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Katy Trail Ride Report: Sylvan, dusty, rural, and always pedaling

By Tom Gibb

The Katy Trail: a ride report.

Route: Clinton, MO to St. Charles, MO, 225 miles on the longest Rails to Trails bicycle trail in the USA.

Character of the ride: I thought of "Sylvan" because most of the trail has trees on at least one side and often both. I also thought about "Dusty" because of the dust from the trail's crushed limestone surface. "Rural" would do as well, most of the towns that the trail goes through are extremely small. But since it's so very "Flat" something about "Always pedaling" is winning out in my mind. But; buggy, crowded, windy, rainy, hot, or cold are not under consideration.

Services: They are fairly common, but you don't always find a grocery store near the trail heads or even water at the trail heads. Food for a day or two in the panniers and two full water bottles would not be amiss. Camping is available at or near many towns, sometimes in the city park and other times in very nicely appointed campgrounds. There are more B&Bs than campgrounds. In addition there are postings by off trail hotels offering free shuttle services (a cell phone might prove useful).

Shuttle service and information: I put those two together because of the character of the character named Gary Creason who owns and operates "Creason's Katy Trail Shuttle Services" (1-573-694-2027). Gary has the longest running shuttle service on the trail and knows a great deal about the trail and it's services. If you call him to arrange a shuttle back to your car (advance booking is advised) be prepared to take notes. He will probably ask about your planned itinerary and will likely spare you some inconveniences. I call the man Honest, he tries hard to group shuttle parties to split the costs among as many as possible. In our case he arrived on schedule to collect myself and another party but informed us that he had made an emergency pickup and drop off before he got to St. Charles and thus our cost was now half of what we expected it to be. Neither I nor the other party would have had any way of knowing about the other pickup. Gary can TALK, but he can also drive with concentration while he does so. He knows all the sights and attractions along the route and is more than willing to make quick stops to be a tour guide. In fact, he suggests the stops. But he will also graciously defer from that function if asked. Also check out http://www.bikekatytrail.com/planner.aspx it has excellent information and will give you an itinerary that gives the distances between the trail heads and list any of the services you indicate when you set up the planner. If you are going to call on Mr. Creason, print out your ride itinerary with the type of accommodations you are looking for (B&B, campground, etc) and have it ready to make notes on when you do call.

Amtrak is a viable option for connecting with your automobile when done with the ride, but Amtrak doesn't go to Clinton, just Sedalia. Certainly not an insurmountable problem, but a 35 mile problem nonetheless. Gary told he intends to make next year, 2005, his last year of shuttling but there was a shuttle service or two operating out of St. Charles this last season.

Day one: Clinton to Sedalia.
Distance: 43 miles including the ride from our camp site to the trail head. (Trail distances will be from the map, the weight in my front panniers caused my computer to be optimistic)

We started at the Sparrow Foot campground in Clinton, MO as recommenced by Gary Creason. We arrived there the previous morning and set up camp. It is 8.3 miles (according to my bike computer) from the trail head. From there I drove to St. Charles leaving Susan at the campground. There are plenty of motels that are closer to the trail head. This was necessary for us because we were camping and intended to go on to Chicago to see our youngest son and so wanted the car in St.Charles at the eastern end of the trail when we finished. Riding from the campground to the trail head was on a good shoulder along a highway. The ride on the trail that day was flat, mostly through trees with occasional road crossings and bridges. That description would serve for most of the trail. But we also had a tail wind the whole day!

We made one food stop on the local economy in Windsor, at one of the smallest Dairy Queens in the world. This thing is planted in someone's front yard, right up against the front steps of the house. The turn for the several block detour from the trail is marked by their sign.

Arrival in Sedalia was a little humorous. Camping is at the state fair grounds and is set up with hook ups for camping vehicles. As we didn't know exactly where we could camp we did a little wandering around and pulled into the first place that had camping activity. It turned out that we crashed a "rally" of very large campers each bearing the name "Discovery" . These things were pushing the size of Greyhound buses (there were about 400 of them) and each had a smaller vehicle (as in car, SUV or pickup truck) in tow. I felt like Gulliver in Brobdingnag. Once we got things figured out we found a nice shady spot, close to the bathrooms and showers. That time of year we could have camped at any of the spots that had hook ups and still only paid the tenting fee. I seriously think that if we were to spread the tent, rainfly and all our clothing out on the ground we wouldn't have covered as much of the earth as any one of these "Discoveries" did without the extra automobile, satellite dish and dog pen.

There was only one other bicycling couple camped there. I hope that was because it was late in the season, and there were others staying in hotels, motels and B&Bs. This time of the year (10-3 to 10-7) is a good one because of the temperature, it was even a little cool at times. But Gary Creason commented that some of the B&Bs were closing up by this time of the season. A couple of weeks later the presence of black walnuts on the trail among drifts of fallen leaves will make riding hazardous. For those that have never encountered black walnuts, they come in a hull a little smaller than a tennis ball with a very hard nut inside that is similar in appearance to an English walnut. While the nut inside is a very hard one to crack, it's the intact outer hull that can wreck a rider. Gary Creason told me he has done many emergency pickups of riders that have been injured as a result of hitting them.

Day two: Sedalia to the Katy Round House campground and restaurant.
38.9 miles

This was the day of flat tires, two of them, and the only ones of the trip. It was also the day we met most of the people we would be sharing the trail with off and on for the rest of the way. The first was a group of three women from Colorado that were riding the trail while their husbands drove support. They were laughing about the apparent difficulty the guys were having assembling from their various lodgings. We also met a tour group from the downhill ski club called the "Over the Hill Gang International" (www.othgi.com) which is based in Colorado Springs where we live. We were to encounter them off and on most days. This was also a day of climbing . . . 1-2% or so for maybe up to a mile at a time! Ho Hum, I even used the middle chainring. We passed a sign indicating the highest point on the trail, 955 feet or so based on our faulty memories. We also acquired the head wind that was to be our constant companion for the rest of the ride. The trees and river bluffs usually made that wind of little matter and even without that protection it was quite mild compared to a summer afternoon on the plains of eastern Colorado.

The day took us through the second biggest town on the trail, Boonville, (Clinton and St. Charles are at either end) Sedalia being the largest. It has plenty of services including a bike shop. Our destination for the day was the Katy Roundhouse campground, which is just on the other side of the river from Boonville. This was the only time we were to cross the river. The crossing is on a highway bridge with a wide sidewalk for the purpose. It was the best climb of the whole ride, but due to the sharp turn a little before the bottom of the north side of the bridge we were denied the enjoyment of the downhill side. The "Roundhouse" has the remains of an actual railroad roundhouse. This, for the few that might not know about them, is a turntable like structure that is used to turn train cars around without the use of a huge loop of track. There isn't much left but just enough to leave me wondering if they used muscle power to turn the thing or if it was motor driven. The campground is nice, with picnic tables and showers. It also has a restaurant that is well spoken of, but we were eager to reduce the load of food we were carrying so we ate "at home."

Day three: Katy Roundhouse to Hartsburg.

This is considered the most picturesque part of the ride. The picture on the front of the free map that the state of Missouri supplies was taken on this portion. It is also the part with the old rail tunnel. We had considered camping at Easley or Wilton. But we had been warned of "River Rats" at Easley by various sources and by Gary that he was unaware of any recent commercial activity at Wilton. We didn't stop at Easley but tried at Wilton. There was still a sign advertising camping and a store. I rode up (the only time I used the middle chainring this day) and found a building with all the appropriate signs for a store but also with a "closed" sign. So much for that. That left us with camping in one of two parks at Hartsburg, at Busche's landing at Hartsburg, riding on to Tebbetts and the "Katy Trail Shelter" which has had a negative write up on the newsgroup, or spending the night in Hartsburg's only B&B. We chose the B&B. Busche's landing looks like a commercial campground right on the edge of the river that caters to camping vehicles and had no outhouse type facilities or public water taps that we could locate when we stopped there a year ago. The B&B used to be the "Globe" hotel and still carries the signs. It harks back to the railroad days. There was another bicycling couple staying the night and a single rider. The owner (and chief cook and bottle washer, etc) Janette, told us that she gets 99% of her business from the bike trail. I guess the other 1% arrives during the annual pumpkin festival which brings so many people into the town that they encourage people to park at nearby towns along the trail and bicycle in. Hartsburg qualifies as a tiny town. I don't think it could have more than 100 residents. There are three places one can obtain meals in the town, the bar and grill (closed while we were looking for an early dinner) a combination café and variety store, which was also closed, and a Winery sort of restaurant that served substantial sandwiches and also offered soft drinks along with a variety of wines, and was open. If nothing had been available we'd have taken our stove and food to the park and lightened our load a little more. The town also boasts a bicycle shop, but it was closed the day we were there. There are a few drawbacks to going on the off season. The breakfast at the Globe was very good and bicycler substantial. Janette provided ziplock bags and encouraged us to take some of her homemade muffins along as trail snacks. I would stay there again, but before I think of stopping there in the fall I'll check ahead so I won't run afoul of the Pumpkin Festival when there certainly will be no room at the inn.

Day four: Hartsburg to Bluffton
42.7 miles

Another nice ride with a few washed out spots on the trail. These were sometimes marked and sometimes not. Sometimes there was a sign that indicated trail damage but we were at a loss to detect it. We camped at Steamboat Junction which is about 200 yards east of the turn for Bluffton. This looks like a working farm with a campground. The campground caters to camping vehicles as well as tent campers. We had a nice level spot with a table and chairs.

Day five: Bluffton to the end at St. Charles.
71.4 miles

We awoke to the sound of a light rain shower which was shortly followed by a heavy rain shower. We got going a little early and had more rain in the morning some of which was heavy. There was enough rain that the trail became a little soft in places. But the rain was intermittent and it cleared off by early afternoon. We stopped at Augusta and treated ourselves to "New Orleans Snow Balls" which are like a snow cone (shaved ice and fruit flavored syrup) but with more flavor. The establishment was a bike shop that also had a snack bar, or was it the other way around? They confirmed Gary Creason's comments about the new camping place, a state or county park called "Klondike" that was about 1.5 miles east of Augusta. The description made it sound very inviting but a short weather discussion with the only park ranger we were to meet made it even more inviting to extend our miles that day to get to St. Charles before the heavy rains began that evening, which they did. This was Susan's longest day ever and she did well. Our speed over the day was only second to our first day and that had a tail wind. Toward the end of the day we arrived at a section where there were no trees on either side of the trail and our friend the head wind was there to meet us. Susan slipped into my draft and then began encouraging more and more speed. When we hit a sheltered section I slipped back to ride beside her again and she, having found that she liked the higher cadence that she had settled into while drafting me, kept most of the extra speed up. I might add that she was not wasted the next day, a consequence we were prepared for.

We rode past a section of dead timber with grass all around it. This was in a trough that paralleled the trail and I wondered if it wasn't part of the legacy of the floods of 1993 and 1995. A little closer to St. Charles that same trough was an actual swamp full of drowned trees. We also met our only black snake of the ride. A very nice specimen of about 3 feet. It displayed an interesting behavior while we were "herding" it off the trail, it shook it's tail the way a rattle snake would! We saw a few snakes most days, including a few specimens that were probably the water snakes called cotton mouths. They have, according to the books, a muted X pattern on their dorsal surface. There were a few dead snakes on the trail, I suppose being run over by a bicycle is lethal to any snake unless the surface underneath is quite soft.

\ It was on this day that we passed McKittrick, the trail head where we would have to leave the trail if we were to go to Hermann. Hermann is on the south (other) side of the river and is a nice little town (we stopped there a year ago) but the bridge made me edgy while driving over it in the car. It is very narrow, leaving just enough room for automobiles and (cringe) trucks without having a bicycle thrown in for bad measure. My thought was that I would prefer to swim my bike across the Missouri river rather than risk that bridge without a police escort. It turns out that if a local sees a bicycler crossing that bridge they will turn on their four way blinkers and provide the escort. Now, how to pick the time when the right person is crossing the bridge . . .

Minor equipment notes:

Shimano sandals: I'll use them again. I had absolutely no discomfort on the longest day and they were perfectly suitable for the walking we did.

Handlebar bag: I purchased a small Topeak one on sale from Nashbar. Just big enough to hold a 35 mm camera or plenty big enough for a cell phone, digital camera (small one, the size of a cell phone) and a few Cliff Bars. I liked it and got a lot of pictures I couldn't have gotten otherwise, but I had to use the fixture they provided to keep my computer in front of me. Not waterproof as an Ortlieb would be, but equipped with it's own little shower cap sized rain cover. Next spring I'll be asking it to carry the camera and a GPS.

Tires: 26X1.25 were plenty wide enough for this trail. We didn't try to "gonzo" the rough spots, but we didn't walk them either. Neither of our flats were pinch flats.

All in all it was a wonderful ride. We'd do it again. Perhaps a couple of weeks earlier in the season, but no later. The possibility of being picked up at an intermediate point on the trail makes it quite practical for an inexperienced tourer.

Tom Gibb

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