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Katy Trail Trailhead in St. Charles, Mo.

It was one hot weekend, but that didn’t stop the Green Machine (that’s my bike) from hitting the trail for a serious cycling adventure! My husband and I left Quincy in the predawn hours of Saturday morning and headed south to catch the Katy Trail in St. Charles, Mo.

The Katy Trail is a Missouri Rails-to-Trails project. The Rails-to-Trails program converts defunct railroad right-of-ways into multi-purpose recreational trails for public use. In this case, more than 240 miles of the former Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT, or Katy for short) Railroad line have been redeveloped with wide hard-packed limestone trails that are primarily used for cyclists, hikers and runners. The current trail runs from Machens, Mo., (North of St. Charles) and follows the Missouri River west across the state through towns like Augusta, Herman, Jefferson City,  and Columbia, and ends in Clinton, Mo. This trail is already the longest Rails-to-Trails project in the nation, but plans are in progress to extend the trail through to Kansas City and beyond.

We picked up the trail at the St. Charles riverfront early in the morning on Saturday. The St. Charles trailhead to Katy is very endearing. The city has refurbished its train station and even has an old engine and caboose sitting near the start of the trail. I couldn’t help but make choo-choo noises as we set off toward Augusta.

It was hot, but not yet unbearable, and as we left the St. Charles Station, there were many bikers, hikers and runners using the trail. It wasn’t more than a few miles down the road that the crowds thinned out and we had left the city behind. The country roads are charming. In places, the trail would be bordered on either side by tall wildflowers and wooden fences. There were more birds than I can even recall, but the ones that stood out the most were the Indigo Buntings. The dazzling turquoise birds against the sunny black-eyed susans were as pretty as a picture.

The biking itself started out very easy.  After all, trains can’t run up very steep grade, so the Katy Trail is virtually flat. The 240 miles of flat trail seems like a cyclist’s dream, until you realize what flat trail really means. You may not ever be going up a hill, but you are also never going down one. Our speed was almost constant at 13 mph, and we were always pedaling. It was more exhausting than I expected! The surface adds some resistance as well. Though the limestone “pug” is hard-packed, it’s still gravel, and the feeling for my tires was a bit like riding through shallow sand.

Only seven miles from St. Charles, we pulled into the first stop along the trail at Green’s Bottom, Mo.  Each of the 30-odd towns on the Katy feature small roofed “stations” with informative dioramas about the sections of trail immediately adjacent to the station. Much of the trail is built along the Lewis and Clark exploration route, and many of the graphics explained the historical significance of their journey. The gravesites of frontiersman Daniel Boone and his wife Rebecca lay along the trail, as do several Native American points of interest. The effort the Missouri Parks have put into making this trail both fun and educational cannot be overstated. There is even a guided cell phone audio tour at some stops. To hear the recording about the Katy Trail in St. Charles yourself, call (877)767-0603 and then press 10#.

Further down the trail there was so much to explore. It seemed like there was a new vista around every corner. The Missouri River was running high and fast on our left for many miles. The bluffs on our right were imposing and beautiful, at one point, they formed a natural shelter wall that was at least 150 yards long and 120 feet tall. When the trail steered us away from the river, some of the backwaters of the Missouri backed up into primordial looking wetlands, complete with bullfrog symphonies. The wildlife of the trail included several large turtles, lots of frogs and fence lizards, hawks, turkey buzzards, deer, herons and much more. There is even a small chance of spotting a black bear along the Katy, though it would be rare.

Another highlight of riding on the Katy Trail is the chance to explore the small towns of Missouri. Many of the stops had wineries, antique shops, bed and breakfast cottages and more. I especially liked that there were almost always “hitchin-posts” meant for horses but repurposed to chain up bikes. At our destination, Augusta, there was a brewery with craft beers and house-smoked meat sandwiches for lunch. If a micro-brewed IPA and smoked brisket aren’t reason enough to bike 28 miles, then I don’t know what is.

After over-indulging in Augusta, my husband hopped on his bike (The Blue Meanie), and we headed back to St. Charles. The same trail we had just ridden took on an entirely different character as the late afternoon descended. The golden colors of the fading light made the cornfields look graceful and the rock walls come alive. The butterflies and other bugs became active as the temperatures finally dipped into the 80s, and it was magical to ride through the clouds of fluttering color.

Our 57-mile round trip on the Katy Trail was supposed to be the beginning of a three-day trip, however, after only seven miles in the heat on Sunday, (Trail temp. was 102 with a heat index of 115+) we decided that the rest of the trail would have to wait. I am very much looking forward to riding the Katy again though, and we are planning to complete the entire 240 miles this autumn. Whether you’re headed down for a short ride or to take in the full length of the Katy Trail, I know that you’ll enjoy your trip. I think next time, I’ll bring one of those wooden train whistles to blow on at each stop…

For more information including mileage charts and attractions along the trail, visit www.bikekatytrail.com For the Missouri Katy Trail State Park information, visitmostateparks.com/park/katy-trail-state-park. To read more about Rails-to-Trails projects nationwide, visitwww.railstotrails.org.

Laura Sievert (Original post 7/14/11)

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