There are bike trips. And then there are Bike Trips. A journey on Missouri’s Katy Trail is the latter.
My husband and I biked all 238 miles of it — and then some — in June. I wrote about our week-long adventure for the Chicago Tribune’s Travel section. You can read it here. (Please do.)
What follows below is a deeper dive into our Katy Trail cycling vacation, which entailed biking roughly 50 miles a day for seven days, with our gear in tow, and spending the night at B&Bs along the way. This blog post delves into the details about where we stayed and ate and other logistical info — the kind of stuff I looked for when planning our trip. Figured it might come in helpful if you decide to bike the country’s second-longest rails-to-trails conversion, too. (Again, please do.)
A few odds and ends before we begin:
- We used hybrid bikes. Road bikes can be difficult to control on the crushed-limestone trail, which, until the mid-80s, was home to the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT, or “Katy”) Railroad. Want to tackle Katy on a faster-moving machine? Invest in a cyclocross or touring bike.
- The trail itself is largely flat. You don’t need superhuman cycling skills to do the whole thing. But 238 miles is still a long way to pedal, especially when you’re carrying your belongings with you. Pace yourself realistically and build in enough time to savor stops along the trail. (Some of the communities dotting the path have seen better days and feel like ghost towns; others merit longer visits, like Hermann, a picturesque wine-growing region connected to the Katy by a short 2-mile spur.)
- Because of the wind pattern, among other things, most folks like to bike the Katy west to east. My husband and I did that the first time we rode the trail in 2007. This time, in June, we went east to west. I didn’t notice much difference.
- A lot of restaurants in the region are closed Mondays and Tuesdays or have weird hours. Plan ahead to avoid disappointment later.
Like I said in the Trib piece, we loaded our bikes on the back of our car and drove from Chicago to St. Louis to start our journey. (You can take Amtrak from Chicago to St. Louis, but don’t forget to reserve a spot for your bike in advance. Only a limited number of bike tickets are available so book early.) We left our car in long-term parking at Amtrak’s St. Louis Gateway Station for $8 a day.
We packed our one pair of saddlebags with precious few changes of clothes and toiletries, sunscreen and bug spray — as little as possible, since we’d be carrying it with us — and we put the panniers on the back of my husband’s bike. Who says chivalry is dead?
It wasn’t easy getting from downtown St. Louis to the Katy Trail’s eastern-most terminus in rural Machens, partly because some of the paths we’d planned to take were washed out by recent heavy rains. And partly because it seems like they’re trying to HIDE THE MACHENS TRAILHEAD. There wasn’t a sign in sight telling us where to pick up the Katy. Our smartphone maps only took us so far. If we didn’t happen to see a guy in his driveway who gave us directions that involved “look for a pile of rocks on your right,” we might still be searching for it.
The good news is that once you’re on the trail, it’s virtually impossible to get lost. The signage is fantastic. Mileage markers from the abandoned railway are posted on the side of the trail. The Katy starts in Machens at Milepost 26.9 and ends in Clinton at Milepost 264.6. Each of the Katy’s 26 trailheads has a detailed map of the surrounding area (plus cool historic photos and facts). Some of these trailheads have water fountains, air pumps, bike tools and bathrooms. Others don’t. Make sure you have plenty of water, snacks and equipment to repair a flat. Also, a smartphone. Cell reception is pretty good on the trail.
We logged 55 miles in our roundabout route from St. Louis to the east end of the trail in Machens and on to our first overnight stop: St. Charles, the former state capital.
We stayed in St. Charles’s oldest neighborhood, Frenchtown, at the appropriately named Frenchtown Inn, whose three rooms start at $110 a night. A retired nurse and firefighter named Chris and Larry bought the 19th century property late last year, renovated it and began taking their first customers in April. They estimate about one-third of their guests are biking the trail. Some of their customers leave their car at the inn and, for a small fee ($30), Chris drives them and their bikes to Amtrak’s relatively close-by Kirkwood station. They take their bikes on the train to Sedalia on the west end of the Katy and cycle their way back to St. Charles. Feel free to steal this idea because it makes a lot of sense. And you wouldn’t miss much lopping off the western-most and eastern-most segments of the trail. Except “I rode the whole trail” bragging rights.
That night we made the short walk into historic downtown St. Charles and had a tasty dinner on the front patio of Bella Vino Wine Bar & Tapas.
Chris served a hearty breakfast in the morning and off we went for a relatively easy 30-mile day to Augusta, one of those towns that’s worth exploring. It’s the country’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA), a federally recognized grape-growing region used to identify a wine’s geographic origins. This neck of Missouri used to be crawling with vineyards, and it’s still home to some quality wineries today. From our B&B we walked to scenic Mount Pleasant Estates, where $10 got us five tastings at the winery, whose roots date back to 1859. That $10 also got us a souvenir wine glass we managed not to break during our bike trip.
Silly Goose is supposed to be a good place to get dinner in Augusta but it was closed that night. We ate an early dinner of tasty pulled pork sandwiches in the very inviting beer garden at Augusta Brew Haus, a fun place with live music that’s just a stone’s throw from the trail. Stop here if for nothing more than an alfresco microbrew.
We spent the night in Augusta at Lindenhof B&B, a great place that’s worth the super-steep hill you have to climb from the trail up to the property. Debbie and her husband have owned the four-room property (rates start at $125) for 18 years. They really know what they’re doing. We pulled up hot and sweaty with our muddy bikes (a side effect of the recent rains), and Debbie greeted us with cold towels for our necks and tall glasses of ice water. They let us use their hose to clean off our bikes.
Guests have full run of the Lindenhof’s living room (the couple lives on the other side of the house), so we spent the evening there hanging out, drinking a bottle of wine we picked up from Mt. Pleasant and snacking on the homemade bread Debbie bakes for guests. This is where we met fellow Katy Trail cyclists Jim and Dara Linn, a couple from suburban Raleigh, N.C. They were traveling with Dara’s 80-something-year-old dad, Bob Cline, a history buff. Bob wanted to bike parts of the Katy because much of it follows in the footsteps of famed explorers Lewis and Clark. (The segment between St. Charles and Boonville is an official portion of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.) We ended up running into them quite a bit during the rest of our trip, and they did us a big solid the following night in Hermann. More on that later.
First, allow me to go on a television tangent, since this is TVtrippin.com: Production is scheduled to resume in the spring on a Lewis & Clark miniseries for HBO. It’s based on Stephen E. Ambrose’s book Undaunted Courage. Looking forward to that.
Back to Hermann. The ride was a mostly pleasant 42 miles from Augusta to Hermann. I say “mostly” because we encountered a couple of runaway cows on the trail in Marthasville.
The cows had escaped from a nearby farm and decided to hang out in the middle of the path. One of them was a bull, and he didn’t seem interested in budging. We backed off and waited for more cyclists to come along, figuring the bovines would move if we outnumbered them. By the time our B&B buddy, Jim Linn, reached us, the cows had migrated off the trail.
Crisis averted, we continued on to Hermann, which isn’t technically on the Katy Trail but is connected to it via a bike-friendly, 2-mile bridge. Perched on the Missouri River and full of rolling hills covered with grape vines, Hermann is an adorable village settled by Germans immigrants. Lodging options abound but if you want to splurge, do it at Hermann Hill Vineyard Inn & Spa. (Rates start at $216 and a lot of extras come with the price. Complimentary Mexican food and margaritas were waiting when we arrived. They also delivered warm cookies and ice cream to the rooms for a bedtime snack.) The intimate, hillside property calls for another one of those super-steep climbs. Feel free to get off your bike and walk it. It’s worth the extra effort to get here, especially if you book a Katy Trail massage at the on-site spa. And you should. Because it’s awesome.
When doing my pre-trip planning I’d stumbled upon a place in Hermann called Alpenhorn Gasthaus, offering a three-course “uncorked” dinner and wine pairing for $45 a person at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays. (For a small extra charge you can have your homemade chocolate dessert and port in the romantic, candlelit wine cellar.)
I’d told our friends the Linns about it back in Augusta and they booked it, too. I’m glad they did, not only because we all ended up sitting together and swapping trail stories over a lovely dinner. Unlike us, they had a car. They did us a big favor by driving us to and from the Alpenhorn. (My husband and I had already started walking there from Hermann Hill when they called us on our cell and insisted on picking us up. The walking thing seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be a bad one given the Alpenhorn’s location a little ways out of town on a highway road with no shoulder. Walking or biking there, especially in the dark, isn’t smart. But this is a cute place worth a visit, so try to make it happen.)
In addition to its quaint restaurant, the Alpenhorn has four bedrooms, including a couple of a cozy cottages and two rooms in the main house built in 1860. It’s owned by a man from Switzerland and his St. Louis wife who does all of the cooking. They’re a friendly couple and will pick up cyclists from the trail or Hermann’s train station if you’re staying with them.
Another good option for dinner in Hermann — and one that’s much closer to Hermann Hill — is Stone Hill Winery, the oldest in Missouri. We ate here on Katy Trail Trip No. 1. This big, beautiful facility with 165-year-old underground cellars claims to have once been the nation’s second-largest winery, pumping out 1.25 million gallons a year. These days, it churns out about one-fifth that volume.
From Hermann it was a 49-mile ride to the next day’s stop, Jefferson City. We pulled off the trail in Portland to have lunch at Riverfront Bar & Grill. A dark place with pool tables and lonely looking arcade games, the Riverfront shares some of the same DNA as a dive bar. Only one woman was working there, and she wasted no opportunity to remind everyone of that in a not-so-friendly tone. Thankfully her crankiness didn’t stop her from cooking a good cheeseburger.
On to Jefferson City. Like Hermann, the Missouri capital isn’t on the trail, per se. It’s connected by a short spur and another bike-friendly bridge. That bridge let us off very close to our lodging for the night: Cliff Manor Inn. Built in 1866 by a Lincoln-appointed federal judge, this massive white house commands a good view of the imposing state capitol and the Missouri River. The owners live off-site and are trying to sell the property, which could use a little updating. But it’s a bargain at $79 for the two rooms with a shared bath. The two spacious suites start at $179, but I don’t know that they’re worth $100 more than the shared-bath bedrooms.
Cliff Manor’s location is ideal for walking into the state capital’s downtown, where we dug into a satisfying dinner of fish and steak at the stylish Grand Cafe.
Cliff Manor is even closer to Paddy Malone’s Irish Pub, an authentic Irish watering hole serving great burgers. At the very least, hit Paddy’s for a nightcap.
The next day’s ride boasted the best scenery of the entire trip. It also included a pass through Hartsburg, home to one of the most beloved businesses on the trail. Dotty’s is a welcoming, cute cafe run by a woman named — you guessed it — Dotty. She sold the place a few years ago but the new ownership didn’t work out. Now, she’s once again behind the counter and, with the help of her sisters, back to serving hungry cyclists with good food and a smile.
From Hartsburg the next trailhead is McBaine, and this is when you’re going to want to really start paying attention to your surroundings. Flanked by huge limestone bluffs and the river waters of “Big Muddy,” the trail is downright gorgeous as you pedal west from McBaine into Rocheport, where your trip includes a spin through a 243-foot-long rail tunnel. (One of these days I’m going to build in enough time to take the spur that leads to the university town of Columbia. Today was not that day.)
The backdrop was so pretty my photo-averse husband insisted on stopping to take a picture. As he slowed down, his tire kissed a sharp rock and, voila, we suffered our first and only flat. We’d packed a spare tube and repair kit (I told you: be prepared!), so it wasn’t a complete disaster.
At least I had plenty of nice stuff to look at while he swapped out the punctured tube. The flat happened at Milepost 174.4, right in front of the Lewis & Clark cave. I wouldn’t have even seen the cave — a small, dark cavern burrowed into a massive limestone bluff — if there wasn’t a sign pointing it out. Traces of Native American pictoglyphs from the early 19th century were still visible on the stone edifice above the cave, which reportedly was infested with rattlesnakes when Lewis and Clark stumbled upon it in 1804. I didn’t see any rattlers during our journey, but I did see a total of seven snakes on the trail, as well as a bazillion rabbits, some deer, turtles and a fox.
Flat tire fixed, we pedaled into cute-as-a-button Rocheport for a relaxing outdoor lunch at Les Bourgeois A-Frame. From our terrace table overlooking the Missouri River, we washed down a plate full of crackers, cheese and salami with $5 glasses of local Les Bourgeois wine while hawks soared overhead. I won’t lie: The scenery and wine made it hard to get motivated to hop back on our bikes. But we had a total of 55 miles of riding to do that day to make it to Boonville that night, so off we went.
If you plan to overnight in Rocheport, I highly recommend the Schoolhouse B&B, an old brick school house converted into a lovely inn. We stayed there during Katy Trail Trip No. 1. Also: Eat dinner at Abigail’s. This time, however, we were bedding down in Boonville. The site of four Civil War battles, Boonville ranks as the oldest town in central Missouri. It’s home to a massive casino, if that’s your jam. It’s not ours, so we stuck to wandering around the sleepy downtown.
A lot of cyclists stay at the historic Hotel Frederick, conveniently located right off the trail when you cross the bridge over the Missouri River. The 1905 building has more than 20 rooms, each with a different look and feel. We poked around after eating a decent dinner that night at the hotel’s restaurant, The Fred.
We opted to stay nearby Hotel Frederick at the more intimate High Street Victorian B&B, whose three very Victorian-decorated rooms start at $119. (I should note that we reserved all of our lodging about three weeks before our June trip. I wouldn’t risk winging it without reservations because places can fill up fast, especially in the busy fall months.)
The couple who owns High Street, Kriss and Gene, won’t be running it much longer. They’re planning to move to Washington state. The Midwest’s loss is the Pacific Northwest’s gain because Kriss makes incredible breakfasts.
READ MORE: Couple giving away Boonville B&B in essay contest
The morning meal kicked off with Kriss’s signature dish, a pineapple boat topped with a delicious sauce, followed by a savory spinach and egg filo dough pie. She sent us off with homemade cookies, too And they let us use their dryer after we’d washed our bike clothes in the bathtub. (They said we shouldn’t have bothered; we could have used their washer, too.)
Good thing we loaded up on calories because this was our biggest mileage day yet: 68 miles from Boonville to Calhoun.
It’s slim pickins when it comes to lodging and eating on the 30-some-mile stretch between Sedalia and the trail’s west terminus, Clinton. But we decided to stay in Calhoun because a guy there named Damon Cruce has a couple of restored train cabooses — called Cruce’s Cabooses — and you can rent one starting at $100 a night.
Staying in a train car seemed appropriate given the rails-to-trails theme of the trip. The cabooses were basic and clean, tricked out with a toilet-shower combo which might not appeal to folks used to staying in fancier digs. (Read: This is like camping, but in a train instead of a tent.) But hey, how often do you get a chance to sleep in a caboose?
The cabooses, located in the middle of nowhere next to a longhorn cattle ranch, weren’t easy to find. We had to venture about 3 miles from the Calhoun trailhead and climb some pretty steep hills before we got there. (I wasn’t sure if we were going the right way so I called Damon from the road to get directions. The friendly proprietor met us on his ATV about a half mile from the property and led us there. He didn’t want us to get lost — or chased by his neighbor’s hunting dogs that apparently sometimes roam around the road.)
When I first called about staying there, Damon warned me that there isn’t anywhere to eat nearby. So before we arrived we stocked up on Subway sandwiches and bought a bottle of wine at a liquor store in Windsor, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type town with a sizable Amish population. (We saw an Amish man on his horse and buggy; I resisted the urge to take a photo because they’d rather you don’t.) I’m glad we came with provisions because once you arrive at the cabooses you’re pretty much stuck there unless you have a car. Nothing is within walking distance. So we just kicked back by the lakeside campfire with our caboose neighbors — a family from Arkansas — and ate our Subway and drank our wine until a crazy storm blew through and sent us scurrying into our caboose for the rest of the night.
That crazy storm caused some major headaches for us the next day, our final day of riding. A lot of trees had fallen down along the trail, making it impossible to pass in some parts. As a result, we had to ride on busy Route 52 for some lengthy stretches. Doable, but hardly ideal.
It was only 10 miles to the end of the trail in Clinton, but our plan called for doubling back and spending our final night in Sedalia, where we’d catch the Amtrak back to St. Louis the following day. (Amtrak’s Missouri River Runner has daily service between St. Louis and Kansas City. The train’s western-most stop on the Katy Trail is Sedalia, not Clinton.)
After six solid days of biking, it’s hella rewarding to finally pull up to the last trailhead — the finish line — knowing you’ve done the whole darn thing. The Clinton trailhead itself, however, is pretty anticlimactic. We rode a couple extra miles into downtown Clinton to celebrate over lunch at Ben Franklin Bistro, a cute eatery located on Clinton’s gigantic town square. Do not — I repeat, do not — go to Clinton without getting a giant chocolate chip cookie at Ben Franklin. Delish.
We logged 58 miles that day before wheeling into the very southern-feeling city of Sedalia. Its fairgrounds are the third largest in the United States and host the Missouri State Fair every August. Sedalia is the place to stock up on Katy Trail souvenirs. Its Katy Depot, located right on the trail, has a fantastic gift shop full of Missouri-made products and Katy accoutrements, from bike jerseys to Christmas ornaments. The depot also has a bike shop, an amenity that isn’t as abundant as you’d think on the Katy.
We originally planned to stay at Sedalia’s historic Hotel Bothwell but it — and just about everywhere else we tried — had sold out long ago because of a livestock event that weekend at said fairgrounds. A place called Maxine’s Rooms for Rent was advertising for $50 a night. It sounded sketchy, but it turned out to be the welcoming home of a grandma named Maxine and her husband, Pete, who are basically running a B&B. (Apparently Sedalia doesn’t allow places to call themselves B&Bs, hence the less-inviting “rooms for rent” description.)
Maxine and Pete are super laid-back and casual and so is their home, surrounded by cornfields and situated a couple miles from the train station. Our bedroom was a bit bizarre: a shrine to Nascar, decorated with shelves of model automobiles. But it did the trick and we had fun shooting the breeze that night on the driveway with Maxine, Pete and some of their neighbors. Maxine even let us use her car (!) to drive into town for dinner at Kehde’s Barbeque in a 1920s Pullman railcar. Because, you know, that train theme of our trip.
After 357 miles of biking over the past seven days, we felt no guilt about gorging on Kehdee’s mouth-watering barbecue sampler. We would’ve had a couple slices of Kehde’s famed homemade pie, too, but they sold out. Maybe next time, during Katy Trail Trip No. 3.
The next morning we biked a few short miles to the train station in Sedalia and caught the Amtrak back to St. Louis Gateway Station. Goodbye trail, hello rail.
If you’ve made it this far in the story, chances are you’re thinking about biking the Katy, too. I hope you do. A trail that spans nearly 240 miles across the midriff of Missouri is a pretty special thing. Take advantage of it. And don’t hesitate to shoot me a question or share your Katy Trail trip tips in the comments section.
Here are some other resources that can be a big help in planning your adventure:
The Complete Katy Trail Guidebook by Brett Dufur