEAT -- flows north from the middle of West VVirginia to Point Marion, Pa., just below (i.e. north of) Morgantown, W. Va., where it flows into the Mon. There are no dams on the Cheat -- it's free-flowing, is full of rapids and thus is a favorite with whitewater rafting enthusiasts.
  • SHENANDOAH -- famous in song and story, it flows north by northeast through central Virginia north through West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle and meets the Potomac at Harpers Ferry.  The quote at the beginning of this page comes from a National Geographic article on this scenic and very historic north-flowing river.
  • YELLOWSTONE -- flows north and northeast from the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming and Montana into the Missouri River. Don't feed the bears! (The Missouri itself flows north during part of its path through Montana, starting at Helena.)
  • TENNESSEE -- the largest tributary of the Ohio, it starts out with a very winding course through Alabama and (where else?) Tennessee, mostly west, but takes a turn due north for the last part of its flow through western Tennessee and Kentucky to the Ohio. Home of the historic Tennessee Valley Authority, which has been bringing electricity to many rural areas since the Depression.

More North-flowing Rivers, in Alphabetical Order:

     Big Horn (WY and MT), near which General Custer met his doom
     Big Sandy (KY and WV)
     Carson (NV)
     Cuyahoga (OH) -- starts flowing SW but makes a U-turn to flow north into Lake Erie at Cleveland; its source is farther north than its mouth!
     Deschutes (OR) -- just west of and straighter than the Willamette
     Gallatin (WY)
     Genessee (PA and NY) -- Its headwaters in northcentral Pennsylvania are just a few miles from those of the Allegheny, northeast of Coudersport, Pa.   Pine Creek, a major tributary of the Susquehanna River, also starts nearby. (One of my sisters lives in that area, which is how I knew about this.) The Genessee flows north to Lake Ontario; the Allegheny soon detours north briefly into New York State, then flows primarily south and southwest to Pittsburgh, where it merges with the Monongahela to form the Ohio; but Pine Creek flows south and southeast toward Chesapeake Bay.
     John Day (OR)
     Jordan (UT) -- flows N from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake (its namesake in the Holy Land, however, flows south)
     Licking (KY)
     Madison (WY)
     Medicine Bow (WY)
     Onionagon (WI)
     Oswego (NY)
     Owyhee (ID and OR) -- winds around a lot but the general direction is more N than anything else; named for 3 Hawaiians who wanted to see more of the world only to be killed by Indians while part of an expedition to explore the Snake River in 1819.
     Powder (WY and MT) -- begins flowing E but then goes N or NNE to the Yellowstone.
     Sandusky (OH)
     Smoky Hill (KS)
     Snake (ID, OR and WA)
     Vermilion (OH)
     Wallkill (NJ/NY). This flows north from the Kittatinny Valley in northern New Jersey, crosses the state line and flows into a stream called Rondout Creek, near Rosendale, New York, which then continues the northern direction to meet the Hudson River near Kingston, about 90 miles north of New York City. It is considered unusual for a "river" to flow into a "creek" -- and indeed such a thing is probably much rarer than the flowing-north aspect -- but distinctions between "river" and "creek" as a choice of nomenclature for streams by the early settlers of areas are beyond the control of this web page! And, oddly, "Kill" is an old Dutch word for "creek", according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. See the paragraph above about "creeks," "runs," etc. The Wallkill is one river that wasn't on my original list, but has been suggested by e-mail by quite a few people from that area, so I've finally added it!)
     Walker (NV)
     White River of South Dakota
     Withlacoochee River (FL)

 Hawaii has several north-flowing rivers. Two of the most northerly flowing ones are the Hanalei and the Wailua, both on the north shore of Kauai.

Other rivers that flow northerly but not necessarily due north
  (this is a judgment call in some cases, I'll admit):
     Maumee (IN, OH)
     Cheyenne (SD)
     Clark Fork (MT and ID)
     Fox (WI) -- flows into Lake Michigan at Green Bay
     Guyandotte (WV)
     Kanawha (WV)
     Kentucky (guess)
     San Joaquin (CA)
     St. Marys (FL/GA border)
     Lamar (MT)
     Salinas (CA)
     Saranac (NY)

Rivers partly in Canada that flow north:
     Niagara (New York State and Ontario), including, of course, Niagara Falls
     Pend Oreille. This river -- which according to the Columbia Gazetteer of North America is sometimes spelled "Pend d'Oreille" and is sometimes considered part of the Clark Fork River (though the Clark Fork seems to be the stream before it enters the Pend Oreille Lake) -- begins at northwest corner of the Pend Oreille Lake in Idaho, flows west into Washington state, then north into British Columbia, and west again just north of the U.S.-Canadian border, to meet the Columbia River. This has little or no effect on the Columbia's path, which continues south into the United States to eventually become the Washington-Oregon state line, finally flowing west to the Pacific Ocean. Like the Wallkill, the Pend Oreille is one river that was not on my original list, but has been suggested by e-mail by so many readers that I've added it.)
     Red River of the North (Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba)
     Yukon (British Columbia, Yukon Territory, Alaska)
     St. Lawrence (New York State, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick) -- mostly flows northeast connecting the Great Lakes to the ocean

In northern Vermont there are so many rivers that flow into Canada and the St. Lawrence that Howard Frank Mosher called a novel about that region Where the Rivers Flow North.  It was later made into a movie starring Michael J. Fox.

Puerto Rico has at least one north-flowing river interesting enough to add to the list -- the Arecibo River,  known in Spanish as the Río Grande de Arecibo, flows for about 40 miles in western Puerto Rico from the Cordillera Centra northl to the Atlantic Ocean; it's mouth is just east of the town of Arecibo. South of the town is the great Arecibo radiotelescope.

At least two northerly-flowing rivers begin in Mexico and end in the United States. The San Pedro begins near Cananea, in the state of Sonora, and flows north and slightly west to the Gila River in Arizona.  The Santa Cruz also begins near the border, loops south into Sonora for a little, and flows north and northwest through Tucson and into the Gila near Phoenix. These two, like other rivers in desert areas around the world, appear dry much of the time, but fill with water when it rains (and it does rain sometimes, even in deserts), and they can even flood after heavy rainfall.  "However, water always flows beneath their sandy beds," according to the World Book Encyclopedia article on Arizona.

Burg Gutenfels (now a hotel), on the Rhine near Kaub, Germany.


Every continent has north-flowing rivers except Antarctica, and it would except for the ice-cap which covers the entire continent. You might want to stretch the point and consider the glaciers as rivers of ice, which flow north, away from the center of the continent at the South Pole, toward the oceans.

The oceans themselves contain currents, and the North Atlantic Drift, part of the Gulf Stream, flows north-northeast from the Caribbean to the coast of  western Europe, bringing enough warm air and water along the way that there are places on the coasts of Ireland and Scotland where palm trees can grow!

In fact, if you look hard enough, it might even be true that most countries have north-flowing rivers. Certainly many do.  It would be nearly impossible to list every north-flowing river in the world, but here are some from each continent.

North America (outside U.S.):

     In Canada, in addition to the rivers listed above that are partly in the United States, there are many more north-flowing rivers that flow into lakes, Hudson Bay, the Atlantic or Arctic Oceans, etc.
    The most famous is probably the Mackenzie River, which flows north-by-northwest from the Great Slave Lake through the Northwest Territories to the Beaufort Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean (so it may be more accurate to say that the Mackenzie flows north in summer). This lake, one of the largest in Canada, shares its name with the Slave River, which flows north from Lake Athabasca to the Great Slave Lake; the native people of that area were called the Slavey Indians.  The Great Slave Lake also has other north-flowing tributaries, including the Hay River and the Terhul River.
     Athabasca is a Cree Indian word for "where there are reeds".  This names both the lake and a river, the Athabasca River, which begins in Jasper National Park, near the border of British Columbia and Alberta, and flows north by northeast through Alberta to Lake Athabaska.  The Mackenzie-Slave-Athabasca system  is therefore actually a chain of north-flowing rivers and lakes running over a thousand miles through the Canadian Rockies north to the Arctic.

 Mexico also has more north-flowing rivers than those it shares with the United States, though a few flow into bodies of water shared with the U.S., such as the Rio Conchos, which flows into the Rio Grande.  In southern Mexico there are other rivers that flow north into the Bay of Campeche (part of the Caribbean Sea), such as the Crijalva. In fact, some of Mexico's southern border is made of north-flowing rivers: the Usumacinta,whose mouth is near that of the Crijalva, forms part of the border with Guatemala;  and the Hondo, which flows into the Gulf of Honduras, forms part of the border with Belize.  In addition, some of these rivers also have north-flowing tributaries; for example, the Lacantum is a tributary of the Usumacinta.

In South America, there are many rivers that flow into the Amazon from the south, such as the Beni, Jurua, Tapajos, Xingu, and Tocantins, to name only a few.  There are also north-flowing rivers in the northern part of South America that flow into the Caribbean and Atlantic.
    The Orinoco River in Venezuela flows in a clockwise arc, starting out northwest, then north, then  east-northeast. And some of its tributaries, such as the Cuchivero, Caura, and Paragua flow north. Other north-flowing rivers in that area are the Unare and Cuyuni, the Magdalena in Colombia, the Berbice and Essequibo rivers  in Guyana, the Corantyne or Corantin on the border between Guyana and Suriname, the Mana in French Guyana.

As in Canada, many of the north-flowing rivers in Siberia (the part of Russia in Asia) flow into the Arctic Ocean. The Ob, Yenisey, Lena and Kolyma flow into the Arctic (again, one ought to add "in summer" since in winter they freeze over), but there are others including the Nadym, Yana, Indigirka, Omolon, Vitim, and Irtysh. Like many of the rivers mentioned for North America, some of these rivers wind around quite a bit;  the Lena, for one, starts out flowing north, then northeast, then north again. In the European part of Russia there are north-flowing rivers too, including the Pechora and Severnaja.
     Other parts of Asia also have north-flowing rivers. The Amu Darya flows into the Aral Sea (or what's left of it) from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. And the Sakarva and Kizilirmak flow through Asia Minor (Turkey) to the Black Sea.
    And the Ganges in India has several north-flowing tributaries; some, such as the Chambal and Betwa, flow north into the Yamuna (also spelled Jumna) which flows east-northeast and meets the Ganges at Varanasi, a holy city in the Hindu religion.

In Europe, there's the Rhine, which flows north from Switzerland between France and Germany past the part of the world the Fundis family originally came from, though it veers northwest toward the Netherlands shortly past there.  On the other side of Germany is the Elbe, which flows into the Baltic Sea, and with its tributary the Neisse has formed Germany's border with Poland since the end of World War II.  Other north-flowing rivers in Germany include the Ems, Uecker, Spree, Necker, Weser, and Warnow; there are many more. Other north-flowing rivers in Poland include the Vistula and the Warta.

Not to be outdone, Africa has the longest and most famous of all, the Nile -- not merely the most famous or longest north-flowing river, but the longest and very possibly the most famous and most historic river in any direction, anywhere on Earth. The Encyclopædia Britannica calls it "the father of African rivers".  The Nile's origins, once mysterious, begin south of the Equator: it starts from Lake Victoria and then flows north from Tanzania for over 4,000 miles (35 degrees of latitude, nearly a fifth of the entire distance from the North to South Poles!) through Uganda, the Sudan and of course Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea.  Southern parts of the Nile have different names -- the Victoria Nile, the Albert Nile, the Mountain Nile, the White Nile -- but are all the same river, and all flow primarily north.  Several of the Nile's tributaries also flow north, including the Barat al Azraq (also called the Blue Nile), the Bahr al Jaraf (or Giraffe River), and the Atbarah River.  And like all rivers, the Nile meanders; in the Sudan it takes some S curves and for a couple of hundred miles flows primarily southwest until it turns northward again.  The Nile is typical of many rivers in other ways, too, in that it has cataracts (waterfalls), and has been dammed (the Aswan High Dam, forming Lake Nasser in southern Egypt) to prevent flooding.  Ironically, in ancient times it was the Nile's annual flooding that, by providing water in what was otherwise a desert, enabled farming along its banks, and thus the growth of the ancient Egyptian civilization.  See a  map of the Nile at http://www.nilebasin.org/nilemap.htm.

The Nile Delta is "the prototype of all deltas" and contains the most fertile soil in Africa, says the Encyclopædia Britannica.

Here in the U.S., when we think of a river delta we think of the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana, but the mouth of the Nile was the first to be called a "delta", as long ago as the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th Century B.C., over a hundred years before the city of Alexandria was built there and became the seat of the Ptolemaic Dynasty,  the family of Greco-Egyptian rulers most famous for their last queen, Cleopatra, and for founding the ancient world's largest library. 

The name "delta" comes from D,  the Greek triangle-shaped letter named  "delta" (from the Phoenician  daleth or "door", the origin of our letter D) and refers to the area of land built up by sediment or silt deposited by the river near the river's mouth. Many large rivers have deltas, and most deltas are triangular ("deltoid") in shape. (The deltoid muscles in the human body are also so named because they are triangular.)

There are other north-flowing rivers in Africa too, of course, including several tributaries of the Congo.

Australia has many north-flowing rivers on its northern shore.  Some of these are dotted lines on atlases, which means they have flowing water only in the rainy season.  A few that are solid-blue lines, and thus wet all year around, are the Drysdale, Victoria, Fitzroy, King Edward, Durack, Daly and Ord.  The island of Tasmania also has north-flowing rivers, the Massey, Macquarie and Tamar.

That's all I'm going to list for now. There are also north-flowing rivers in Japan,  Madagascar, Sarawak ... why not get out an atlas and find a few yourself?


"Geographic Names",  [Merriam]-Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary,  pages 1433-1518.

Kolenkow, Robert J. et al.  Physical Geography Today: A Portrait of a Planet (Del Mar, Calif.;  CRM Books, 1994), especially chapter 12, "Flowing Water and Its Work." (Most of the information on what  makes rivers flow at all is from this.)

Phillips, Angus. "Simple Gifts of the Shenandoah." Photographs by Vincent J. Musi. National  Geographic, December 1996 (vol. 190, no. 6), pp. 38-57 (especially p. 46, which includes the quote above).

Rolling Rivers: An Encyclopedia of America's Rivers, Richard A. Bartlett, ed. (New York, McGraw-Hill, c1984)

Stumpers List archives, mostly from March, 1997 -- special  thanks to T.F. Mills, Ron Schaeffer, Carolyn Caywood, Kate Cummings, David Ibbetson, and  particularly Patricia Beuerlein, who contributed a list as long as the one I already had but  mostly of non-U.S. rivers.  In March, 1997, Elaine Powell Hooker, Reference Librarian at the Spartanburg County Public Library in Spartanburg, SC, was asked a "rivers that flow north"  question  and on March 12 posted the question to the Stumpers List.  Stumpers is an e-mail list primarily for reference librarians.  In the course of the list discussion, I posted an earlier version of this list and other librarians mentioned others. Therefore, some of the rivers mentioned above,  especially those from outside the U.S., were suggested by these other members of the list or were found in atlases while looking up rivers mentioned by them
    Thanks to Andy Behrens for reminding me of the novel Where the Rivers Flow North.
    Additional thanks to Ted Nesbitt for helping me locate the Sebaskachu in the atlases and determining its direction (I was hoping it flows north, but no such luck) and to Phalbe Henriksen for pointing out that the St. Johns River does not have an apostrophe -- although since I believe the original contest question spelled it with the apostrophe, I let it stand in that quotation.

Thanks to Jennifer Monroe for bringing to my attention the Withlacoochee River of central Florida.

Thanks to Ronald Beall who mentioned the north-flowing section of the Missouri.

Other sources consulted, especially to verify facts about individual rivers:

NOTE:  I have only included links to sites that are free of charge.  Some reference materials not linked to also are available online, but for a fee.

In conclusion:

"Like a river that don't know where it's flowin'
I took a wrong turn and I just kept goin'."
   -- Bruce Springsteen, "Hungry Heart", The River (1980)