Catch up: A cross-country bike tour with a twist: Chris Reichel is riding his mountain bike from Colorado to North Carolina and hitting all the best trails along the way. If you missed earlier installments of the Ultimate Ride to the Ride, see them here.
By Chris Reichel
I never thought I would say this but, leaving Kansas City was hard. Moving on, with Kansas sufficiently in my rear view mirror, I knew that mountain bike trails would become much more common as I headed east. Saying goodbye to friends old and new, I set out across Missouri with another ride–along partner, the infamous Cog Fairy, Shanna. We had hundreds of flat miles ahead of us and the theory was that if she rode her singlespeed, she would go about the same pace as me towing the trailer. It was a good idea … in theory. But in reality, it just resulted in her dropping me and having to wait at every town for me to catch up.
In the late 1980’s, the railroad companies grew tired of repairing flood-damaged sections of tracks along the Missouri river and re-routed all trains to other tracks. The right of way was to be abandoned. Instead, following the lead of other communities in the state, the entire line was eventually acquired by Missouri and turned into a state park/recreation trail. The Katy Trail was born.
In total, it is 237 miles of flat, car free bicycle pleasure. Probably the coolest part about this route is how bicycle-friendly all the towns are (with the exception of one). There are a variety of inns, motels, restaurants and bars scattered along the route. You can also camp for free at the trailheads at the end of each day, if you so desire. It seemed like everyone in the towns wanted to talk about our ride and every single one of them credited the Katy Trail with providing a significant economic boost to the surrounding area.
The first objective of this leg was to get to Columbia, Missouri, in time for my birthday so that we could get a proper hotel room, enjoy the local breweries and ride some singletrack. We were a little behind schedule, due to all of the distractions along the trail. We started referring to these distractions as Trail Sirens: wonderful small town novelties that would lure us in with their sweet song of comfort food and ice-cold beverages, then steal hours of our day.
My personal favorite was all of the music we would stumble upon. It could be an old timer playing his guitar on a porch or a whole band playing inside the local breakfast joint at 7:00 a.m. Music was everywhere and it always made my day.
By the time we arrived in Columbia, it was dark and pouring rain. The rain was surprisingly warm so it wasn’t too terrible, although the lightning was rather unnerving. Soaking wet, we pulled off the bike path and into the welcoming arms of Flat Branch Brewery. Great beer, food and a warm bed felt like high-class living. But unfortunately the rain would not let up until well into the next day. I’m not one to rut up a trail system in the rain, so there would be no mountain biking for me on my birthday. A few beers at another little brewery were a sufficient backup plan before rejoining the Katy Trail.
Leaving Columbia, we were treated to the best Trail Siren yet. Cooper’s Landing is famous amongst Katy Trail veterans for, of all things, its Thai food. Right there, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is a small Thai food truck situated amongst some campsites and a general store. With big views of a bend in the Missouri river, tasty food and a super friendly vibe, this place is well worth stopping for.
By day three, the monotony of a flat trail was starting to get old. There are very few opportunities to stand up and coast and your sit bones pay the price. We developed a rhythm of stopping every so often to walk around, nap, destroy absurd amounts of ice cream and shoot pebbles with a wrist rocket my buddy Burnsey gifted me before we left KC.
The trail seemed to be extra flat along the eastern half. We trudged on, swatting mosquitoes and dodging countless baby frogs, newly hatched from the nearby swampland. A side trip was made to the quaint state capital, Jefferson City, to visit Prison Brews. It was a worthy detour.
As we got closer to St Louis, the amount of bike traffic steadily increased. It was amazing to see so many people utilizing the bike path. With the added people came an increase in questions about the ridiculous rig I was towing. My explanation was always greeted with a smile and a “good luck.” But by that time, I was already about half finished with the trip. Spirits were high and I didn’t really need luck. I just needed to keep pedaling.
The final day on the Katy Trail began with a message from an old friend saying that he was at a trail system near St Louis hosting a mountain bike demo. When I looked up the location, it was only a few miles off the route. We would be there by late afternoon with just enough daylight to get a good ride in with friends.
The Lost Valley trails were quite a treat after five days of flat, crushed limestone. We had a blast chasing each other through the singletrack on this small but action-packed trail system.
The Katy Trail was such a unique experience that I would recommend it to any cyclist looking for a mellow, multi-day ride. Free camping along the route and super friendly towns make it the perfect gateway drug to bike touring. A couple hundred miles of car free riding doesn’t hurt, either!