On one of our trips through Missouri, we discovered one of the most unusual state parks we ever visited, a narrow 225-mile long corridor that stretches across the state from east to west. Along the way, Missouri offers people of all ages and interests unique recreational opportunities. If you are a hiker, bicyclist, history buff, or nature lover, you’ll love Katy Trail State Park.
The park is built on the former corridor of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) Railroad (better known as the Katy). When the railroad ceased operations in 1986, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources acquired the right-of-way through the National Trails System Act. In 1991, the Union Pacific Railroad donated an additional 33 miles of rail corridor from Sedalia to east of Clinton, and additional purchases and donations have been added.
The trail winds through some of the most scenic areas of the state. Much of the trail closely follows the route of the Missouri River, so hikers and bicyclists often find themselves with the river on one side and towering bluffs on the other. The route travels through many types of landscapes, from dense forests to wetlands, deep valleys, prairies, pastureland, and gently rolling farm fields. Flowering dogwood and redbud adorn the trail in the spring, and in the fall it is colored with the deep reds and oranges of sugar maple, sumac, and bittersweet trees.
Wildlife is abundant along the trail. Bird lovers will see everything from nuthatches to hawks, chickadees, and even bald eagles in the winter. Because it is located along the Missouri River Flyway, migrating birds and waterfowl, such as great blue heron, sandpipers, and Canada geese are sighted frequently.
History buffs will find plenty to see and do along the Katy Trail as it wanders through the mostly forgotten small towns that once were busy stops along the railroad corridor. The route will take you through the area known as Missouri’s Rhineland, with its rich German heritage, and through towns that were caught in the horror of the Civil War.
The section of trail between St. Charles and Boonville has been designated as an official segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, and the entire trail is part of the American Discovery Trail.
Information kiosks located at stops along the trail provide information about the history, and plant and animal life along that section of the route. While some energetic adventurers set out to travel the complete route of the Katy Trail, most people take it a little bit at a time, exploring one segment for a while and then returning at another time to experience another portion of the park. Hikers and bicyclists share the trail with horseback riders in some areas, but except for near the towns, most of the trail is little traveled and not crowded.
For most of its route, the Katy Trail is fairly level and not very strenuous, making it popular with families with small children. Trailheads spaced along the route provide parking areas and other amenities. Many communities also offer services to trail users.
Traveling the Katy Trail from east to west, the route begins in St. Charles, one of the most historic towns along the route. Originally a French settlement dating back to the mid-1700s, St. Charles was the state’s first capital. The original Capitol is now part of the First Missouri State Capitol State Historic Site.
The trail follows the Missouri River westward here, through the scenic limestone bluffs of the Weldon Spring Wildlife Area. The Klondike Quarry area east of Augusta is known for its white quartz sandstone, which was used in manufacturing glass.
Marthasville, established around 1800 near the site of an early 1763 French trading post, is a good stop along the trail. Daniel Boone, famous for his pioneering adventures in Kentucky, spent the last years of his life in this area, and his gravesite, a mile east of Marthasville, is only a short distance from the trail.
As the trail winds its way west, the sandstone and limestone bluffs are spectacular, towering as much as 250 feet over the trail. Be sure to stop in Hermann, known for its German heritage and vineyards, and the Deutschheim State Historic Site.
Further along the trail, Jefferson City is the capital of Missouri, and tours are available of the impressive Capitol building, perched high on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. Jefferson City is also the location of Jefferson Landing State Historic Site.
As the trail approaches Rocheport, you will see more spectacular bluffs and Native American pictographs (rock drawings) that were mentioned in the journals of Lewis and Clark as they traveled up the Missouri River. A rare surviving pictograph can be seen above Lewis and Clark Cave on the trail.
Rocheport has many houses that date from before the Civil War. The only tunnel on the MKT line was built at Rocheport around 1893, and trail users today can pass through the 243-foot long stone-arched tunnel.
Boonville was one of the few towns that successfully made the transition from being a major river port to a booming railroad town. Reminders of this golden era can still be seen in Boonville, including the MKT depot, which has been restored and serves as the headquarters for the Boonville Chamber of Commerce.
Between Boonville and Sedalia, the landscape changes as the trail passes through rolling hills, deep woods, and river bottoms. This is where the route begins to be more challenging, and bikers can expect to have to pedal more strenuously here.
Much of the route from Sedalia to Clinton is through land once dominated by prairie. Although most of the land has been converted to farmland, prairie plants such as big bluestem or compass plant can still be seen along the trail.
The Katy Trail State Park ends in Clinton, the seat of government for Henry County. But a trip along the Katy Trail is only the beginning because it introduces visitors to so much of the best of central Missouri that most will find themselves returning again to explore even more that the region has to offer.
For more information about Katy Trail State Park, call the Missouri Department of Natural Resources toll-free at 800-334-6946.
Be sure to enter our latest Free Drawing. This week’s prize is a four-book set of audiobooks from my pal Carol Ann Newsome’s popular Dog Park mystery series. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – I’m on two diets. I wasn’t getting enough food on one.
Thanks, Nick! We recently moved to Missouri and will definitely add this to our list of things to do. Always appreciate your writings!!