Missouri's Rock Island Trail State Park

Posted 12/05/16 by Laura Stark in America's Trails, Trail Use

A view from the Katy Trail bridge in Windsor looking down on Rock Island Trail State Park. | Courtesy Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc.

Trail of the Month: December 2016

“Rail-trails of this scale are few and far between anymore.”

UPDATE: In December 2016, Missouri State Parks formally announced that Rock Island Trail State Park will now be known as the Rock Island Spur of Katy Trail State Park.

Just in time for the holidays, a stunning new rail-trail has arrived in Missouri. Opening Dec. 10, the 47.5-mile Rock Island Trail State Park is notable for its length—and its connection to an even longer trail: the renowned Katy Trail State Park, which, at 237.7 miles, nearly crosses the entire state. While the Katy Trail stops short of Kansas City, a forthcoming extension of the Rock Island Trail will march right to the city’s doorstep, making it possible to utilize both trails to travel between the state’s two largest cities, Kansas City and St. Louis, without a car.

Equestrians are permitted along the full length of Rock Island Trail State Park. | Photo by Kim Henderson

“For Missouri to have the Katy Trail, which is absolutely iconic, and then to have the chance to do it again with the Rock Island Trail and have them connected: that’s unprecedented,” says Eric Oberg, director of trail development for RTC’s Midwest Regional Office. “Rail-trails of this scale are few and far between anymore.”

With some of Missouri’s most beautiful landscapes as its backdrop, the crushed-stone pathway traverses woodlands, wetlands and bucolic fields nestled in the foothills of the Ozarks. Halfway along the route is the picturesque Rock Island Lake, where steam locomotives on the Rock Island Railroad once stopped to fill their boilers. Bikers, walkers and equestrians are welcome along its full length and the trail ties right into the section of the Katy Trail where equestrians are permitted (between Sedalia and Clinton).

Bookending the rail-trail are Pleasant Hill and Windsor, which possess all the charm and hospitality you might expect from small Midwestern towns. Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, offers sage advice for visitors, “If pie is on the menu, try it.”

On the Rock Island Trail's west end, Pleasant Hill celebrates its rail and trail history with colorful murals throughout the town. | Courtesy Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc.

Pleasant Hill’s downtown historic district bustles with antique stores, art boutiques, cafés and a bike shop. Throughout the city are colorful murals that depict the area’s history and culture, as well as banners proudly proclaiming, “From Rail Town to Trail Town.” Windsor, now at the crossroads of two major trails, has restaurants, stores and accommodations to spend the night, including tent camping and RV hook-ups in Farrington Park, fittingly named after a president of the old railroad. In between, the smaller towns of Leeton and Chilhowee provide additional amenities and camping in their city parks.

“We’ve seen people pulling bikes out of their basements, their garages, or the barn,” says Alan Voss, co-owner of New Town Bicycles and Coffee Shop in Pleasant Hill. “The excitement about the trail has gotten people interested in biking.”

The Katy Connector

As trail advocates have long sought a connection between the Katy Trail and Kansas City, the Rock Island Trail project tying them together was once dubbed the “Katy Connector,” according to Mark Randall, former city administrator for Pleasant Hill.

This caboose greets visitors at the trailhead in Windsor, where the Rock Island Trail and the Katy Trail intersect. | Courtesy Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc.

A future segment of the Rock Island Trail will continue its northwestern trajectory through Jackson County from Lee’s Summit to the outskirts of Kansas City, where it will end at the Truman Sports Complex, home to the NFL’s Chiefs and MLB’s Royals. This 17.7-mile span, being developed by the county, is in the planning and design phase with the county hoping to complete construction by spring 2018. A long-term goal includes the possibility of adding a commuter light rail line to the corridor, parallel to the trail.

In Windsor, the Katy Trail overlooks the Rock Island Trail. | Courtesy Missouri State Parks

Between the Jackson County segment and the trail’s current end in Pleasant Hill is a short gap of just a few miles. The City of Pleasant Hill is actively working to close this gap by expanding its existing MoPac Trail (named after the Missouri Pacific Railroad), which it hopes to have completed in 2017. In the heart of town, visitors can learn about the region’s railroad history at the beautifully refurbished MoPac depot dating back to 1903.

On the opposite end of the Rock Island Trail, a Katy Trail bridge passes overhead in Windsor, offering an expansive view of the new trail unfurling 20 feet below. A long, sweeping ramp takes visitors from one trail to the other. Though the Rock Island route currently ends at the town’s trailhead (adorned with a caboose patriotically emblazed with the Stars and Stripes), the Katy Trail splits here and continues on, with a short section running to its end in Clinton and the other leg heading northeast to the Missouri River, which it follows for the rest of its journey to St. Louis.

A future extension of the Rock Island Trail will push the trail 144 miles eastward from Windsor, where the two trails could meet again near Washington, forming a loop that will make it possible to take a trip on the Katy Trail one way and the Rock Island Trail on the way back. Due to the massive scale of such a loop, Oberg calls it an “internationally significant experience.” Differing features between the two trails, both manmade and natural, would also add variation to such a journey.

The bridge over the Gasconade River near Freeburg spans 1,776 feet and will be a highlight of a future section of the Rock Island Trail | Courtesy Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc.

“The geography of the Rock Island Trail is very different than the Katy Trail,” says Chrysa Niewald, board president of Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc. (MoRIT), a group of local citizens who are leading the grassroots push for the creation of the trail. “It makes it a unique opportunity. You could do a complete loop with one kind of scenery and come back through different scenery.”

While the Katy Trail has one railroad tunnel spanning just 243 feet, the Rock Island Trail, when fully complete, will have three tunnels many times that size, as well as a breathtaking bridge over the Gasconade River spanning a whopping 1,776 feet.

“The Rock Island Trail will have three big bridges and three big tunnels that are measured in football field lengths,” says MoRIT executive director Greg Harris. “The shortest tunnel is two and a half football field lengths.”

Rock Solid Support

When its eastern and western extensions are finished, the Rock Island Trail will connect 23 communities in nearly a dozen counties. These towns—which blossomed during the railroad’s heyday—are so excited by the trail’s potential impacts that they’re not waiting on the sidelines: they’re taking an active role to bring the trail to their communities as soon as possible.

A view of the developing trail south of Strasburg. | Courtesy Missouri Bicycle & Pedestrian Federation, MoBikeFed.org

The city of Belle is already pursuing construction of a mile of the trail, which will be built to state park standards and is anticipated to open this coming spring. If all goes according to plan, it will be the first section to open on the 144-mile eastern extension. Eldon is also considering developing 3 miles of primitive trail within their borders, as well as refurbishing an old railroad depot to be a focal point of their community with a welcome center and museum.

“Cities and towns have gotten behind it in a pretty impressive way,” says Brent Hugh, executive director of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation. “They all lined up behind it.”

Niewald, who lives in rural Owensville, became involved in the project in 2009. With no sidewalks, no shoulders on the highway, and no safe place to walk or ride in their communities, Niewald and others hoped to “make a smaller version of the Katy Trail” that could provide better transportation options.

The Rock Island Trail project first came to the attention of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy when Niewald reached out to our Midwest Regional Office for advice. Oberg says it quickly became apparent that there was a groundswell of support for the project. “This was not some typical backyard thing,” he notes. “An email from a concerned citizen turned into one of the largest and longest rail-trails that the country has ever seen.”

Through a massive mobilization effort led by RTC and local partners, Ameren, an electric utility company that owns the eastern 144-mile section of the Rock Island corridor, was urged to railbank it for rail-trail conversion. The company is now about halfway complete with salvaging the ties and tracks from the rail line. The work is expected to be completed by the end of 2017, when the corridor will be turned over to Missouri State Parks for the creation of the trail.

From Rail Spikes to Trail Bikes

Through trains have not run along the tracks for more than 30 years, the development of a rail-trail through the corridor has been a slow process with many stops and starts.

“Since the 1980s, it was basically a giant trash collection area,” says Hugh. “It was completely overgrown. You couldn’t even walk up and down it; it was like trying to push through a thicket.”

In 2005, an unfortunate disaster had a silver lining. The Taum Sauk reservoir, owned by Ameren as part of a hydroelectric plant, collapsed, significantly damaging a state park. In the settlement that was later reached, Ameren leased 47.5-miles of its Rock Island Rail corridor to the state and provided funding for the construction of a rail-trail. Missouri State Parks began construction of the trail in earnest in the winter of 2015 and, by December 2016, the stretch between Pleasant Hill and Windsor was complete. The Rock Island Trail State Park is one of three new state parks opened this year on the cusp of the organization’s centennial celebration which will kick off next April.

The charming Pleasant Hill Depot is located on the west end of Rock Island State Park. | Courtesy of the City of Pleasant Hill

Though some adjacent landowners expressed concerns about the development of the trail, having the successful example of the Katy Trail, which opened in the 1990s, helped mitigate opposition to the project. As the longest continuous rail-trail in the U.S., the rail-trail brings in nearly 400,000 visitors each year, generating almost $18.5 million for the region annually, according to a 2012 economic impact study.

“After 25 years, people can look back and see that all of the things that they were afraid of didn’t materialize and that’s a really good thing,” says Bryan.

Cutting the ribbon will be Gov. Jay Nixon, who rides the Katy Trail almost daily. In a touching connection, Bryan notes that, when the governor was a young state senator, he cast the deciding vote to fund the Katy Trail. The celebration of the Rock Island Trail State Park and the promise of more to come are a happy ending for a year that has just ticked past the 2,000th open rail-trail in the nation.

“The trail is coming together in an astonishing way,” says Hugh, echoing the sentiment felt by many. “I almost can’t believe it’s really happening.”

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