The Katy Trail – Bicycling through Missouri's Wine Region
By Wendy Hammerle
The heat was oppressive by mid morning. But we had traveled half way across the country to bicycle the Katy Trail in Missouri and we weren't about to let a little 97-degree weather get in our way. Besides, we knew there was a brewery at the next trail head. You see, riding the Katy Trail is more than just riding a bike path.
*It's stopping at a salt spring used by Lewis & Clark as they made their way through the wilderness 200 years ago.
*It's an afternoon of wine tasting at one of the scenic wineries that dot the hills along the trail.
And it's the trumpet vines that wallpaper the rock bluffs hanging over one side of the trail while the Missouri River floats languidly by on the other.
So yes, the challenge of riding the longest rail trail in the country is part of the appeal, but if you go, make sure to explore all that the Show Me State has to offer along the way.
Hit the trail
The Katy Trail is one of the crown jewels of the Rails-to-Trails movement in America. The 225-mile bicycle path was developed along the corridor used by the Missouri – Kansas – Texas (MKT or Katy) Railroad, which stopped running in 1986. Since the rails to trails movement started in the mid 1960's, more than 13,000 miles of unused rail beds have been converted into bike paths. The Katy stretches across the central part of the state from Clinton in the west to St. Charles in the east.
If you arrive by air, the nearest airport is in St. Louis which is a short 20 minute drive to St. Charles. And if you need to rent a bike, there are several bike shops and rental places right on the trail. Katy Bike Rental in Defiance has a large inventory and a very helpful staff. If you ask about steep grades on the Katy, owner Todd White will tell you the path is basically flat, “Trains couldn't climb hills so you won't have to either!”
He recommends hybrid bikes with good tread to handle the fine limestone gravel surface of the path. Although it's hard-packed in most places there is some loose sand on top and we found it a bit more challenging than riding on pavement.
You should also be careful about veering too close to the edge of the trail. In many places, there are steep drop offs, in some cases down to the river's rocky edge. And in a few stretches, a spill on your bike could land you in a sea of poison ivy. You should also carry plenty of water.
Although most trail heads have water fountains and toilet facilities, not all do. If you are planning a long ride, try to avoid July and August which can be especially hot and sticky. The best time to ride, we were told, is September and October. Not only is the weather better but the brilliant fall foliage reflects on the Missouri River and you can enjoy the local Oktoberfests.
Or you can go in early June and catch the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia. After deciding when to ride, you'll need to consider your route. To take advantage of prevailing winds, you may want to start your trip on the western end of the trail in Clinton, or Sedalia. But if time only allows you to ride half the trail, as it did us, you can pick it up in Rocheport. This section includes the only tunnel on the trail as well as the Lewis and Clark cave which is now the summer roost of endangered gray bats. (You can peak inside but you are not allowed to enter the cave.)
Nearby you'll find weathered red-pigment pictographs first noted by explorers in 1819. Historical sites are clearly marked all along the trail as well as on large maps at every trail head. The maps also illustrate wildlife on the trail. We crossed paths with several animals including dozens of little lizards that scooted across the trail near the bluffs. Also be on the lookout for eagles overhead and the bright blue indigo buntings which fly in and out of the brush.
After a day on the hot dusty trail, you'll be ready to find a room with a shower, and a hearty meal. Despite its diminutive size, Rocheport (population 208) is home to several bed and breakfasts including the spanking new Amber House just two short blocks from the Katy Trail. We didn't know there was such a thing as a gourmet breakfast, but that's part of the package at this Victorian B&B. History buffs and school teachers may prefer the School House Bed and Breakfast, around the corner. Built circa 1914, we enjoyed this 10-room Inn with its restful gardens, brick patios and fountains.
For dinner, head to Les Bourgeois Vineyards on the bluffs overlooking the River. The lobster ravioli, a salad and a bottle of their Solay on the Bistro patio will make for a perfect evening. If you'd rather picnic, bring your own food and buy wine at their outdoor Winegarden which is a favorite of the younger set. The view of the sun setting over the Missouri River is not to be missed. More offbeat and intimate (only 8 tables) is Abigail's in downtown Rocheport. But check ahead for hours, as they advertise “Dinner by reservation or chance.”
If you want to eat without leaving the trail, try The Cracked Crab Seafood House and Oyster Bar or the Trailside Cafe & Bike Shop right at the Rocheport trail head. If you are in Rocheport on a Saturday, head over to Mighty Mo Canoe Rentals and get a guided canoe tour of the river down to Huntsdale. You can bike back on the trail or catch a shuttle. Farther east along the trail just before reaching McBaine, you can take an 8.8 mile trail spur to Columbia, the college town of the University of Missouri. Otherwise, continue on to Hartsburg and then North Jefferson.
The Native Stone Winery in Jefferson City was recommended to us, but was closed the day we passed through. A word to the wise, if you travel Sunday night through Tuesday, you may find many restaurants and some wineries closed. Always call ahead. From here through Tebbetts, Mokane, and Portland, the trail winds though rich Missouri River bottomlands and lush fields of corn. In the little town of Bluffton, five miles east of Portland, you'll see dolomite bluffs towering 200 feet or more above you, some of the highest on the trail. The next trail head is at McKittrick.
Get off the trail here and head south about two miles to Hermann, a neat little town with a strong German influence. For lodging, Angels in the Attic Bed & Breakfast is on a quiet side street. Our third floor room had a view of the river and the rooftops of the town below. Another option is the Lydia Johnson Inn, a 1901 Victorian. More upscale is the Hermann Hill Vineyard & Inn which sits high atop a hill and has spectacular views. In fact, you can choose from more than 50 Bed and Breakfasts in Hermann. Amtrak also stops here daily in case you want to use public transportation.
But you can't go to Hermann without visiting the wineries. Stone Hill Winery is Missouri's oldest and in the mid 1800's was the second largest winery in the United States. Take their free half-hour guided tour through the naturally cooled cellars, and finish up with a wine tasting. You'll find out that Missouri is the fourth largest wine producing state in the country. This region is famous for the Norton grape, but my favorite Stone Hill wine was the Hermannsberger, a nice dry red. I had this with dinner at the winery's Vintage Restaurant, which specializes in German fare at reasonable prices.
Other wineries worth visiting in Hermann include the Adam Puchta Winery, which has been a family business for 150 years, and the riverfront Hermannhof Winery which has a self guided tour and an entertaining rascal named Billy hosting the wine tastings. Hermann Brewing Co. and Bauernhof Brewery will keep the beer drinkers happy. Back on the trail, head east through Treloar to Marthasville which has some historical sites including the Daniel Boone Monument and a log cabin replica. This was also a stopping point of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Grab a snack at Choo Choo's right on the trail, or continue on to Dutzow and the Blumenhof Winery.
You can access this Alpine style winery right from the trail, but it's a fairly steep climb up through the woods and would be difficult to do with your bikes. Best to lock them up at the bottom of the hill and just hike up. Buy some cheese, sausage and a bottle of wine and sit out on their patio for a nice break. Just east of Dutzow, you'll hit Augusta, home of several more wineries. We stopped for lunch at Montelle Winery, perched high on a hill overlooking the river valley. (If you run out of steam, you can drive up - it's on scenic Route 94 which runs alongside the Katy Trail from Jefferson City to St. Charles.)
Buy a grilled sandwich and a bottle of wine and enjoy the view from the huge deck built around the trees. If you decide to stay on the trail, the Augusta Brewery is located at the Augusta Trail Head. They make a great Bonde Ale and they also sell sandwiches and snacks. For dinner, head across the river to American Bounty Restaurant in historic Washington. (This would be a trek on a bike, so we opted to drive.) Try their famous nine-way pasta with a local wine, but save room for the chocolate raspberry cobbler . Back in Augusta, you can choose from several very nice Bed and Breakfasts.
Liked the Lindenhof
We found the Lindenhof to be welcoming and comfortable. After a long day of biking, you can soak in the hot tub outside next to the patio. Some 30 miles east of Augusta, you'll ride into St. Charles, the easternmost point on the Katy Trail. Make sure you spend some time in St. Charles' historic district which is a charming mix of cobblestones, shops and restaurants. If the weather is nice, dine al fresco in one of the cottage garden cafes, poke around the galleries and sample some ice cream. Or ride the St. Charles Trolley while artists and musicians in period dress provide some street-side entertainment.
This is, as they say, the end of the trail. But remember, if you missed anything, you can always turn around and head back. It's only 225 miles. And I hear there's a cold one on tap at the other end....
Wendy Hammerle is a former television news reporter/anchor and TV commercial writer and producer. She now works as a Public Relations Director and is a member of the Manhan Rail Trail Committee in Easthampton, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband and children