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Ride Report: Katy Trail/Rock Island Spur Bike Odyssey

By Betsy Lubis

July 2017

For years, I’ve envisioned riding the entire Katy Trail without resorting to car travel to get me anywhere on it. Yet, with the Katy’s western terminus 70 or so bike unfriendly miles from home, I never quite figured out how to plan the journey. Then, the Rock Island Spur that juts off from Windsor and ends up in Pleasant Hill came into being. And, Pleasant Hill, while still 35 to 40 miles away, presented much more of an option in the way of biking to or fro. So, we began to plan a trip, if not of the entire Katy, at least of a significant chunk.

My husband’s last day of work was scheduled for Friday, June 30. Before retirement was given a chance to settle in, we packed up the bikes and set out early Saturday for Kansas City’s Union Station. Ten miles from home, it was an easy jaunt.

The Missouri River Runner allows four bikes per trip. We’d reserved two of those spots. A young lightly packed couple arriving after us claimed the other two. We introduced ourselves, each pair curious for the others’ Katy plans. They were taking the train to Hermann, biking to relatives’ in Columbia, then, a few days later, biking on to Sedalia and catching another train back here from there. They, and other non-bikers awaiting the River Runner’s departure, were impressed with our packed panniers and tent-strapped bike rack, as we explained our plan to bike from Kirkwood in suburban St. Louis back home to Overland Park, Kansas. Or, better stated, they were impressed until another couple in their early sixties, like us, with twice the number of packed panniers, handlebar bags, and anything else that could be stuffed on a bike wheeled into the waiting room. When I opined that I thought the train only accommodated four bikes, the woman waved away my concern. They were Chicago bound, heading eventually, to Canada’s Banff National Park where they would bike and camp for a month. Suddenly, our paltry multi-day excursion lost its buzz among the waiting room crowd.

On the train itself, an extended family that included Louie, an adorable three-year old, who’d been told they were going to his city, St. Louie, settled in front of us. At some point in the trip, Louie’s father volunteered their plans; a baseball game, the zoo, the Arch. We suggested they not miss the City Museum as it had been our children’s favorite place. He said it was somewhere on the itinerary.

After the train reached Kirkwood around 1:30 p.m., we biked 1.7 miles south to the Hampton Inn. The main route to the hotel would have taken us right down Kirkwood Avenue which, though it appears calm near the train station, becomes commercial further on as it turns into Historic US 66 and nears I-44. As here, there, and everywhere, navigating routes over, under and around interstate highways is the most difficult and congested component of riding. With that in mind, we took Geyer south, passing over I-44 and overshot the hotel, passing through a Home Depot parking lot, to circle back and approach with the hotel on our right. Saturday afternoon traffic was fierce on Kirkwood, but we only had a sprint to go. For anyone contemplating a similar escapade, there’s a Best Western on Kirkwood that’s north of the I-44 interchange. It might be possible to reach it from the train station via side roads and parking lots without much biking on Kirkwood itself. However, we happened to have Hampton points we wanted to use and chose a little danger in order to save a couple of bucks.

Saturday night, the hotel was full, little leaguers from Springfield, a wedding party or two, and us, the lone bikers. We walked back under I-44 to get to a restaurant and then settled in for a quiet night. We wanted to get an early start Sunday morning as we’d be navigating unfamiliar streets.

An internet search beforehand had given us six suggested routes for getting from Kirkwood (the train station) to the Page Street Connector with the Katy. With slight variation and addition since we were originating at the Hampton Inn south of the station, we traveled this: north on Kirkwood a very short stint, just to get past the highway, then left (west) on Martin Luther King Drive. It’s unmarked and looks like the high school entrance. Then, right (north) on Maryhurst, left (west) on Big Bend, right (north) on Geyer, (a long distance on Geyer; pretty, residential, lots of other bikers on Sunday morning), right (east) on Clayton (just for a bit in order to catch Spoede, left (north) on Spoede, left (west) on Ladue, right (north) on North Mosley, left (west) on Olive (commercial but four lane and only a short spurt), right (north) on Craig, which arcs around to the left, over another highway, becoming West Port Plaza, then Marine Avenue which ends up just to the left of Creve Coeur Lake. This was all of fifteen or so miles and, other than the last Craig, West Port, Marine section with more traffic near the end (people zooming to the park?), was an agreeable morning ride. The same route in rush hour might not be so pleasant. But, if a Katy rider got off the train in Kirkwood, early in the afternoon, as we had the previous day, and set out directly on this route, it appears to be quite doable. One could easily reach the Katy, before rush hour traffic set in, four miles shy of St. Charles, and head there, with its plenty of places to stay.

Back at Creve Coeur, though, we stopped by the lake and debated which way to take around. On-line, I’d read to go north/west but that appeared longer on the map than an east/south circumnavigation and the information may have dated from a time before any east/south route existed. As we idled there, a couple finishing their run, offered help, confirming the east/south route as the shorter. “When the path splits between paved and unpaved, stay on the paved, then take a left at the first circle, and a right at the second,” the woman of the pair explained. We then asked about bathrooms and water fountains. She pointed us to a nearby port-a-potty and said, yes, although she didn’t know exactly where, she was certain there were “bubblers” around. Bubblers. I vowed right then and there to never refer to drinking fountains as anything else ever again.

Of course, we mistakenly took a right at the first circle. Stopped this time to analyze our predicament, two ladies walking by asked how far we were riding. “To Kansas,” we answered. The more vocal of the two then launched into her story. She’d gone to Overland Park in 1996 to help a friend with something dental related. When that was done, he followed her, in his truck, lights flashing, while she rode her bike to the start of the Katy, wherever that was at the time. I tried to ask how many miles they travelled in that manner. Fixed on her narrative, my questions failed to register. She’d already moved on to the Booneville chapter, where, without the anti-anxiety medicines she’d mailed home to lighten her load, she’d stood for forty-five minutes at the edge of the old grated bridge, looking down at the water, unable to cross. Ultimately, the service station owner at that end of the bridge came out, loaded her and her bike into his pickup and drove her over to Snoddy’s Store on the other side. Not to worry, he counselled, he’d seen big men, football player types, stand in the same spot longer than her. Eventually, the narrative ended and we went off to make the correct turns to get us up on the bridge and on the connector to the Katy.

At some point, we stopped to eat the bagels we’d taken from the hotel breakfast bar. Another couple of fellow bikers asked how far we were riding. They live in Kirkwood, near the train station and were quite interested in divining the route we’d taken from there. Though the woman of the pair pronounced it a tad too hilly (we hadn’t thought so) for their tastes, she gave it a passing grade. Out for a day’s ride, they’d driven to the Page Street Connector, or thereabouts, (avoiding hills) to begin their ride. They also volunteered that they’d completed the entire Katy multiple times on the Missouri Natural Resources supported rides, although for one of those nights, not crazy about the openness of the designated campsite, they routinely escaped to a bed and breakfast.

At another point, my husband skidded to a stop behind me as he yelled out that I’d just passed a copperhead posing as a stick. Except that when I’d passed, it’d reared its head. A lady following behind us was leery to even pass on the far side of the trail. Another pair, coming up behind her, sped past exclaiming something about overreacting as they went.

We’d made reservations for a campsite at Klondike Park in St. Charles County. Brett Dufur’s The Katy Trail Guidebook lists two access points: mile markers 63.5 and 64.1. This second entrance is supposed to emerge right beside the campground. Unfortunately, we chose a third route, between the two, thinking it was the paved second entrance and ended up lugging our bikes up a steep non-paved trail. Later, following some actual signage, we found the paved trail, steep but rideable.

A little ridge at the edge of our campsite (basic campsite #5, $10 a night), offered an impressive view of the Missouri River. The bathrooms were near and clean. A few other campers were dispersed here and there with no one too close. We highly recommend Klondike Park to camp. However, we had no dinner with us, so, after setting up our tent, we biked 3.7 miles or so on to the actual town of Augusta. The couple from Kirkwood said it had few places for dinner. We said we’d read of the Augusta Brewhouse and planned to eat there. They said the hours were spotty. The place will close early without warning if no one is around. But, we arrived by 5:00, and though the plethora of day bikers from St. Louis had appreciably thinned, the beer was still running. We easily downed two alongside our burgers.

We carried a small stove without real plans to cook. A few years earlier, we’d ridden and camped the trail from Clinton to Rocheport and back again. After starting each morning of biking on that trip with a search for coffee, this time, we wanted to be able to make our own, even instant would do. After showers, we heated water for peppermint tea before settling into our tent for the night. Also, for emergency rations, we’d brought a few granola bars just in case. As we drank our tea, I asked my husband, Wayne, if we needed to worry about tying our meager fare out of varmints’ reach. We talked about it without reaching a conclusion and then went to bed. The plastic bag containing the granola bars remained on the picnic table.

I was barely asleep when Wayne jolted up to a sit. I mumbled, what’s going on. He shushed me with a whispered, “there’s someone out there.” He remained in place a minute longer before dropping the issue by laying back down and rolling over. I thought, what the heck? Alert me to danger and then just go back to sleep? So, I sat up, looked, listened, saw, heard nothing and eventually laid back down as well. Not two minutes later, I felt scratching on the tent next to my head. We both jerked up this time. He grabbed one of the headlamps we had nearby, unzipped the tent, ran out. He didn’t see anything, but in the light cast, I noticed a bag on the ground beneath the picnic table. He secured it to the clothesline he’d hung earlier to air out our sweaty bike clothes. Closer inspection the next morning will reveal a ragged hole in the plastic bag. However, the granola bar wrappers will remain intact.

Monday morning, we biked to Dutzow for breakfast at the Dutzow Deli. The old couple seated behind us inquired of our young, flip-flopped server if the place has changed hands. She didn’t appear to understand the question. Then, they ask if they still serve the huge pancakes. Yes. She understood that one. We have one each, they are quite large, along with our eggs and sausage, all very good.

Later, we took the turnoff to Hermann, but only far enough to get up on the road to buy snacks at Loutre Market. This trip is becoming all about biking in search of food. Soon, it becomes about biking to find shelter.

We’ve read that Hermann City Park offers camping potential. But, it’s only early afternoon, too early to stop. We know it’s wine country and many bikers stop to enjoy a winery or two in Hermann. Yet, we’ve already decided this is a grittier beer drinking adventure for us, so we’re not now interested. Plus, it’s the third of July. Who knows what patriotic celebrations they may be having in the city park. So, after our snacks, we return to the trail and bike on.

Steamboat Junction is the next possibility. It’s a self-service campground, at least during the week, that now appears deserted. And, it’s in the middle of nowhere with non-existent dinner possibilities. Plus, it’s only 3:00 p.m. or so, still early to call it a day.

The next, and only other option, is River’s Edge Campground in Portland which we have tried to call. Between no one answering and our failing cell phone coverage (T-Mobile doesn’t seem to be the best in rural Missouri), we aren’t certain it still exists. When we reach Portland, though, there it is, set up a little above the trail, no larger in size than an average city lot with a trailer and a small building that turns out to be the bathroom occupying it.

Wayne is doubtful. Right out there in the open, it looks a little dubious. However, the night’s coming on by then. So, we cross the street to The Riverfront Bar and Grill where we’re assured the camping’s safe, the bar closes at 9:00, and the town is plenty quiet after dark. “Just pitch your tent,” a guy at the bar says, “and they’ll be around to check.”

So, we pitch our tent and leave a note saying we’re in the bar eating dinner if someone happens to come around. Dinner, burgers again, which end up getting old, and beer, which never does.

As we return to the camp site, a River’s Edge proprietor drives up. She takes our few dollars and unlocks the bathroom, which ends up, with us being the sole campers as our private bathroom. And, the water’s hot for showers even though the night’s still warm enough we would have been fine with cold.

After cleaning up, we sat on a bench at the edge of the trail. A boat ramp and parking lot are right there, too. So, we ended up talking to some fishermen heading out to set their lines. In particular, we watched as a son and father, the older, a significantly portly 64-year old, left in their boat only to return not even an hour later with a catfish they claimed to weigh seventy pounds in tow. When the scale was brought out, however, the catch was closer to 45. The old man concluded the scale was broken. Still, it was a big fish either way, and a mean SOB, as well, the old guy claimed. I resisted commenting that if someone stuck a hook in your mouth and pulled you out of your house, you’d sure as heck be a mean SOB, too.

Portland seemed to be full of characters, or maybe we just happened to encounter them at the right time. An old guy dragging a trash bag emerged from a nearby house, walked over to a parked pickup and started rummaging around in the bed, pulling out empty beer and soda cans. The owner of the truck came back from where he’d been down by the river and asked what he was doing. “Recycling,” the toothless old guy said. “Well, OK. I recycle, too. But, go ahead, help yourself,” came the response. Then, they proceeded to discuss various salvage yards. The people at one they both frequented, I think maybe in Jeff City, were deemed to be the friendliest lot. Then, the toothless recycler (this is when we realized he was toothless) approached to ask if we were camping up there. He nodded to our tent. Yes, we told him. “I’ll be up there to get your bottles and cans.” We didn’t have any, we explained. Other than the beer we drank at the bar and grill, we just had our refillable water bottles. Well, then, he’d get ours when he collected from the bar, he said, and marched off to do just that, we presumed.

We were just about to abandon our bench for bed when two gentlemen in a golf cart type vehicle, each with a beer in hand, arrived on the scene. They started discussing whether the river was coming up or going down and explained that if you live in a place like Portland you come down to the river every day and have this debate. Both had grown up here and both were recently back. One from 31 years in the Navy, the other from various pipe-fitting jobs all over the country. Both were at least slightly inebriated, and didn’t drive off until recounting this more than likely unoriginal gag: small towns like theirs never find enough people to serve in elected offices. So, the two of them, they said, share duties. One is the mayor four days a week and the town drunk the other three with the other taking the opposite shifts.

By 9:15 p.m., we’d settled in our tent. By 9:30, the fireworks began, loud, seemingly erupting right over our heads. Wayne briefly wondered if they were directed toward us. So, we got up and out to verify that it wasn’t an intentional thing. It wasn’t. We watched for a bit. They didn’t last too long. But, we hadn’t laid back down for long before a muffler-challenged van drove up and parked in the lot by the boat ramp. A guy in hard soled shoes got out and, at first or so we thought, started walking back and forth on the Katy Trail, behavior which seemed rather odd. But, if he were planning on bothering us, he seemed too loud about it. Between slamming the van door and holding a lengthy conversation on his phone, he didn’t prove to be the stealthy type. Finally, we realized he was only walking back and forth to the river. Eventually, still, we didn’t hear anything of him any longer though, in the meantime, I did spot some big shinny eyes outside in the brush on the edge of the campground. Raccoon, possum, cat, I don’t know. By then, too tired to care, I put my head back down and Portland, did, in fact, as the barkeeper claimed, get quiet for the night.

In the morning, just to note, the loud guy in the loud van returned from the river and drove away just as we were getting ready to pedal off.

It was Tuesday, July 4th, and we were unsure about finding any breakfast. We drank our instant coffee and ate the last two granola bars from our emergency stash. However, we seemed to always be hungry and they wouldn’t take us far. Fortunately, the Mokane Market was open, though we almost missed seeing it. They were even making sandwiches. Turkey and cheese, chips and more coffee became our initial holiday meal.

We planned on going as far as Cooper’s Landing, eating Thai food and camping there. Their website claimed to be family friendly and firework free. Not that we’re categorically opposed to fireworks but, as old as we are, we’ve seen and heard enough of them to last. (Just to clarify, though: For the next two days of riding we grew more categorically opposed to them when we kept encountering their detritus at nearly every place the trail crossed a road. Why those were choice rural Missouri spots for fireworks to be set off, we’ve yet to figure out.) Anyway, we arrived at Cooper’s around 2:00, paid $20 to camp, set up our tent, and proceeded to eat most-excellent Thai food along with another beer each. I then took a shower in Mr. Cooper’s bathroom while someone with a small child banged on the door to use it. Mr. Cooper would take a shower next, by the way. Live music was playing, more people were arriving, the drinking seemed to be increasing. I said I didn’t think it was going to be a quiet night. My husband said he could take the tent down in five minutes. We packed up and left.

Our sudden departure from Cooper’s, an all-around pleasant, if odd, place, meant we had to make it to Katy Roundhouse in New Franklin, approximately 30 miles away, as the next place to camp. (Katfish Katy’s is listed as a camping option in our version of Brett Dufur’s Guidebook. As of July, 2017, at least, under new ownership, it no longer is).

We rode somewhat aggressively in order to reach New Franklin before dark. And, before settling in at the Roundhouse, we had to veer back into the town square to get cash from the ATM. The Roundhouse only took cash and were short by a few dollars. That meant dinner came from the Casey’s General Store across the street from the bank: instant oatmeal, instant noodles, some trail mix we picked the raisins out to put in our oatmeal, then ate the rest as dessert. We took showers, again in our private bathroom, as we were the only tent campers in the place. Only two other sites were occupied, both by RVs. One was an obvious partying group a decent distance away and the other closer ones were a retired couple who offered us firewood. The husband, noticing our arrival on bikes, said they were there to ride the Katy. In fact, they’re rails to trails experts, driving their fifth wheel around the country to bike on the various routes.

As we readied for bed, more fireworks began. It was the Fourth, after all. But, this night, they’re far enough away to enjoy the display without being too close to the noise.

Rain arrived early in the morning only to break long enough for us to wake up and set off dry, but precipitation settled back in for a wet Wednesday morning ride. We opted not to stop in Boonville for breakfast only to find our prospects looking dim in Pilot Grove. It looked as if Casey’s again might be our only option. The clerk there, outside taking a smoke break, suggested we try the bar. They should be open. So, we backtracked to Deon’s Grill where the sign proclaimed 10:00 a.m. as their opening time. But, when we opened the unlocked door at 9:50 a.m. sharp, the woman behind the bar ushered us on in, explaining the sign meant bar time or 15 minutes off real time, however that works. In any case, the grilled ham and cheese sandwiches we ate for whatever meal it was were the best grilled ham and cheese we’ve ever consumed.

Nearing Sedalia, we’d been informed by a couple of people, the rails to trails couple included, that the trail detours onto a road. We’d thought they meant the few blocks that we’d ridden on the street in town during our previous trip. But, this is a longer, more rural strip. Someone had suggested it was dangerous in terms of cars speeding past. We didn’t think it was bad.

At the Sedalia depot, a young mountain biker looking-type used colorful language to describe the Rock Island Spur as rocky, country road rocky, he said, to omit the expletives. We both were undecided on whether to believe him at first. Our next day of riding would prove him right.

Still on Wednesday, though, we reached Green Ridge around 3:00. The rain had ended and the day was proving hot. At my insistence, we veered off the trail to another Casey’s as I’d concluded an ice cream sandwich would be the only thing capable of spurring me on to Windsor. My husband disagreed but ended up succumbing to a drumstick, since we were already there.

We were too wet, grimy and in a hurry to get going for the next morning’s long trek home to bother with camping again. So, we opted for Windsor’s Crossroads Motel, a 1950’s looking establishment the present owner is currently refurbishing. Given one of the already refurbished rooms, we were duly impressed. (Note: we were told that most bikers staying at the Crossroads normally take their bikes in to their rooms. Ours, we said, were way too filthy after the rain for that. Certainly, we were too filthy, as well, but made our way across the room to the shower as daintily as we could).

The motel owner also recommended the new Cinco de Mayo restaurant, a half mile or so back towards the center of town, for dinner, a recommendation we’d repeat any day of the week. After cleaning up, we walked back there. The food was great and the beers, ice cold.

Thursday morning, the Wagon Wheel Café was set to open at 6:00 a.m. We arrived shortly thereafter for eggs, sausage, toast, coffee and the orange juice I thought I’d die if I didn’t get. My first vitamin C since leaving home?

We wanted to get biking by 7:00 as 47.5 miles on the Rock Island Spur followed by 36 road miles after that to cross the KC metro area to home awaited. And, that mileage did not include the mistakes we were yet to make.

The first mistake was not knowing exactly where the Katy and the Rock Island Spur intersect. We’d seen a sign arriving in Windsor the evening before that indicated the Rock Island veered off to the left (south) which didn’t make sense, accompanied by another that stated the spur was two miles away. So, somewhere in my head, I thought if we just take the Katy two miles on from Windsor, we’ll reach the intersection. We set out that way and, certainly, two and a half miles later, we hadn’t reached an intersection. My logic made no sense, I began to realize as we were reversed and returned to Windsor. Rail lines wouldn’t have been constructed to intersect two miles out of town.

Back at the Windsor Katy Trailhead, my husband looked for a map while I veered over to the Casey’s where a guy in the parking lot confessed that he didn’t know where the trails intersected but if we kept on Highway WW, right there in front of us, a quarter mile down, we’d pass the high school and the Rock Island crossing would be right after that. So, I yelled back at my husband and we set off. Two local riders were coming off the trail just as we arrived and I asked them to confirm our choice to take a left since, at that point in my decision making, a little validation didn’t hurt.

The second mistake of the day was not remembering that the Rock Island Spur has no water at its trailheads. We realized this at Leeton and took a right off the trail into the town. Nothing looked promising. The General Store didn’t open till 10:00 and it wasn’t quite 9:30. On a tight schedule, we didn’t want to wait. Someone said the Casey’s there was a mile or so off toward the highway. We didn’t want to ride to that either, not to mention we didn’t know which highway they were talking about. Desperate, we accosted a man getting out of his car to get his mail at the Post Office and ended up following him the few blocks home. A retired Navy veteran and Lion Club member, he gave us four plastic water bottles, and filled up the ones for our bikes, plenty to get us to Pleasant Hill.

The Rock Island wasn’t the most scenic of rides. Mostly, it merely skirts farms of varying sorts. Yet, we were riding in shade more than we anticipated, stopping often to guzzle water augmented with electrolytes. All in all, we weren’t as miserable as we might have been with the thermostat well into the nineties.

As far as the rest of the trailheads, they appeared even more bleak in terms of resources than sparse little Leeton. So, for anyone making this ride, we suggest carrying plenty of water and snacks if you’re the hungry type.

And, after our 6:00 a.m. breakfast, by the time we reached Pleasant Hill, having been snack-free for the duration, we were quite ravenous. That’s where the Big Creek Café filled the void. Spaghetti with breadsticks was the special and we each devoured a humongous plate. As I shoveled food in, I noticed an elderly gentleman across the way staring at me. I smiled at him and kept stuffing it in. Pie appears to be a specialty of the Big Creek. Wayne suggested that surely I didn’t have room for a piece. Yet, I had no trouble demolishing that delectable slab of coconut cream along with a cup of coffee on top of everything else.

Did I mention how smelly and grimy we were as we entered the café and how nice our server was despite that fact? This, after she first thought we were just coming in to ask to fill our water bottles which they would have been more than happy to do without our eating there. Accordingly, we highly recommend the Big Creek Café in Pleasant Hill. Forgetting the trails, we might just bike back across town to eat there again now that we know the way.

Learning the way was a little touch and go, I must confess. Not to go into detail here, because it detours from the subject, but let’s just say it included a missed turn that added a mile or two, another almost detour before a kid told us we could get through, portaging as we went, another detour we barreled through as workers were finishing road work for the day, a downed bridge we had no option but to detour around on a state highway during rush hour, but which led us right where we wanted to go, and finally, a short spurt on a busy two lane city road still at rush hour where drivers were either rushing to get home or to a popular bar-b-que spot nearby. That morning, Wayne had predicted that without mistakes we’d be home around 8:00 p.m. while I claimed it’d be closer to 7:00. With plenty of mistakes, we rolled in at 7:15, my long envisioned train/bike only Katy odyssey complete, with me glad we went, but equally glad not to have to get up the next morning to ride it again. Not yet, anyway.

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