Interested in a half-day hike or a weeklong bicycle journey across some of Missouri’s most scenic areas? How about nature study or learning more about our nation’s westward expansion? Wherever your interests lie, the Katy Trail can deliver.
Winding its way for 250 miles, this jewel of middle Missouri occupies a segment of rail corridor that once carried trains of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (the nickname “Katy” comes from “KT” in the railroad’s abbreviated name, MKT).
After the railroad deactivated this line in 1986, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources converted it to what is now one of the longest continuous rails-to-trails projects in the country. Rated easy to moderate, the car-free Katy is an ideal hike or bike destination for anyone interested in experiencing the best of Midwest Americana.
The trail is fairly level throughout. A hard-packed, crushed limestone pathway extends from Machens (near St. Louis) on Missouri’s eastern border to Clinton, nearly all the way across the Show Me State. Managed as a state park and with 30 convenient trailheads, the Katy offers a multitude of trip options from leisurely to ambitious.
Where to Go
History buffs will most enjoy exploring the 153-mile section between St. Charles and Boonville, which has been officially designated a segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. There you’ll closely follow the route of the epic 1804 Corps of Discovery expedition, when nearly four dozen intrepid explorers toiled up the mighty Missouri River in a 55-foot shallow-draft keelboat. For them, 14 miles was a good day’s progress.
Today, traveling upriver by bicycle on a smooth pathway is a whole lot easier, not to mention faster. You’ll meander through densely forested valleys and floodplain wetlands, and beneath towering sandstone and limestone bluffs where bald eagles and turkey vultures soar.
In many places, you’ll be treated to sweeping views as the trail runs immediately beside the river and just above the water level. Posted along the route are historical facts about Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone and other noteworthy pioneers.
When the Katy splits from the river near Boonville, the corridor’s personality changes to one of gently rolling farmland and remnant prairie with small, welcoming historic towns and whistle stops never more than a few miles apart. A couple of the old train depots have been restored and are now museums.
When to Go
Spring is one of the best times to catch the Katy, but May typically has the most rain, followed closely by April, June and November. July and August can be hot and humid, but a canopy of oak and sycamore trees along the trail gives cool shade. Fall’s colors peak around the middle of October, a great time to see the Katy in all its brilliance.
Businesses at many trailheads provide bike rentals, refreshments, groceries, lodging and restrooms. Impromptu camping is not allowed along the trail; however, several private campgrounds and public parks cater to campers.
Many side trails extend from the Katy, reaching into nearby communities. One of these is the picturesque 9-mile MKT Nature and Fitness Trail that leads to Columbia, home of the University of Missouri’s main campus and numerous museums and cultural attractions.
The compacted limestone makes for an easy ride, except for a few rough spots or after a hard rain. A hybrid bike is ideal for the Katy; however, much of it has the feel of a paved road and is also suitable for road bikes. If you’re thinking of riding the entire distance, consider traveling from west to east, taking advantage of the “downhill” run toward the Mississippi River and a little push from the prevailing westerly winds. The elevation in Clinton, the trail’s western terminus, is 780 feet. Traveling east, you’ll reach a high point of 955 feet, and then it’s mostly downhill to St. Charles, at 452 feet.