Between the bluffs and the river

After doing my first tour on the Allegheny Passage – C&O Canal Towpath in 2012, I had the bug to do another fully-supported tour, but without making some of the mistakes of that first tour. It turns out that there were not too many multi-day end-to-end trail routes out there that were also within driving distance, and the most obvious one available was the Katy Trail that goes along the Missouri River across the state of Missouri. At the time, there were also not that many major tour operators, but the one that stood out was the senior-oriented Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) organization, which offered an itinerary that started and ended in St. Charles, MO.

One thing I had learned by experience the previous year was that my old Giant Sedona “comfort bike” was not suitable for serious trail riding, so early in 2013 I purchased a Specialized Crosstrail, which had just been introduced and was a sort of hybrid with more aggressive geometry, better gearing, and 700c wheels with quality (i.e., less flat-prone!) tires. It’s designed to work well both on and off-road. This turned out to be so good a selection that as of this writing in 2020 it is still the bike that I’ve owned the longest and ridden the most.

2013 Specialized Crosstrail, as picked up from the dealer

Day 1 – St. Charles, MO

Main street in St Charles

It was a two-day drive from home to St Charles, with an overnight stop in Fort Wayne, IN, but my first impressions of the area were very favorable. It’s a suburb of St Louis in a similar way to how my home town of Rochester relative to Detroit. There is a casino on the river there, but the main downtown strip has brick sidewalks and an abundance of brew pubs and restaurants, so I had places to check out before we met for the evening orientation session.

My experience with Wilderness Voyageurs the year before had led me to expect something similar, so I was quite surprised when the group met for the first time and I saw that there were easily 3 times or more the number of people, many of whom didn’t look like the type of experienced riders that I’d been with on all my previous tours. Uh oh! I will say that the trip went off reasonably well for all that, but it certainly didn’t move along with the speed and ease that I had become accustomed to.

Day 2 – Bus to Sedalia

We met outside the hotel to get our bikes and gear loaded up so we could drive to our actual starting point on the western side of the state in the town of Sedalia. The actual operation of the tour was contracted to Katy Rentals — a bike rental agency along the trail — who had the equipment and personnel to handle the job. There was a tour van that most of us could ride in that was towing a large trailer, and a normal-size van to handle the “overflow” riders and perform various tasks along the way. Most of the trip was straight across the state on I-70, with a number of short breaks and one long lunch stop at a winery overlooking the river.

Lunch and a scenic overlook

Our accommodations for the night were in the historic Hotel Bothwell in downtown Sedalia. The hotel reminded me of the Hotel Gunther in Frostburg, MD that we had stayed in on the GAP tour. The room was of course small, but pretty nicely-furnished. At least all the preliminaries were over and we could look forward to starting the actual ride in the morning.

The Hotel Bothwell, Sedalia MO
My room at the Bothwell

Day 3 – Sedalia to Boonville

36 miles

My idea of a good day’s ride is to get an early start and make it mostly about the ride. But that’s not the Road Scholar way. Since they position themselves as an educational tour operator, there were always a number of scheduled stops with talks by local historians, and the overall pace was not exactly hurried. However, I was not overly constricted by this since we were free to ride at our own speed and regroup when and where convenient.

Looks like it must have been a chilly morning
Bob from Tucson, who was another solo rider I hung out with

Our starting point for the ride was at the MKT Depot in Sedalia. The original railroad line here was the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, shortened to “MKT”, from which “KT” or “Katy” is derived. Sedalia was once the end-point of cattle drives coming up from Texas, and from here the cattle were loaded onto rail cars for eventual delivery to the stockyards and meat packers in St Louis.

Starting along the Katy Trail
Lunch stop
Creek or small river crossing

The ride for the day was about 40 miles, with our destination being the casino hotel in Boonville on the Missouri River. The route was rural and rather unremarkable, although some people felt it to be difficult in spots due to a slight grade. There was no group dinner that evening and instead we were given vouchers for dinner and breakfast. I took a walk around the town to see if there was any other choice, but it was frankly a rather grim place that looked like it had been hollowed out in recent years. The casino was literally “the only game in town!”

Isle of Capri Casino Hotel
Now this looks like a real cyclist’s room!

Day 4 – Boonville to Jefferson City

52 miles

This was to be the longest ride of the trip, at over 50 miles if we went all the way hotel-to-hotel to Jefferson City, so I was anxious for an early start. After the usual preliminaries, we began more or less as a group by proceeding across the bridge to the north side of the Missouri, where we’d spend the remainder of the riding portion of the tour.

MKT Caboose at the Sedalia Depot
Coming across from Sedalia

The trail surface was crushed limestone and in very good condition, but pedaling on a softer surface always takes a bit more effort than on smooth asphalt, so 50 miles was a pretty good distance to look forward to. The trail follows the old railroad grade and is entirely on the flood plain of the river. This has always made it prone to occasional flooding, and in fact in the Spring of 2019 some portions of the trail were severely damaged by the extensive floods that occurred then. At some points we were within view of the river, while at other times we were as much as a mile inland from it, with the bluffs that delineate the flood plain on our left.

One of the few tunnels along the way

Similar to the C&O Canal Towpath, which is also on a floodplain, there were few towns and other services right on the trail itself, although there were a number of restored depots used as rest stops along the way. The railroad towns that these once belonged to were either moved to the top of the bluffs or they disappeared altogether after the steam trains stopped running.

Typical depot turned into a rest stop
End of the route – where is everybody?

As I said, it was a long, hot day and I finally reached the final depot in mid-afternoon, realizing that I was well ahead of the others. Not wanting to wait here needlessly to be transported across the river to the hotel, I took the ride-it-in option and proceeded to the bridge. There I found a long ramp that was actually fairly easy to ride up to where there was a pedestrian/bike lane hung off the side of the bridge. It was an easy crossing and I had good views of the state capitol building.

Bike route to the bridge
Circular ramp to bridge level
The bike lane
Missouri State Capitol
Best accommodations of the trip

Our hotel was the Capitol Plaza Hotel, probably the best in town. They showed me the room where we were to store our bikes securely and gave me the key to my room. Having ridden 56 miles on the warmest day of the week, I was really looking forward to the air conditioning, shower, and soft bed! That evening we had a group dinner somewhere in town.

Day 5 – Jefferson City to Hermann

48 miles

Once again I opted to ride all the way instead of being shuttled, so headed back over the bridge and down the long ramps onto the trail. Again, it was a straightforward ride, almost as far as the previous day, with a number of scenic and historic sights along the way. Lunch was pre-arranged and we continued to have good weather so that we could sit outside and enjoy the sunshine.

A very pretty ride along the bluffs
A break in the shade of a tree
More typical scenery
Bridge to Hermann

Our stopping place for the day was in the town of Hermann, which is part of the old German-settled area of the state and is a popular weekend destination for its vineyards, antiques, and quaint B&Bs. Again, the town is on the south side of the river with a bridge for access.

Statue of a legendary German leader who defeated Roman legions

There are few regular hotels in the area and the one that was booked for the tour didn’t have enough rooms to accommodate the entire group. So I was one of the lucky few who was instead assigned a room in a local B&B. This was a very nice place, and I was almost embarrassed to arrive and knock on the door in my biking kit, looking so sweaty and dusty after a 50-mile day on the trail. But my hostess was very gracious about it and I made sure later to look her up to see that I indeed could look much better cleaned up!

My B&B in Hermann
A nice place to spend a night!

The group dinner was at a rather funky little restaurant that was part of the place where most people were staying. It was cramped but adequate, and afterward I just wandered around the streets of Hermann looking at all the shops and places to stay, most of which were closed at mid-week in this pre-season time.

An interesting place for our group dinner

Day 6 – Hermann to Washington

35 miles

This was another ride along the river in good conditions, and was the first of two fairly short days to complete the ride. Along this stretch there are not very many places with decent accommodations, making the town of Washington about the only choice about halfway between Hermann and St Charles.

A break along the day’s route
Plowing the rich bottomlands soil
I did get a couple photos with myself in them
Not the Crowne Plaza!

At the end of the ride, our bikes had to be loaded into the trailer so they could drive us across the river and into Washington, where our hotel was a bit south of the town. As I said, accommodations were scarce but the Super 8 was at least clean, quiet, and comfortable. Some opted to be shuttled into town for fancier dining, but Bob and I decided to just go across the highway to a chain restaurant. It was not a bad way to cap off the last full day of riding.

Day 7 – Washington to St Charles

27 miles to the finish line

The last day of the trip was only 27 miles back to the Springhill Suites in St Charles where we had spent the first night after registration, so it would be a leisurely overall pace. We started out with an educational tour of what remains of the large German community that used to live along the river, mostly tending vineyards that were similar to the ones they had known in the Rhine River valley. Into the early 20th century there was a large community that spoke German, had German schools, German newspapers, and more. This way of life had ended around the time of WWI due to strong anti-German sentiment around the country. Then Prohibition helped destroy much of what remained. Since I came from a similar German-populated area (Cincinnati) and have some German heritage, this was quite interesting to me.

One of the historic homes in the German district
Some of the other participants

Further along the trail, we ran into the first rain that we had encountered during our week of riding. We had been lucky since this trip in the Spring months had been known to have some rainy weather. We didn’t actually ride in the rain since it had passed just before we got there, but the trail was muddy in spots and those without fenders or at least a rear rack like mine ended up with muddy stripes up their backs.

One of the few spots that was blocked by deadfall

At lunchtime, we stopped at the headquarters of the trip’s outfitters and guides, Katy Bike Rentals, in Defiance, MO. Everyone was feeling good at having just about completed the long ride across Missouri, and a bit of rain and mud at this point couldn’t dampen any spirits.

Katy Bike Rentals HQ and shop
An unhurried lunch on the patio

From there it was full speed ahead to St Charles, with the trail passing under busy highways and the scenery becoming more developed and urban. The last few miles were on pavement and there was a lot of other traffic on it with local riders, runners, and walkers. Finally we reached the hotel, which is situated right next to the trail. There was a faucet and hose available for washing the worst of the grime off the bike before I found my car in the garage and stowed the bike away.

Some of the last riding under the bluffs
Under a freeway that goes into nearby St Louis
Almost there!
The Mother-in-Law House

That evening, we had our final dinner at a popular restaurant along St Charles’ main shopping strip. At that point I was pretty tired from all the days of activity and was glad to get back to my room to get a good night’s sleep before starting back for home in the morning.

Our “Farewell Dinner” — a Road Scholar tradition

In summation, this is one of the best-known and longest rail-trails in the country, although not as spectacular and historic as the GAP/C&O route. Still, I was glad I had done it and would even consider doing it again with a different outfitter. As for the Road Scholar organization with whom I had booked it, to date I haven’t done any more of this type of tour with them, but my wife and I have gone on a number of their more conventional tours since then to locations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and they have become our favorite travel company.

Back home with a clean bike again
Categories: Tours


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