MCKITTRICK – Picking a favorite section of the Katy Trail presents a pleasant problem. With 225 miles of hiking and biking trail to choose from, where does someone start?
Here’s a vote for the 16.1 miles between McKittrick and Treloar, where much of the trail squeezes between the base of white limestone bluffs and the muddy Missouri River. In spring, Canada geese nesting on the rocky ledges crane their long necks to watch the riders below.
This year, the Katy Trail celebrates its 20th anniversary, which kicks off May 8 in Rocheport. The Katy Trail is not only the longest rail-to-trail conversion in the nation, drawing more than 300,000 visitors annually. It has a place in Missourians’ hearts.
The trail was only five miles long in April 1990 when its first section opened from Huntsdale to Rocheport.
Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad abandoned the flood-prone corridor in 1986, and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources began acquiring the property under the National Trail System Act, which allowed railroad lines to be “banked’ for possible future use. In the interim, they could be converted to recreational trails.
Sparked by a $2.2 million donation from the late Ted Jones and his wife, Pat, the state developed a 100-foot-wide park along the rail corridor, stretching from the historic town of St. Charles on the east to Clinton on the west.
The May 8 celebration at Rocheport will honor the trail’s pioneer backers, and the volunteers who keep it running. The event will feature a giant birthday cake, a short walk to the memorial honoring the Joneses and a ride 8.5 miles to McBaine.
“The anniversary is truly a milestone, not only for our state, but also the nation,” said Gov. Jay Nixon, an early supporter as attorney general. “As the longest rail-trail in the nation, the Katy Trail attracts bicyclists from all over the United States and the world.”
News of the 20th anniversary has increased interest in the annual Katy Trail Ride, which covers the whole route across Missouri’s mid-section and is marking its own 10th anniversary. The event, on June 21-25, is limited to 300 registered riders and as of May 4, had 267 signed up.
Participants cover some 50 miles a day, which is more than enough for a weekend biker.
A SLICE OF AMERICANA
The charm of the Katy Trail is its leisurely backdoor look into the bucolic Missouri countryside. The trail of packed chat rolls by fields of corn and soybeans and pastures dotted with black cattle. It crosses lazy creeks over rusty iron bridges and heads into bottomland forests that are noisy with bird songs.
Most of the towns along the way seem caught in a time warp since the last locomotive pulled out.
The general store at Mokane has a yellowed newspaper clip taped to it: the town’s population had hit 700 residents. Now, the population is down to 188 residents, not including the yellow Labrador snoozing the spring afternoon away in front of the Post Office.
The trail provides a slice of Americana, far from the fast-food joints and billboards of the interstates. Each of the 25 trailhead towns has a Katy Depot which explains the local history and describes the features of the section ahead. Markers point out stops made by the Lewis and Clark Expedition on its voyage up and down the Missouri.
The depots are welcome stops for those on the trail – and provide a peek into a different time in the Katy Trail’s life.
At the depot in Pilot Grove, for instance, is a note with the story of a Katy train that derailed in May of 1945. The train had 20 cars carrying 200,000 gallons of crude oil and two loaded with artillery shells.
The fire lasted two days and the barrage of bursting shells sent shrapnel half a mile away. The Sedalia Democrat, the depot exhibit notes, asked spectators to return the unexploded shells they took home as souvenirs.
And then there are the people, who give another peek into the trail’s past.
“I’m out here pert near every day, go about a mile,” 98-year-old Arvil Anders said while pushing his walker on the trail near Pilot Grove. “I used to ride the MKT railroad. That was a long, long time ago.”
A PARK FOR ALL LEVELS
I had ridden the trail from Sedalia to St. Charles after that 187-mile stretch opened 12 years ago. To celebrate the 20th anniversary, a return ride in late spring when the redbuds were still blooming covered some of my favorite sections.
But first I made a pit stop at Katy Trail Bike Rental in Defiance, the east end of the popular Defiance-to-Dutzow stretch through Missouri Wine Country. The shop has some 40 “hybrid” bikes for rent at $20 a day.
Almost any type of bicycle can be used on the trail, but on the hybrids, a rider sits more upright than on a regular mountain bike. That, and the padded wide seat with a shock absorber, makes for a comfortable cruise. The bikes are not for serious off roading, but are perfect for gravel trails such as the Katy.
Defiance has received federal funds to build a quarter-mile bike loop through town that will give riders better access to the two taverns, winery, B&Bs and other attractions, said the shop’s owner, Robin White.
“Business is good, more people are staying close to home,” White said of her bike shop. “People are getting creative with using the trail for family vacations. It’s a state park, great for people of all levels.”
A test ride on the hybrid included a meeting with a red fox with a bushy tail that didn’t seem anxious to give up its spot on the trail. A later wildlife sighting was a tiny snapping turtle crossing to get to the farm pond on the other side.
GREASING THE RAILS
My first day on the trail began in Clifton City, and I noticed a welcome change from my last time through here: Heading east through Pilot Grove to Boonville, the trees had grown to form a graceful arch over much of the trail, creating a canopy that provided sun-dappled shade.
A maintenance worker was helping nature a little bit, said Dawn Fredrickson, the Katy coordinator for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Division of State Parks
“He’s an artist with his side-arm mower,” Frederickson said. “People comment all the time, ‘It’s like a boulevard.’”
The trail, because it follows a rail corridor, is mostly flat, but there is a gradual incline towards Boonville, until Lard Hill provides a reprieve and you coast the final mile into town and the Missouri River valley.
According to local lore, the hill is named for an incident in which a train hit a woman’s pig, and the railroad refused to fully compensate her. She greased the tracks with lard, causing the locomotives to spin their wheels, until the railroad paid up.
Boonville has a 1912 Mission-style depot with a museum in a bright green caboose, and is home to the historic Hotel Frederick, which has been restored to its former elegance and houses Glenn’s Café, a Cajun restaurant.
The town also recently won its battle to save the old Katy bridge, and has begun raising funds to develop it as a pedestrian link to the trail. The bridge was finished in 1932 and was the first vertical lift bridge that used counterweights.
“It’s an historic engineering site, and the most photographed thing in Boonville,” said Paula Shannon, who helped lead the fight to prevent the bridge’s demolition.
ALONE WITH NATURE
My final ride, from Mokane to Marthsasville, included an overnight at McKittrick, which is across the river from Hermann, a town that showcases the heritage of the German immigrants who began arriving in the 1830s.
Hermann’s new bridge has a lane for cyclists, and a dedicated lane is being added to the bridge at Jefferson City, offering Katy riders easier access to the state capitol. Also in the works later this year is a 13-mile extension from St. Charles to Machens, making the longest rail-trail even longer.
McKittrick boasted one of the trail’ s newest entrepreneurs, and one of its oldest.
Rich Lauer and his girlfriend, sculptor Joey Los, have rehabbed the 1905 mercantile store, which featured a vaudeville theater and dance hall on the second floor.
“We’ll have a B&B upstairs but will leave the stage for entertainment events,” Lauer said. “Downstairs is a café that seats 20, and booths with art for sale. We want to encourage new artists to come out of their shell and give it a shot.”
Overlooking McKittrick is Meyer’s Hilltop Farm, a B&B that is marking its own 20th anniversary.
“We didn’t know the trail was going in when we bought this place - that’s been a bonus,” said Maggie Meyer, who lives on the farm with her husband, Eldon, and a pair of miniature donkeys named Leon and Oscar.
“We get a lot of riders from Colorado -- they seem to be more health conscious – and Arizona,” she said. “We had a couple from Florida, but Florida people seem more interested in gold jewelry and dancing.”
I had the trail to myself on my last weekday ride, except for Mark Plumb, 47, a doctor from Milwaukee. Like so many people, Plumb used his trip on the Katy to decompress.
“I came down to spend three days on the trail,” he said. “I just wanted to get out and be in nature. I’ve been working too much lately.”