Traveling the Katy Trail and Ohio to Erie Trail by Bike
A common question we are asked when recalling stories about our bike trip is: What type of roads did we encounter over our four-month voyage? “Don’t tell me you biked on major highways!” people exclaim with alarm, thinking of foolish cyclists they’ve narrowly passed on county back roads or on high-speed US highways. Luckily, the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) guides cycle travelers on every type of road, from wide shoulders on the North Dakota Interstate to relentlessly rolling county highways in Missouri to dedicated multi-use trails zigzagging Nebraska cornfields. After 114 days of traversing 18 of the United States by bike, I feel that I have a better understanding of the diversity of our country’s infrastructure. For instance, I now know that Nebraska county roads are mostly gravel, whereas Illinois paves theirs. I also know that, surprisingly or not, Ohio consistently funds long-distance recreational trails throughout their state.
While mulling over trip statistics, Jeff and I realized we had ridden over 1,000 miles of multi-use trails on our 5,000+ mile journey. Most of these are converted railways called rail-trails. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit, is dedicated to fundraising and empowering communities across the country to convert unused railways into recreational corridors. I, for one, relished the days we spent traveling car-free along these trails. I loved the quiet and I loved the history. Each day, I could imagine the times when trains brushed against foliage along the Missouri River’s Katy Trail, or when striped-cap conductors looked out over a horizon of cornfields on Missouri’s MoPac and Steamboat Trace railways. Today, we can do both while perched on the seats of our bicycles.
Though I could write a much longer post detailing each trail system that we experienced from Washington to Maine, I will highlight two particular trails in this post: the Katy Trail of Missouri and the Ohio to Erie Trail of Ohio, both of which span the length of their states. Over approximately 500 miles on these two trails, we escaped from the stress of traffic, discovered much-needed community with other riders, and experienced the beauty of two Midwestern states under our own power.
Katy Trail State Park: The once Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway
We start with the big kahuna of rail trails. Spanning over 240 miles, the Katy Trail winds along the Missouri River from Clinton to Machens, MO roughly between the major cities of Kansas City and St. Louis. After the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway (MKT) ceased operations on the route in 1986, businessman Ted Jones Jr. (of Edward Jones company) and his wife began lobbying the Missouri legislature to purchase the land. They succeeded, and in 1990, Katy Trail State Park opened to the public as the longest developed rail-trail and the longest/narrowest state park in the US! Missouri State Parks manages and maintains the trail itself while the nonprofit the Katy Land Trust works cooperatively with landowners alongside the trail to preserve the unique ecosystems that surround it.
We rode approximately 150 miles of the Katy Trail on our trip from Boonville to St. Charles, MO. This 150 miles concluded the Lewis and Clark bicycle trail for us, a route that we’d been following since Bismarck, ND. I was particularly giddy to reach Boonville after a harrowing couple weeks in the Midwest, enduring thunder storms, steep rollers, and truck traffic on narrow roads near Kansas City. We reached the famed Katy Trail, a beacon of solitude and safety away from cars, just as the sun was setting. Our breathing calmed and muscles relaxed as we followed the waning light to our campsite. Over four days, we continued to follow the Missouri River across the state, this time on a path made of crushed limestone instead of busy county roads.
What makes the Katy Trail so unique is its status as a state park. Its 240 miles (and counting!) are intact, and as riders we could really feel the continuity. Residents of the small towns that the Katy traverses are well aware of the trail, but instead of turning their back on tourists, most recognize the trail’s economic benefits. Throughout our journey we saw many small B&B’s and restaurants that cater to cyclists, railroad lovers, and Lewis and Clark history buffs. For instance, we ate second breakfast on our first morning at the Meriwether Cafe and Bikeshop in Rocheport, MO, a small town at mile point 178.3 bursting with antique stores and charm. We encountered day riders and one fellow cycle traveler here as we noshed on breakfast sandwiches and aired our tires practically on the trail. The Katy Trail has been building its reputation as a thru-riding destination over the past 30 years, and towns like Rocheport typically support it. From cyclists we met across the country to proprietors we met in other parts of Missouri, everyone knew the Katy Trail. Our travel plans to cycle the trail were met with excitement, not questioning looks or comments like, “Are you crazy?!” In other words, we felt welcome there.
Being a state park of distinction, the Katy also provides travelers a plethora of necessary information. The large fold-out brochure we picked up (available at most trailheads) contains a detailed map of every town on the trail and what services each trail community offers to cyclists. From grocery stores to water fountains to restrooms to bike shops, travelers can plan their trip accordingly without having to do much background research. One of our best finds was the Turner Katy Trail shelter located in Tebbets, MO (milepoint 131.2). Managed by the Conservation Federation Missouri, it is a two-story, 40-bed building offering shelter, a shower, full kitchen, and bike storage to wayward travelers like us for a mere $6 donation per person. We shared the hostel with another couple, and enjoyed their company as a storm raged outside. The next night, we stayed at Klondike County Park near Augusta, MO (milepoint 64.1), which provided our first “primitive camping” aka true walk-in camping since the Mountain West. It was a peaceful place to rest before heading in to the city the next day.
Our time on the Katy Trail is a shining highlight of our cross-country journey. Despite the fact that the deep forest surrounding the trail also sometimes obscured chances to connect with locals and amenities in small towns, it offered a much-needed respite from noise and cars. Every day of riding was a meditation with the trees, the river, and the gentle crunch of crushed limestone under whirring wheels.
The Ohio to Erie Trail: Linking cornfields to Metropolis
I am practically an Ohioan, as both of my parents spent most of their childhood and young adulthood in this state. I have spent my entire life visiting family in the Cleveland suburbs, but aside from that, I hadn’t explored other areas of Ohio. I was ecstatic to stumble across the Ohio to Erie Trail on the Internet, a network of 22 county bike trails that collectively create one continuous route. The trail spans 326 miles from Cincinnati to Cleveland, only 50 of which take cyclists onto city streets and country roads. Jeff and I were able to cover this distance over 5 days of solid riding, eager to soak in the diversity of the Ohio landscape and the multi-use paths therein.
The vision for the Ohio to Erie Trail (OTET) began in 1991 when the Katy Trail was only one-year-old. Ed Honton, the organization’s first president, conceived a vision to create a recreational path connecting Ohio’s three major cities – Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland – using former railroad and canal corridors. Collaborating with ten counties, Ed and other recreation advocates put together the OTET piece by piece through volunteer labor alone. This has certainly involved much political maneuvering, marketing, creative trail signage, and ongoing support of municipalities to continue building and connecting trails. As it stands today, the Ohio to Erie Trail is an impressive network of 22 trails, including the 78-mile Little Miami Scenic Trail near Cincinnati, the urban Alum Creek Greenway Trail in Columbus, and the 85-mile Ohio & Erie Canal Toepath Trail in Northern Ohio.
Traversing the OTET was like a treasure hunt on wheels. Though the maps we carried gave us information about which town we were looking for next, unlike the ACA maps we were used to, they lacked detailed mileage counters and to-scale representations of the geography. Consequently, instead of studying the maps, we kept our eyes peeled for the iconic “Ohio Route 1” signs and arrows, our directions through an underground network of sorts. It was an affirmative thrill each time we located a sign next to a corn field or hiding behind a tree deep in the woods.
Our rewards along the OTET treasure hunt were discovering the uniqueness of each individual trail throughout the state. The Little Miami Scenic trail was lush and expansive, guiding us through bustling small towns that are used to bicycle traffic clogging the trails each weekend. The towns of Xenia and London, both north of the Little Miami, were rural oases for riders. Xenia welcomes cyclists to venture off onto other trail networks and London’s trailhead allows travelers to camp right alongside the trail in a developed city park. Columbus Metroparks boasts an impressive network of urban greenway trails that connect the suburbs to the city. In particular, the Alum Creek Greenway north of the city was our favorite, a lush series of boardwalks and bridges winding over and along Alum Creek. Quite a ways north of Columbus we arrived in Holmes County, a municipality that has invested energy and funds into developing a wonderful trail system that meanders through steep, thickly forested hills. We shared these trails with Amish buggies, maneuvering around horse manure and deeply indented asphalt from the metal buggy wheels. The last stretch of our journey was on the historic Ohio & Erie Canalway trail, also known as the toepath. This stretch goes right through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, created for its rich history surrounding canal transportation.
The OTET is continually changing, and we were lucky enough to run into the trailblazers themselves on our second-to-last day. Early in the morning, as we rolled into Millersburg, OH, we found ourselves in the midst of a coffee and donuts reception hosted for the OTET organization by the Holmes County Trails association! Tom Moffit, current President of the OTET, was leading a supported thru-ride of the trail, and we were able to share a cup of coffee with him and thank him for his hard work and advocacy as well as ask our bubbling questions about the trail’s future plans.
We also met Mark Looney in Millersburg, author of A Path Through Ohio: A Bicycle Journal, a narrative account of his 2014 thru-ride of the OTET. He was along for the ride with Tom and his group in hopes of updating his work into a guidebook. We lamented to Mark that we’d had a hard time finding camping on our ride. We didn’t realize that we had failed to locate OTET’s compilation of campsites, lodging, and other amenities hidden on their website. The only options we saw available to us at the time were campgrounds located miles off-trail, one up a steep, dark, undeveloped road. We rode with Mark for two days, from Millersburg to Cleveland, sharing much-needed cycle tourist camaraderie and stories from the road. We even put our newfound list of campsites to use with him, pitching our tents for free in the rain at Akron’s Summit Metropark Big Bend Trailhead. Keep your eyes peeled for the next edition of Mark’s book, an indispensable guide to the OTET aimed at thru-riders. We can say from personal experience that Mark is a wonderful tour guide!
Ed Honton’s vision to connect the diversity of Ohio through trails alone has not been fully realized, as the OTET winds between trails and roads. Though the trails in each county are used by locals, I did not get the sense that thru-riding the OTET is as common practice as on the Katy Trail or Erie Canal trail in New York State. This is unfortunate, as the diversity of the OTET’s 22 trails showed us more of Ohio than the Katy Trail’s tree tunnel ever offered. However, hopefully with increased network building and time, more people will see the OTET as the unique destination that it is.