The Katy Trail

by Sara Dykman

Something isn’t right.  I haven’t held my breath as a car charges by, I haven’t heard or said “car back” today, and not one car has gunned it on an I-can’t-believe-you-are-passing-me-right-now-double-yellow-blind corner.  It is quiet without the passing cars, and we can ride side by side and search for a story or idea we have not yet told.

Well maybe I should say: something IS right.


The Katy Trail is the longest Rails-to-Trail project in the country

The Katy Trail has made our trip across Missouri “right”.  The 225 mile Rails to Trails project is a gem and an inspiration for communities and bikers working towards better bike infrastructure. Not only does the Katy trail offer safe cycling routes, but it does so while offering views of the mighty Missouri River, the bluffs that parallel it, and the fields that make the Midwest the breadbasket of our country.  It also has spurred an economic revival of the small towns originally conceived during the boom of the railroad industry.

matt bluffs

The Katy Trail runs between bluffs and the Missouri River

The Katy Trail began as a rail line (the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad more commonly called Katy) in the 1870s bringing prosperity to the Missouri River Valley. In 1986, after floods and financial trouble, the Katy ran its last run. The National Trails System Act allowed Missouri to transform the abandoned rail line into recreational trails. The community and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy teamed up to  open the first 33 miles in 1990, and now at 225 miles, it is the longest developed rails to trail project in the United States.

matt bridge

An old truss bridge reminds us it was once a rail line

When we were planning our route oh so long ago, I suggested biking the Katy Trail.  Growing up in Kansas City and making the yearly pilgrimages to St. Louis to visit family, I had crossed over the Katy Trail numerous times.  It had become a dream of mine to complete the trip by bicycle, and bike49 seemed like an appropriately fitting project to make the dream come true.

So aside from the great scenery, the comfortable conditions, and the child hood dream, the Katy Trail is a wonderful example of the potential for towns across the country to create a new economy, promote a healthier community, and protect wild lands.

The Katy Trail has revived many small towns in Missouri. Even in March, months before peak tourist season, we see over 25 users on the trail the first day. Some are locals, getting in their exercise, but others are tourists like us visiting small town America, spending money, and enjoying the bike trail. We met a man pedaling the entire trail, sleeping at Bed and Breakfasts, and eating at the trail-side restaurants. He had taken the Amtrak to Clinton, MO and was pedaling the trail to his home in St. Louis.  He was two days away from completing the trail for the second time, this time at the age of 70.


We stop for lunch in one of the many small towns.

Many times on this trip, we will hit the edge of a town and I think to myself: we could be anywhere in the US. The charm and character of towns has been lost in our desire for cheap stuff.  The Katy Trail brings character back to the state. When we come to a town, a small sign tells us the town name and offers a spread of pictures showcasing the town’s amenities: water, restaurants, bathrooms, bike rentals, lodging, camping, food, etc..  Along the trail small businesses sprout up and family businesses gain a new cliental of tourists.  We passed a brewery and a winery that had side paths from the main trail to the store fronts.  We passed trail shops touting “trail treats” and soft serve ice cream.  For many towns on old railroad lines, the end of the railroad meant the end of business, but the Katy Trail is a great reminder that trail tourism can be the next generation of a town’s economy.


Signs tell us of what the upcoming town has to offer

The Katy Trail promotes healthy adventure.  We crossed paths with many day users, folks out for a day hike or bike ride. Having safe and accessible recreational activities is an important part of creating healthy communities.   Today we passed several families, biking for the day and helping their kids develop healthy exercise habits early on. We see young and old on the trail, joggers, dog walkers, and solo bike riders. All these folks are out for a day of exercise and a chance to explore a scenic place.


We passed many families while on the Katy Trail

We got even more adventure and excitement than we planed when we woke up the other morning to a few inches of snow.  SNOW??? We spent the morning in our tents “waiting it out”.  Of course it didn’t stop so we headed down the trail covered in snow.  Our typical 12 mph pace slowed to 5 mph and we said goodbye to the Katy Trail at the first paved road.  We battled the snow all day knowing we had a warm shower, place to stay, and diner waiting for us. Perhaps folks should wait till April to try the trail…

katy trail snow

The snow surprised us and made the going slow

Even in this weather we saw plenty of wildlife.  The Katy Trail and its bordering lands are now part of the Katy Trail State Park. We saw white-tailed deer, Canada geese, snow geese, beaver, song birds, and red-tailed hawks.  Frogs call from the inundated forests and trail-side ditches. Missouri has created a tourism industry that depends on a healthy environment.  After all no one wants to bike through a dirty, run down, industrial district or monoculture housing developments.

canada geese

A Canada goose perched in the bluffs

The Katy Trail supports wild land conservation, promotes health and exercise, supports small town business, and makes bicycling more practical and enjoyable with adequate infrastructure. What more could we ask for? How about your support as more Rails to Trails projects are spearheaded; support these projects with your voice, your wallet, and of course your legs.  There are nearly 20,000 miles of rails to trails thanks to community support and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, AND at least one trail in every state.  Find a trail near your house and go for a bike ride.

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