My wife and I had been wanting to do the Katy Trail for years. We finally did part of it this August, and shortly after getting back, a friend called and asked – will you plan a trip for a small group of men? (you can also find my overview of the trip my wife and I did, on this site.) Both trips covered much of the same parts of the trail, but were very different. I was both excited and nervous, as I’m not super organized, definitely not an event planner and planning a trip for a group of 6 is far more than 3 times as challenging as planning for two people. They’re wanting to do more trips there next year, for varying groups of people in the future, and this was the trial. Since we're also working on guided trips for 2023, it seemed the perfect time to give it a shot. Plus, most of our family vacations have been done with minimal notice due to work, so I've gotten accustomed to putting together trips at the last minute.
The parameters were pretty basic. Put together a fun, affordable, scenic trip for a group of 6 guys, all cyclists, with about 150 miles of riding over 3 days. While everyone was a cyclist, only a couple of us had done a 50+ mile ride this year, and we were doing it 3 days in a row. But everyone wanted a challenge. Also, while there is plenty of camping along the way, we all wanted to sleep well at night, so we’d be ready for the next days of riding, so camping was out.
My goal was to put together a trip with simple logistics, that would allow for audibles if things didn’t go as planned. What some would call mistakes, mishaps or just things gone wrong, others call adventure and opportunity. One thing to always keep in mind on a group trip such as this, is that everyone will have different goals. Some will lean to finishing the rides in “good time”. Others, like myself, like to stop and read the history and see all the sights. For my last adventure here, my wife and I had a very broad window of when we’d arrive at our final destination each day as it’s fun to just look around. I'd stop and read every historical marker if on a trip by myself. On a trip like this, one of the best parts is blending the needs of everyone.
I won’t claim to be a Katy Trail expert. I’ve biked on it twice now, and haven’t done the whole 240 miles. But I have learned a lot in those two trips, plus I’ve gotten a lot of advice from others that have ridden and those I’ve encountered on the trail. I’m not wanting to write a guide to riding the trail here – I’ll post resources here that will help you with that. This is to share our experience and give you tips. I’ll also try to keep the words to a minimum and let the pictures speak instead.
History of the trail.
If you’re not familiar with the Katy Trail, it’s about a 240 mile trail, topped with a very fine gravel, that runs from Clinton in the west to St. Louis, that was previously an old railroad. It runs from small town to even smaller communities, through Jefferson City, close to Columbia, and then on to Clinton. I learned on the trip this time, that the flood of 1993 basically put the railroad out of business and they closed permanently in 1997. What’s the history of the trail, etc. - There’s plenty of that on the internet. Here’s a site with a short history here. https://www.traillink.com/trail-history/katy-trail-state-park/ Along the way there are countless markers and monuments in the towns and communities that dot the trail. Well, and really the towns themselves are monuments to the history, as many really take you back in time. I didn’t read every plaque and monument like I wanted, but I did read a lot of them. These really tell the history of all the towns along the way, going back a couple hundred years. I’m a history geek, so I would have liked to have spent more time in every town. On this trip, many of the guys were road cyclists, which is a demographic that likes to put it’s head down and grind out the miles. I cycle more to see things, not to cycle.
Planning for the trip.
The biggest logistics factors in a trip that starts in one place and ends in another (that’s not a loop) are: 1 - Making sure you can get back to your starting point; 2 - Carrying your gear; 3 – Where to stay. After that, food and drink are pretty easy to solve. For shuttling, The Amtrak Train is a great option, as it runs along much of the route. However, available slots for bikes are very limited (you have to purchase a bike ticket in addition to a person ticket). When my wife and I did the trip the first time, we finished with our train ride on the last day. This trip, we needed to get shuttled to the other end on day one. I also found the Bike Stop Café, located in St. Charles (near St. Louis) on the east side of the trail that offers shuttle services for people and bikes. They even shuttle luggage from stop to stop for those that want that service (Here is their site
That does add quite a bit of cost, so our group opted to pack all our gear with us, and I designed a trip that would minimize the gear needed, so it could all be carried on our bikes. You’ll see pictures of the bike setups in this write up.
If you’re planning your own trip, this site is essential. You can view the maps, services and towns along the way. I couldn’t have done either trip without it. It does include a section for shuttle services as well. This has all the tips and resources you’ll need to plan your trip. https://bikekatytrail.com
As soon as we had 6 of us signed up, I worked on the travel arrangements. This was only 2 weeks before the trip and I very highly recommend planning WAY earlier than this! Though I’ve now planned one trip less than a week out and another two weeks out, so it can be done certain times of the year. After going through a series of options and running into roadblocks on lodging and transport, I finally settled on a route that would work and wrapped it all up in about 6 hours of planning one evening.
We were to drive to Sedalia on a Wednesday Evening, get shuttled to Jefferson City on Thursday morning, and start our ride on Thursday afternoon. My experience so far has been that since most people seem to ride from west to east (because you’re riding downhill most of the way and with the wind) that also means the Amtrak bike slots are more booked taking people back to the west, than the east. So I worked the opposite. One suggestion in shuttling – I wouldn’t plan a trip where you’ve got a deadline to get back to your shuttle the last day of riding. If you have a maintenance problem, that can be problematic. Plus, it would just suck the fun out of the last day as you’ve got a hard deadline, instead of enjoying your trip.
Day 1 of riding would be an out and back ride to the east, returning to our hotel in Jefferson City. Then, days 2 and 3 would have us riding back the 100 miles to Sedalia, where our cars would await us at the Amtrak Station (they allow overnight parking for customers). This trip would keep us reasonably close to services like bike shops if we needed repairs – which we did before we started the ride. (way to drop your bike John - the one you borrowed from Sam!). Red Wheel Bike shop helped us out there. The one day out and back also would make logistics easier for the whole trip
Night 1 Plus Day 1 of riding, Jefferson City out and back to the east - We (myself, Sam, John, Russ, Scott and Brad) met at Fellowship Bible Church in Rogers Wednesday afternoon to get our gear loaded and head up to Sedalia, just under a 4 hour drive. (The leader of the group is a pastor there, which meant theoretically, we should have been on our best behavior on the trip). We stayed the first night in Sedalia at the historic Hotel Bothwell and ate at the nearby Fitters 5th Street Pub. Both were great. I knew all the other guys on the trip, but none well. Mostly just interacting with them on rides and in the stores over the years. So the first night and the whole trip was great to begin to get to know everyone.
There’s a bike shop next to the hotel if repairs are needed, and walking around downtown during the day is definitely worth the walk. There’s a lot of cool old buildings and friendly people. Sedalia was one of the bigger cities in Missouri in the late 1800's / early 1900's and has a really cool downtown, as a result. A highlight at the hotel was the lady who ran the continental breakfast. I know, you’re thinking - it’s a continental breakfast. She took extra care of everyone, kept the place spotless and checked on everyone to see how our food was. She really cared about the place and her customers, which really added to the breakfast. She let us know she was always trying different recipes, so people would really enjoy their experience. For me, a trip like this is best when there’s good interaction with locals along the way. I think everyone eating there that morning was on a bike journey. We all chatted about our plans and headed out.
When I booked the trip, the morning Amtrak train only had two bike slots left. So two of us rode the morning train from Sedalia to Jefferson City and the other 4 got them and their bikes shuttled via Red Wheel Bike Shop in Jefferson. He picked us up in Sedalia and brought us back to the hotel in Jefferson City for only $90, dropping us off at the Baymont by Wyndham (a nice, affordable place). http://www.redwheelbikeshop.com. The two of us that rode the morning train joined them shortly after, with our train arriving at noon (there is always a morning and an afternoon train). Turns out we needed bike repairs before the ride started (way to drop your bike John - the one you borrowed from Sam for the trip!). Red Wheel Bike shop helped us out there.
We got lunch at the Arris Pizza Palace buffet (we highly recommend), John got his bike fixed at Red Wheel (he dropped it that morning) and we headed out for our out and back. Here’s the Amtrak site. https://www.amtrak.com/home
Our plan was to ride 20 or 25 miles east and head back to the hotel. We left from downtown, and rode across the bridge to the trailhead (about 3 miles). The ride across the bridge and down the ramp is an experience itself. There aren’t many services in the area between Jefferson City and Hermann (50 miles apart). Hermann is a great town to visit on the trail, but we weren’t going that far (you can read about it from my earlier write up). Also, if your trip is to include a stay in Hermann, most lodging for the weekend requires a 2 night minimum stay. It’s a town worth staying in a couple nights if you have the time. At mile 20 we were a jovial bunch, all feeling good, excited about the day and the trip, and seeing who could be the funniest. So we decided to go 25 and back. However, we were running low on water and needed a restroom break. I’d calculated Portland at about mile 26, but forgot to include the total of 6 miles we’d ride to and from the trail in my calculations. So at mile 30, we finally reached Portland and got drinks at Holzhauser’s Bar & Grill, founded in 1933. While we didn't eat there this time, I have before - they make a great burger.
At about mile 48 for the day, the group got quiet. We were all a bit more tired than expected. I’m pretty sure some were cursing me in their heads for failing to calculate those 6 miles of getting to and back from the trailhead in Jefferson City! In the end, the very tired group made it back to the hotel (61+ miles total), passed the Homecoming parade on the way back, got cleaned up and ate at the Ecco Lounge, which we all highly recommend. It’s walking distance from the hotel, the people and food are great. It's also been in operation at that location since 1838! They were packed and doing their best to hold it together. The owner was great and even sat with us at the end of what was clearly a long shift, just to chat.
As to our gear that day, 5 of the guys had gravel bikes (ideal for such a trip) and myself a mountain E-bike. All had racks and/or packs to carry our gear. My bike was a solid 20 lbs heavier than the other bikes, but obviously has the pedal assist that more than makes up for the weight.
Wanting to see how I could keep up with the group without it, I only used it off and on about 10% of the time the first 40 miles. However, about mile 45 I had overdone it and had run out of water, so I just turned it on. That was a big help for sure. I wanted to use my E-bike differently than when my wife and I went, to see what riding without (or minimally) would be. On the first trip with my wife, I easily had the pedal assist on low at least 80% of the time. On this ride, I used it sparingly. What was the major difference?
My wife and I cruised on the trail most of the time at between 15 – 17 mph on our E-bikes, including the last day with lots of climbing. This group was more about the 13 – 14 mph range the first two days and slower the third (climbing). I’d say with the same effort on my E-bike compared to a standard bike, I’m easily 4 MPH faster on the E-bike.
Day 2 of Riding – Jefferson City to Rocheport.
This was originally to be the longest day of riding. Also, leading up to the trip there was a minimal chance of rain this day (I take a rain jacket on every trip I go on, even if the forecast is a 0% chance of rain). When we awoke that morning, the 50% chance of rain the day before was suddenly a 100% chance of rain. What we got was rain almost the entire day! Oh to have a job where you could be wrong most of the time and still get to work!
Jefferson City to Rocheport is about 39 miles from our hotel to lodging in Rocheport. However, we were going to take the 8+ mile spur up to Columbia, eat lunch and ride back to the main trail, adding about 18 miles. That spur is just west after the bridge at McBain. That would have been fine finishing up a 57 mile ride on day two, except that we overdid it Day 1 and it was raining.
At about mile 20, we hit Cooper’s Landing. There we decided we’d shorten the day due to the weather. Which worked well, because it really started raining shortly after we got there. Never have microwaved sandwiches tasted so good! Here, we got to hang out a couple hours, watch the hundreds of school kids on their field trip (some of them referred to us as “old people”) and watch the barges and boats go by. Once the rain slowed a bit, we took off again. Cooper’s Landing is a great place to stop for lunch or dinner. They also have a campground and often have live music on the weekends, as well as food trucks. They’ve got a small restaurant and campground. This place is iconic for the area and I definitely recommend hanging out there to just relax.
I think this area from Cooper’s Landing to Rocheport was the most scenic part of our trip, with long stretches along the river, bridges and a ton of really cool bluffs and caves along much of the way. There were a couple in our group that got to Rocheport a lot faster than the back part of the group. Never being one to pass up an opportunity to explore, me and a few of the others stayed back to climbing up and down some hills and explore some caves and bluffs along the way (I had on hiking shoes, they all had cycling shoes – hiking shoes are much better for exploring!). I could have climbed up and down the bluffs for many hours, but it was a group trip and we were getting hungry. This area is one I’d highly recommend not just trying to make good time going down the trail – look around!
The stay in Rocheport actually wasn’t in the original plan. I had originally planned on us staying in New Franklin or Booneville, however, I couldn’t find good lodging for the group that close to the trip. When I originally was booking it, I also couldn’t find lodging in Rocheport. In a last minute move the night of the planning, I got on Rocheport’s site to discover those places do not list their rentals on third party sites. So I got on the city site and luckily found two places we could stay at (Katy Trail B&B and Schoolhouse B&B). We ended up eating dinner at The General Store in Rocheport, one of only two places there to eat dinner. We thought we’d just walk in, until the owner of the Schoolhouse B&B said we’d need reservations. Fortunately, he called ahead and got us in! This was an amazing place to eat and it appears many of the locals from Columbia drive into Rocheport to do that. The diversity of the food, the staff, the hand written menu (different each night) and the building all made it a great experience.
This town is really one of the highlights of the whole trail. While Hermann is one of the cooler, larger towns along the way (I think like 2,600 people). Rocheport has just over 200. It’s definitely a must visit stop along the way. Our group didn’t explore all the streets like my wife and I did the first time, seeing all the cool old houses and buildings, but we got to see quite a bit of it. It’s really a step back in time and has some great shops. Another place to consider staying a couple of nights and doing out and back rides. If you’re looking for a more relaxed trip to do light riding and / or just hang out for a day – this is a great place to do it! I’d say out and back to Boonville (another of the cooler, larger towns, and would be about 25 miles round trip) would be a great ride, as would to Columbia and back (about 40 miles out and back if you go to downtown). https://rocheport-mo.com
Day 3 of Riding
We got up and ate at the Meriwether Café and Bike shop in Rocheport. The place was really hopping, as this is clearly a destination for the locals to come eat breakfast and ride the trail in the area. The breakfast was amazing! The shop also has bike rentals. At the edge of town is the coolest tunnel on the whole trail (there’s also a great hiking trail here) right as you’re leaving town. The trail in this area is also really scenic with continued bluffs and farms. About 11-12 miles in, you'll cross the river and hit Boonville. This is also a cool older town, with lots of shops, restaurants and a casino. There are also more hotels here than many of the other towns. Here, we took a short detour and rode out on the old railroad bridge.
After Boonville, the climbing begins. It’s not bad as it’s an old railroad bed, and it’s just about 1,000 feet of vertical climbing over the next 12-ish miles. At 25 miles we came to Pilot Grove, a farming town of about 700. We ate at Katarina’s, which is great! We chatted with some of the locals and all the other cyclists there (most of their customers were cyclists both times I've been there - great to be part of having a positive economic impact on a small town). This is also the last food for 25 miles until you reach Sedalia. We got more drinks at the nearby Casey's, which is also the last opportunity to get drinks the next 25 miles.
This was definitely our slowest day of riding, averaging about 2 MPH slower than the previous days, due to the elevation change. The scenery is good, but different from the rest of the trip, as you're rolling along through farmland instead of the river valley. We rolled into the Amtrak Station (a welcome sight) packed up and headed home. We almost made it incident free the entire trip, other than a flat tire and minor repairs. However, with 1.5 miles to go, we all had to go around a car who's owner had left it sticking out in the trail. Sam, apparently not being as skilled a rider as the rest of us, slipped off the curb and bruised some ribs and drew some blood. (A couple days after, he says he's still trying not to laugh or sneeze).
As an alternative, someone could ride all the way into Boonville from Jefferson City (50 miles) and then riding from Boonville to Sedalia, have a sub 40 mile ride to finish out.
On the last day of this trip, we were often doing 9-11 MPH on the climb. On the previous with my wife, we were doing 14-15 on the same climb. With the resource of pedal assist we had on our first trip, we’d also take more scenic stops along the way, ride more into the towns to sight see. That slowed down our average speed quite a bit, but that isn’t why we were riding. I ride to see and do cool stuff, not just for the sake of the ride. With the pedal assist, we’d see a town we wanted to explore (sometimes with hills) and just crank up the pedal assist and leisurely ride the streets. This current group wasn’t quite as interested in doing that, which is quite understandable. When putting in a lot of miles, small climbs and constant stopping and starting really puts a strain on your legs. When you’re tired and in the middle of a 50 mile day on a standard bike, you’re more intent on finishing and less so on taking sightseeing detours. Overall, both trips were right about 152 miles of total riding and covered almost the identical areas, but we were on our bikes nearly 2 hours less on our first ride with E-bikes and got to see some cool stuff, and take the time to read about all the history on the various stops.
So I’ve done the Katy Trail twice now. Of the 152 miles in each 3 day trip, about 130 of the trail was the same sections. But because of the company and really, the way we did the trip, it was two completely different experiences. My wife missed all kinds of cool stuff we only saw on the second trip, and the group of guys on this trip missed all kinds of cool stuff my wife and I saw. I could do the same sections again, staying in different towns and riding alternative routes and make the trip completely different. Though next time, I think I’ll shoot for the easternmost area, making my way to St. Charles.
Throughout it all, as is the case with all adventures, the best part is always the people. The other 5 guys were all acquaintances before this, but friends after, even after some of us enduring some snoring we weren’t accustomed to! I learned more about everyone's families and jobs and we all got to share life together, if only for a few days. Well, the other highlight was the food. I managed to put on a solid 4 lbs after riding 150 miles in 3 days! How did I do that? While under-eating is really bad on such a trip (you do not want to run out of energy) we all readily agreed that we were taking advantage of the situation and substantially over eating at virtually every meal. The pastor of the group tried to lecture us about gluttony, while we claimed we were simply ensuring we were substantially fueled. But I only had one dessert each meal (John and Brad).
Years ago as a young father, I realized the ability to be a good husband, father, employee/boss/servant, to stay reasonably fit and have any kind of a hobby was impossible. Either a couple of those have to suffer or you’ve got to get creative. Unfortunately, many guys decide sacrifice family time to stay really fit (staying fit is really important) and others sacrifice fitness to serve their family better, or at least we think, because living a less healthy and shorter life is not serving our family (well, I hope that's how my wife sees it - the longevity part).
I also don’t like being a spectator too much – whether that be watching tv, movies, or sports – I really try to keep watching all that all to a minimum, as I’d much rather live my own boring adventures than watch others live out theirs (or in the case of most things on a screen, watch others pretend to have adventures).
For me and my family, we combined family and friends with fitness and hobby. I was never the fittest biker around, but mountain biking and riding the paved trails with the kids, hiking, camping and adventuring – that merged family time with living a healthy lifestyle. As the kids hit their teen years and had less family time, I started riding more with groups, which again combined fitness and social time. Though I still often am at the back of any group as I’m just as happy going hiking as biking, so my speed and endurance isn’t up to snuff with many cyclists. Plus, I just like looking around and seeing the sights on any ride. I’m also way past the point of trying to set records.
To get to share this adventure with these other guys, and visit with people along the way, was definitely the highlight of the trip. I learned a lot from all of them and others along the way. I’d highly the encourage the Katy Trail as one of your upcoming adventures.
Katy Trail Planning website
Gear – what to take, how to pack, how did it perform?
Again, I took an E-bike and everyone else had a conventional gravel bike. I’m an okay rider, having ridden a lot of miles on mountain, road and gravel bikes. With my 20-ish lbs of gear I was carrying (including laptop, etc. for work – so 20 is more than most would carry) I would have been cruising around 12-13 MPH on the majority of the trail on a standard bike. If you’re estimating how fast you’ll ride, I’d say you’re going to be 4 MPH slower than you would be on a road or paved trail bike on pavement, without all the gear.
People ask what type of bike is needed for this trip. I’d say anything slightly more rugged than a road bike to a mountain bike, will handle it. While most of it is a very fine gravel there are hundreds of gravel road and driveway crossings, where you are crossing plain ole gravel, and there are also ruts and imperfections in the trail. I’d say if a road bike could handle about 32mm wide tires with a bit of tread – you’ve got a bike that will do it. We did see a number of road bikes with wider tires riding on the trail, though they were normally locals just doing sections of the trail that were smoother (we also passed a lot of them going up hills!). The skinnier the tire, the faster you will be, the wider, the more comfortable / able to go over the rough sections. Also, skinnier tires will be more subject to flats. My preference would be anything at least 1.5” inches wide or 38mm is ideal for the trail. I’d also recommend getting a tire with a bit of tread, you’ll have more fun and fewer flats (we had one out of the 6 riders). I’d say sitting in more of an upright position than a typical road bike is going to make for a much more comfortable ride. So basically, gravel bikes, hybrid bikes, gravel bikes, cyclocross bikes and mountain bikes – these will all be suitable for the Katy Trail.
I’d say if I’d used it all the time, I’d have easily had a 4 MPH advantage over the rest of the group on standard gravel bikes. I was riding a Kona El Kahuna Mountain-E bike. Most years I had a road bike and a mountain bike. I love exploring the gravel roads in our area, but a gravel bike just beat me up – way too much jarring for me. So I decided to go all year riding one bike. It will handle paved trails, gravel/dirt roads and mountain bike trails all equally well. In fact, I often ride all three types of surfaces in the same ride, which is why I got a mountain bike – it will do all surfaces equally well. So it was perfect for this ride. I did add some ergo grips (which helped immensely compared to my first trip) and wish I’d have added a more comfortable seat. I outfitted it with a Banjo Brothers bag on the front, in which I carry all my tools, inflators and pump, tubes and other items for repairing a bike (fortunately, I never needed the). I included a multi tool with a chain tool, in case a chain broke, which would be a really bad day on the trail. You are out in the sticks, much of the time. Fortunately, we didn’t need to use it. I added a Topeak Explorer Rack for the rear and a Topeak MTX bag for the rack.
I also used a Garmin Fenix watch I never go without. It measured all my distances, speed, and physical performance statistics.
We packed quite light. A couple changes of riding and street clothes, the bare essentials, and that’s it. The B&B’s in Rocheport both had washers/dryers. You do not want to carry any more than is absolutely necessary. Again, there are courier services that will carry your gear from town to town if you want, but we didn’t need it.