Set out [from St. Charles] at half passed three oClock under three Cheers from the gentlemen on the bank. –The Journals of Lewis & Clark
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The bicycle lane across the Missouri River at Jefferson City terminates at a structure called the “corkscrew,” a rectangular three-level spiraling ramp on which cyclists descend between the bridge and a short spur leading to the Katy Trail. Riding the layers of corkscrew is like passing over the same ground on the backs of overlaying stories: the Missouri River; Lewis & Clark; the MKT Railroad; the Katy Trail; and three days under a glorious sun.
Missouri’s Katy Trail is the nation’s longest bike trail at 240 miles of crushed gravel that follows the Missouri River halfway across the state from Machens (near St. Louis) to Boonville before swinging southwest. It runs on the former bed of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, aka the MKT, or Katy. Along the Missouri it also follows the path of Lewis and Clark, whose Corps of Discovery ascended the river in 1804 and returned in 1806.
Unlike Lewis and Clark, Dianne and I had only set aside three days to ride along the Missouri River. We’d have to sample segments of the Katy Trail.
Trailhead & St. Charles, MO
The Katy Trail’s eastern terminus isn’t particularly memorable, located at the juncture of lonely country roads where the MKT once joined other rail lines to enter St. Louis. The unofficial, more popular terminus lies 12 miles southwest at St. Charles. Here the trail re-launches at Frontier Park with its larger-than-life statue of Lewis and Clark and an 1893 Victorian-style Katy Railroad depot.
St. Charles is lovely, on and off the bikeway. Off the trail, we carefully navigated the historic brick streets on our road bikes. We found Missouri’s first Capitol. Nineteenth Century brick storefronts with scrolling facades lined Main Street. We ate at the Bike Stop Outpost and Café, debating between the Lewis and Clark Wrap and the Katy Sandwich. And then we headed southwest out of St. Charles onto the trail.
At the start of their journey, William Clark and crew spent five days in St. Charles awaiting Meriwether Lewis’s arrival from St. Louis, where he’d been making last-minute purchases for the voyage. Lewis arrived by nightfall on Sunday, May 20, and the full Corps set off the very next day, on May 21, 1804.
The Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad
Shortly after the Transcontinental Railroad linked east and west, the MKT connected Kansas with the Texas border in 1872, an simultaneously expanded eastward through Missouri, where it linked with St. Louis’ other rail lines at Machens in 1894.
The company’s fortunes peaked and plummeted. In the 1890s the MKT was awash in cash, but by 1915 its fortunes crashed, and it was placed in receivership. It turned around again, reaching new heights of prosperity during World War II. But by the 1960s it was losing money. It ceased operations in 1986, and in 1989 the MKT was legally dissolved.
Almost immediately Missourians began converting the railbed to a bicycle trail. Construction began in 1987, with successive trail segments opening between 1990 and 2011.
The town of Hermann lies at Mile 78, a short two miles across the river from the Katy Trail. The bridge across the Missouri is scenic, with a protected bike lane.
Some towns along the Katy have withered over time, a fate not uncommon in rural America. But as soon as we crossed the bridge and entered Market Street, we knew this town of 2400 people was alive. The Hermann Wine Trail tasting house represents seven local wineries. The Deutschheim State Historic Site preserves the home of one of the town’s German-immigrant founders. Tourist shops and restaurants line Market Street and the downtown: Liberty Glass Works stained glass studio; Ricky’s Chocolate Box; Grape Expectations Guest Hous; the Hermann Wurst Haus; the Doxie Slush, a slushie bar named after the owners’ dachshund dogs. We ate at the Downtown Deli & Custard Shoppe, chasing our sandwiches with generous helpings of custard ice cream.
We sheltered through a rain squall and hit the trail again.
We explored the historic Missouri capital of Jefferson City, another short spur off the trail, before heading to Coopers Landing, a boat dock, bar, and campground at Trail Mile 139. In summer, Cooper’s Landing offers riverside concerts. Taking a break from the trail, we sat for a while on Adirondack chairs in front of the store and watched the river pass. It’s frisky here. Down at the river’s edge, a signboard warns of the Missouri’s swift current around this corner where the inside curve holds eight feet of undisturbed sand while the outside bend has been scoured nearly to bedrock. The river toyed with the Lewis and Clark boats here.
From Coopers Landing, the trail passes by Boat-henge, a whimsical display of a half-dozen 1950s-era boats half sunk into the ground in a graceful arc, alternating bows and sterns protruding, creating a bit of local kitsch.
Near Rocheport (Trail Mile 156), the Missouri River cut 200-foot sheer bluffs into the limestone ago during eras of glacial melt. Today the bluffs tower above the trail, home to peregrine falcons and other raptors whose shadows swoop across trail riders’ backs. We passed Petite Saline Creek and The Hole in the Rock that Lewis and Clark described in their journals.
Rocheport was another small town that had breathed new life at the side of the Katy Trail. With a tiny population of 201, it seems to boast as many restaurants, antique stores, and wineries as people. We stopped for lunch at the Meriwether Café and Bike Shop. I ordered the Meriburger (“Add a Clark, make it a double”!)
Dianne and I then rode through the Rocheport Tunnel. The 243-foot train tunnel was blasted through the bedrock in 1893, destroying petroglyphs that Clark had described. The northwest entrance sports a handsomely arched limestone face, while the Rocheport entrance opens into the gaping natural rock. Inside, the tunnel is perfectly arched in brick, cut stone, and natural rock.
The Corps of Discovery continued up the Missouri River, crossed the Rocky Mountains and arrived at the Pacific Ocean on November 15, 1805. Then they began their return trip and arrived back in St. Charles in September 1806.
Dianne and I biked a few miles past the Rocheport Tunnel until our three-day time allotment ran out. Even so, for three days we’d been riding the Katy Trail’s layers of history, at the side of the Missouri River, on the literal back of the Katy Railroad, and on the backs of Lewis and Clark.
-- April 2022