Major Rivers That Flow North

Saint Johns River in Florida stretching into a blue sky.

Ebyabe / Wikipedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

A common misconception about rivers is that they all flow south. Perhaps some people think that all rivers flow toward the equator (in the Northern Hemisphere) or that rivers like to flow down toward the bottom of north-oriented maps. Whatever the source of this misunderstanding, the truth is that rivers (like all other objects on Earth) flow downhill due to gravity. No matter where a river is located, it will take the path of least resistance and flow downhill as rapidly as possible. Sometimes that path is south but it is just as likely to be north, east, west, or some other direction in between.

Rivers That Flow North

There are countless examples of rivers flowing northward. Some of the most famous are the world's longest river the Nile, along with Russia's Ob, Lena, and Yenisey Rivers. The Red River in the U.S. and Canada and Florida's St. Johns River also flow north.

In fact, rivers that flow north can be found all around the world:

  • Athabasca River, Canada, 765 miles
  • River Bann, Northern Ireland, 80 miles
  • Bighorn River, U.S., 185 miles
  • Cauca River, Colombia, 600 miles
  • Deschutes River, U.S., 252 miles
  • Essequibo River, Guyana, 630 miles
  • Fox River, U.S., 202 miles
  • Genesee River, U.S., 157 miles
  • Lena River, Russia, 2735 miles
  • Magdalena River, Colombia, 949 miles
  • Mojave River, U.S., 110 miles
  • Nile, Northeastern Africa, 4258 miles
  • Ob River, Russia, 2268 miles
  • Red River, U.S. and Canada, 318 miles
  • Richelieu River, Canada, 77 miles
  • St. Johns River, U.S., 310 miles
  • Willamette River, U.S., 187 miles
  • Yenisey River, Russia, 2136 miles

The Nile

Aerial view of Nile River near Aswan.
Image Source / Getty Images

The most famous river that flows north is also the longest river in the world: the Nile, which passes through 11 different countries in northeastern Africa. The river's principal tributaries are the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The former is the stretch of river that begins at Lake No in South Sudan, while the latter is the stretch of river that begins at Lake Tana in Ethiopia. These two tributaries meet in Sudan, near the capital city of Khartoum, and then flow north through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea.

Since ancient times, the Nile has provided sustenance and support to the people who live along its banks. Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, referred to Egypt as "a gift of the [Nile]," and there is no doubt that the great civilization would not have been able to prosper without it. The river not only provided fertile farmland but also facilitated trade and migration, allowing people to travel more easily through an otherwise harsh environment.

Lena River

Of Russia's mighty rivers — including the Ob, the Lena, and the Amur — the Lena is one of the longest, covering over 2,700 miles from the Baikal Mountains to the Arctic Sea. The river stretches through Siberia, a sparsely populated region known for its harsh climate. During the Soviet era, millions of people (including many political dissidents) were sent to prisons and labor camps in Siberia. Even before Soviet rule, the region was a place of exile. Some historians believe the revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, after being exiled to Siberia, took the name Lenin after the Lena River.

The river's floodplain is known for its snow forests and tundra, habitats that are home to numerous birds, including swans, geese, and sandpipers. Meanwhile, the freshwater of the river itself is home to species of fish, such as salmon and sturgeon.

St Johns River

The St. Johns River is the longest river in Florida, running up the eastern coast of the state from St. Johns Marsh to the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, the river drops only 30 feet in elevation, which is why it flows so slowly. The river feeds into Lake George, the second largest lake in Florida.

The earliest people to live along the river were likely the hunter-gatherers known as Paleo-Indians, who inhabited the Florida Peninsula over 10,000 years ago. Later, the area was home to native tribes, including the Timucua and the Seminole. French and Spanish settlers arrived in the 16th century. It was Spanish missionaries who later established a mission at the mouth of the river. The mission was named San Juan del Puerto (St. John of the Harbor), giving the river its name.


  • Awulachew, Seleshi Bekele (Editor). "The Nile River Basin: Water, Agriculture, Governance and Livelihoods." Earthscan Series on Major River Basins of the World, Vladimir Smahktin (Editor), David Molden (Editor), 1st Edition, Kindle Edition, Routledge, 5 March 2013.
  • Bolshiyanov, D. "Lena River delta formation during the Holocene." A. Makarov, L. Savelieva, Biogeosciences, 2015,
  • Herodotus. "An Account of Egypt." G. C. Macaulay (Translator), Project Gutenberg, 25 February 2006,
  • "The St. Johns River." St. Johns River Water Management District, 2020,
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Rosenberg, Matt. "Major Rivers That Flow North." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Rosenberg, Matt. (2020, August 28). Major Rivers That Flow North. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "Major Rivers That Flow North." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).