By Dean Lang — The Katy trail is a 237 mile bike/ped trail in Missouri. On the east side, the trail starts in a place called Machens, MO which is located a few miles from the Illinois border, about 20 miles northwest of St. Louis. The west end of the trail finishes in a parking lot near the town of Clinton, MO that is about 75 miles northeast of Kansas City. The Katy passes through, or near, about 30 delightful small communities and a few larger ones, mostly following the Missouri River. Our group started near my cousin’s home at Black Walnut, just a few miles from Machens.
For years I had heard about the Katy Trail from friends in the cycling community and extended family. Even though I have no memories of living there, I was born in St. Charles, Missouri, pretty close to where the east side of the Katy starts and where the majority of my family still reside. I decided it was time to ride the Katy, so my wife Janet and I were joined by our good friends Eve & Don Hales on our travel trailer supported adventure.
Before cycling the Katy, we decided to combine other cycling and personal interests, including visiting our Alma mater, Western Illinois University. We camped in nearby Nauvoo, Ill. at a state park, and enjoyed cycling along the banks of the Mississippi. After Nauvoo, Eve and Don attended Eve’s high school class reunion activities in Springfield, Ill., and Janet and I cycled the back roads as we camped at yet another Illinois State Park. We also wanted to visit Hannibal, Missouri and then cycle down the Great Mississippi River trail. So it was a very well blended bike trip. We also cycled many of Missouri’s back roads on our way to the Katy trailhead. Quite memorable was a ride along the Great Mississippi River road from Louisiana, Missouri to the trailhead at Black Walnut. Now it was time to finally grind our tires in the gravel of the Katy.
Katy Trail History:
The official name for the Katy Trail is the MKT trail. “MKT” is derived from the rail system that served Missouri, Kansas, and Texas. However, the stock market symbol was simply KT, hence the KATY moniker which remains to this day. The MKT was established in 1870 and was the first railroad to enter Texas from the north, and interestingly, the town of Katy, TX, near the end of the line, takes its name from this old railroad system.
Like so many railroads, the MKT came upon hard times and was merged into any number of other railroads, ultimately ending up owned by the Union Pacific. Of possible interest to Utahans; in 1984 some of MKT’s last functioning engines were used locomotives that were purchased from our very own Kennecott Copper Corporation. Certain legs of the old MKT are still in use, but the complete Missouri portion has been converted into the Katy Trail State Park, primarily a rails-to-trails hiking and cycling path.
Researching the historical weather conditions, I decided that the month of October would probably be the best time of the year for the experience. The temperatures are quite favorable then, and the fall colors generally peak in October. Additionally, October is one of the dryer months. If you’ve ever spent time in the Midwest, you know all about rain (and mosquitoes)! If you have a choice, usually the wind comes out of the west, so a west to east crossing might be a bit easier. For us, the wind presented no problems.
Timing is everything:
I haven’t explained that Don and I were sharing trailer pulling duties, and because it was my time to drive, I really got lucky that first day out. Janet, Eve, and Don headed out on the trail from Black Walnut to a slightly overcast sky while I saw to some chores with the RV and made a food run, etc. As I finally headed for Augusta, our first planned overnight stop, the sky opened up and I just knew my three compadres were getting soaked. When I finally arrived in Augusta, I found 3 very wet and cold individuals with muddy “skunk tails” up their backs. They cleaned up, dinner was prepared, and everyone crashed. Tomorrow would be my turn to ride. Fortunately, none of us rode in the rain again on the trip.
Lodging and food:
Most days Don or I would drive our RV ahead about half the distance to our planned stop for the night. We would wait for the 2 or 3 others, then have lunch, switch drivers and bicycle on from there. Sometimes we would double back. In general, there was very little that each of us did not experience riding the trail, and most days we covered about 50-60 miles. There seemed to be limited lodging, most of the towns were too small to support lodging facilities, and those that did seemed to usually book well in advance. Having our RV was, for us, a great way to experience the trail. Having a tent would also work out fine, but don’t expect to find lodging at the last minute. Even though it was a gray area, we “camped” in the trailhead parking lots most nights, and were usually the only ones there. Being this late in the year, there was no problem with that. We asked locals if it was a problem, and without exception they said, “no problem.” They seemed happy to have us.
One place where we utilized commercial lodging was in Hermann, MO. Don and Eve secured a room and Janet and I stayed in a Hermann City RV park. It was pretty rainy and cool the two days we were there, so it worked out well. I can highly recommend spending some time in this historical little “German” town. It offered good food, a beautiful winery, and local entertainment including a great historical museum. It looked just like so many of the German towns I have visited, and a lot less expensive.
To be clear, if you plan on jumping on the Katy Trail and wish to secure a hotel, motel or B&B on the fly, without reservations, you may have a problem. If you use a tent or RV then you should be okay. While we didn’t see many dedicated RV – camping facilities, there were sufficient spots to park or tent overnight. I like to go and do things as the spirit moves me. Forcing me to be at a certain place at a certain time (so I will have lodging) isn’t my idea of maximizing the experience.
While securing lodging can be difficult on the Katy, finding great food is no problem at all. We found plentiful friendly bars and restaurants along the trail, even where no towns existed. In terms of locating food, there should be no need to pack more than a few snacks. The larger towns and many of the smaller ones also had grocery stores, pastry shops or convenience stores.
Frankly, I was blown away by the quality of the trail. Yes, it is not hard pavement, but is very well maintained, packed crushed limestone. The shoulders and adjoining vegetation are also well maintained. The frequent trail heads are full of local information, trail maps, and are very clean. The abundant farms and hamlets along the way are quite picturesque. Most of the trail heads are spaced at about 10 mile intervals, some with water, some without.
A frequent question about the trail is “what width tires should one use, and will a road bike be okay for the trial?” Janet and I rode “32’s” and I thought that was about perfect. 28’s or even 25’s would probably work, but narrower than that might be a problem, or at least take some enjoyment from the experience. After all, you want to see the scenery, not have to be searching for every little rut in the trail to keep yourself upright. Don and Eve rode mountain bikes, and of course, had no problems at all. I rode my Long Haul Trucker (touring bike), and Janet rode her hybrid. If you can outfit your road bike with larger than 25’s, I would do that. There are no hills to speak of.
The Katy Experience:
A huge majority of the trail is tree lined. In some cases the trees form a “tunnel.” The sun is often hidden behind the trees, and they help keep the wind at bay, providing an aura of silence and serenity. Several miles of the trail follow the Missouri River and there are numerous historical markers providing details of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, or some Daniel Boone history, etc. There are many small rivers and streams where the old railroad bridges have been converted for trail use. In some of the more appropriate locations, benches have been provided. If you are into bird watching, you should also enjoy the Katy Trail experience. I’m not an avid bird watcher, but I surely did enjoy the songs and spectacular visions of hawks and eagles in flight.
In general the trail was uncrowded. We often would ride all day and only see a handful of other riders. On weekends and near larger cities there were generally more people on the trail; families with children, walking or cycling, day hikers and weekend riders, but usually, only a few miles out it was unusual to see many other people. On occasion we saw day hikers, but no back packers. Near the town of Tebbets we ran across a group of perhaps 100, mostly young people, walking, carrying banners and playing bag pipes, participating in a religious pilgrimage. Some days later we also encountered a group of mule riders. We stopped to visit and chat and enjoyed scratching behind the ears of their large pets. I suspect in previous months we may have met some touring cyclists, participating in the Adventure Cycling Louis and Clark trail which ends in Seaside, OR. It was apparently too late in the season for that, at least any headed in our direction.
As you advance along the trail you can understand why Missouri is considered the gateway to the west. Nearing the Kansas border, the geography and the trail change dramatically. The trees disappear and the land flattens out. There is no doubt that you have arrived onto the turf of the great planes. For us, it was a fitting place to end our adventure and head on back to our homes in the mountains. It was a wonderful experience, I’d suggest you give it a try. Next tour, the Natchez Trace.
For more information go to bikekatytrail.com