Last summer, I ran away from the headlines to ride my bike across Missouri on the historic katy trail— best decision ever. If you need a spring tonic after a trying winter, here’s your prescription.

By Matt Crossman
February 25, 2021
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Katy Trail Missouri
Katy Trail
| Credit: Starboard & Port Creative

She was 60 or so, and pedaling her bike on the Katy Trail, a nearly 240-mile path across Missouri built on an old railway. She headed west, and I passed her headed east on the final morning of my four-day quest to ride the full route. Straw-colored hair marbled with gray fell out of her bike helmet. Crinkles shot from her eyes, evidence of a lifetime wearing that mammoth grin.

A little enviously, I found myself wondering, What happened, that day and in all the decades before, to make her smile like that? What's her secret? I tugged on my brakes to stop, turn around and chase her down to ask. But I let her go. I'd rather imagine her answer.

That was on a Tuesday. I had arrived on the previous Saturday with three friends at the Katy's westernmost trailhead in Clinton, Missouri, in a sour mood. Anxiety from the COVID-19 pandemic and forthcoming election weighed me down. I hoped the trip would provide shelter from the 2020 storm.

One of my fellow riders works in agriculture, and as we set out, he narrated the fields we pedaled through. Soybeans, he said, and then soybeans, and then—hey, look!—more soybeans. We crested no hills, rounded no turns. Nothing changed. Just miles of sameness. After months of chaos, I found the monotony comforting.

Katy Trail Missouri
Katy Trail
| Credit: Starboard & Port Creative

The beauty of a railbed bike path—very little elevation change. Though it's paved in crushed limestone, the Katy Trail is ideal for young families or less-than-pro riders.

Deep in one field, we stopped for a drink. Two men from Colorado broke, too, and struck up a socially distant chat. We told them we were riding toward our homes near St. Charles, a historic community just outside St. Louis that's best known as the launch point of the Lewis and Clark expedition. We climbed back on our bikes. "Have a great ride," one of them said, and in a light-hearted reference to their speed (slow) relative to ours (less so), he added, "We'll never see you again!"

I pushed the pedals with more verve after that. Usually I'm the one who sparks conversations. I ask about the city on your shirt or the team on your hat. On the Katy, people pestered me with questions. It started with the Coloradans. It continued for four days.

"Where are you from?"

"How far are you riding?"

"Those shorts are hideously tight—why are you wearing them in public?"

The idle small talk sprung a small leak in the anxiety I carried, and it slowly spilled out behind me. I didn't realize I had given into isolation until I stepped out of it. Soon, instead of craving shelter from the storm, I ran like a fool into the rain, head tilted back, drinking big drops. I couldn't wait to get to the next stop to yak it up with strangers I found there.

The Katy Trail has always been a through-way for travelers. For about 100 years following the Civil War, trains rumbled along tracks controlled by the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (nickname: MKT, or Katy). The route fell into disrepair in the '70s. In 1987, the state adopted the corridor with a vision to establish Katy Trail State Park. A pioneer conversion of its kind, it remains the longest rails-to-trails bike path in the U.S.

Flat and wide, the Katy draws both families for short excursions and endurance athletes who want to pile on miles. (I fall somewhere in the ambitious middle.) Hikers, runners and bikers share the gravel path in spring, summer and fall, joined by cross-country skiers and even mushers in winter. Historic depots converted to trailheads pop up every 9 or 10 miles, so you can easily drive anywhere to park and hop on for a short out-and-back ride. One-way cyclists can hire a shuttle service—that's what we did—or ride Amtrak with their bikes between Sedalia and Hermann.

Katy Trail Missouri
Depot-style stops mark trailheads along the Katy Trail.
| Credit: Starboard & Port Creative

Along the Katy Trail, depot-style stops mark trailheads. There are four restored stations, too, plus lots of cars and locomotives for photo op.

Katy Trail Missouri
Katy Trail
| Credit: Starboard & Port Creative

The beauty of a railbed bike path—very little elevation change. Though it's paved in crushed limestone, the Katy Trail is ideal for young families or less-than-pro riders.

Those who make a marathon of the Katy tend to break the trip over five days, with overnights in Sedalia, Rocheport, Hermann and Augusta. Those last two towns anchor Missouri's wine country near St. Louis, so many people plan weekend trips just in that area. For my group, it would mark the home stretch.

After lunch on day two, we crossed high over the Missouri River at Boonville. The trail turned right and continued parallel to the river, as it would for the next 150 miles. That's also where the Katy connects with Lewis and Clark's route.

A few hours later, we stopped at the aptly named Meriwether Cafe and Bike Shop in Rocheport. A year before, I had ridden through here and saw zero people.

This time, the trailhead parking lot overflowed with cars. As we would all learn by the end of 2020, a lot of Americans shared my impulse to escape the pandemic outdoors. State officials estimate 438,661 people used the Katy from April to October, nearly double the figure from 2019. We put our names on a waiting list for a table—in a town with a population of less than 300.

If you aren't riding or running the Katy, you're chasing an entrepreneurial dream along it. B&Bs, breweries, cafes and wineries dot the full length of the trail. As do some surprises: Drew Lemberger, an Army veteran who owns the Mount Nebo Inn next to Meriwether, has worked as a river guide, fishing guide, boat-maker and sommelier. I took a break from my ride to join one of his Missouri River tours. Being on the water (in a boat the captain built himself) provided an intimacy with the river that carried Lewis and Clark that I would have missed on the trail. Something of an ornithologist, too, Lemberger pointed out pelicans, geese and vultures. He nosed us toward a tree holding a nest. A bald eagle soared above, circled, then came in for a landing. Lemberger turned the boat back toward Rocheport, and as golden cliff faces peeled past, offered up some wisdom from a life spent on the Big Muddy: "Never hang your fishing clothes next to your tuxedo."

Katy Trail Missouri
The Bike Stop Cafe in St. Charles
| Credit: Starboard & Port Creative

The Bike Stop Cafe in St. Charles, where many riders start or end their trip, has an in-house repair shop and also rents wheels and offers shuttle services.

Missouri celebrates a bicentennial this year. In 1821, lawmakers established Jefferson City as the seat of government, choosing a central location between the bustling commercial hubs of St. Louis and Kansas City. That makes Missouri's capital, a short detour off the trail, the Katy's rough halfway point. There we rested our butts and backs after a 40-mile day three. Our bike shoes clicked on the sidewalk as we walked streets laid out by Daniel Morgan Boone, son of the frontiersman. The oldest buildings downtown date nearly to the Civil War. We homed in on Central Dairy and ate ice cream for dinner—because when you ride 40 miles in a day, you earn the right to such things.

Katy Trail Missouri
Central Dairy Ice Cream Parlor
| Credit: Starboard & Port Creative

Central Dairy Ice Cream Parlor in Jefferson City has roots dating to 1920. Order a classic banana split, or try black walnut ice cream for a true taste of Missouri.

The next day, our final morning, we stirred to life before dawn. We planned to cover 110 miles, so we couldn't dawdle. The streets lay empty, the sun barely a rumor. The state Capitol dome watched over us from behind as we rode across the river back to the trail. The clouds waved an ominous ombre of gray to blue to purple, an apparent real storm replacing the metaphorical one that followed me the first day.

But the threat proved to be illusory. Gaps of light grew in the darkness. Pink freckles peeked through the clouds. The sun climbed high, warming my back as I passed the woman with the giant smile.

Insider's Guide

Katy Trail
Katy Trail Route
| Credit: EE Berger

I've ridden the full length of the Katy Trail twice, and shorter segments many times. Here are my entirely subjective highlights.

CLINTON The western gateway to the Katy Trail. This end of the route is quieter and less showy, as you cut northeast through farmland to the Missouri River Valley.

SEDALIA The first time I stayed at the Hotel Bothwell, I felt guilty rolling my dusty bike into the ornate lobby, but the clerk insisted it was OK. The adjoining Ivory Grille serves steaks, seafood and cocktails. Snag souvenirs in the historic Sedalia Katy Depot, right on the trail.

BOONVILLE Time your ride to get an early lunch or dinner at Buerky's BBQ. Early, I say, because they run out of stuff. If you choose to overnight here, Hotel Frederick is the boutique-y spot in town. Warm Springs Ranch, home to the Budweiser Clydesdales, sprawls just outside town.

ROCHEPORT No stoplights, but two great stops. I like to get breakfast at Meriwether Cafe and Bike Shop and sit facing the trail as it comes to life. Or if you're here midday or evening, the bluff-top view at Les Bourgeois Vineyards is one of the best along the Katy Trail.

JEFFERSON CITY In non-COVID-19 times, you can tour the Capitol, but I'd wager that Central Dairy Ice Cream Parlor is really Jeff City's biggest attraction. The rocky road sundae is enormous, delicious and cheap—a trifecta I previously considered only theoretical. A pedestrian bridge makes the detour across the Missouri River bike-friendly.

HERMANN German immigrants brought their winemaking know-how to this area before the Civil War. Nestled in a valley and prickled by church steeples, the town is undeniably quaint. Visitors can choose from among 10 wineries and a handful of distilleries and breweries. No shocker, B&Bs abound too. My group packed six men and bikes into DeFlorin Stone Cottage Inn, which has a handy on-site laundry. For dinner, we made up for all the calories we'd burned at Wings A-Blazin'. (You can't miss it: Look for the vintage plane.)

Katy Trail Missouri
Stone Hill Winery, Hermann
| Credit: Starboard & Port Creative

Established in 1847, Hermann's Stone Hill Winery is one of the country's oldest. It has an on-site restaurant, and the scenic grounds afford lots of room to socially distance.

Katy Trail Missouri
Tin Mill Brewing Company, Hermann
| Credit: Starboard & Port Creative

Also in Hermann, Tin Mill Brewing Company is a newer arrival, crafting beer in an old grain processing plant downtown.

And, I must mention the BP gas station on Highway 19. Check the board outside, where someone writes a man's and a woman's name daily. If it's yours, you get a free drink. Sounds silly, but on a sweltering ride, these are the things I fantasize about winning.

You probably won't stock up on Hermann Wurst Haus' brats on a bike trip, but have one for lunch at the Best of the Wurst deli.

AUGUSTA The quieter twin sib to Hermann has plenty of wineries too. I'm partial to Augusta Winery. Owner Tony Kooyumjian is a third-generation winemaker who experiments with grapes from countries that have climates similar to Missouri's.

ST. CHARLES Few places in the Midwest can match the sheer brick-paved charm of St. Charles, founded in 1769 and the oldest town along the Missouri River. Daniel Boone lived here. Lewis and Clark launched their expedition here. Missouri became a state here. (And there are great sites and museums devoted to all those things.) For Katy Trail riders, though, the key point of interest is the Bike Stop Cafe patio. Eat a sandwich, drink coffee, talk—and maybe catch the guy who sometimes walks the nearby Katy, belting out '80s pop.

St. Charles served as capital while Jefferson City was being built. Take a tour of the original statehouse.

Top 10 Tips for the Katy Trail

ONE I've ridden the Katy Trail in both directions and scoured opinions from friends. A slim majority prefers west to east. (So do I, but that's because I live near the eastern end.) My advice: Go whichever way makes logistical sense, because the difference in ride experience is minimal.

TWO Wear gloves to absorb the gravel vibration. Related: padded shorts.

THREE Always check flood reports. You may be detoured onto highways.

FOUR You will cross dozens of dirt roads, driveways and rarely used access points. Slow down, look both ways, and don't be fooled into a false sense of security by how little you see cars.

FIVE Padded shorts.

SIX You will get cooked in July and August. Plan a trip for spring or early summer, or put the trip off until fall and enjoy the foliage.

SEVEN St. Charles is often called the start/end point. Technically, the trail runs about 12 miles farther to an isolated depot called Machens. Don't bother.

EIGHT If you pause for every historical marker you will never finish. My reco: Read Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose before you go, then skip the Lewis and Clark markers. Read the ones about local towns instead. In Mokane (mile marker 125), for example, you will learn that the man in charge of building the town's first jail was arrested for public intoxication and became its first inhabitant.

NINE I carried my gear. If that's not your bag (ahem), you can hire local services to shuttle your stuff between lodgings or drive you and your bike back to your car after a multiday ride.

TEN Did I mention padded shorts?