This article was originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of Rails to Trails magazine. It has been reposted here in an edited format. Subscribe to read more articles about remarkable rail-trails and trail networks while also supporting our work.
The state of Missouri is partnering with local communities and nonprofit groups to plan and develop the Rock Island Trail, which is situated along a 144-mile disused rail corridor between Windsor and Beaufort. When complete, the trail will showcase 23 communities and serve as a boon for outdoor tourism and economic development. With additional connections to planned and existing trails, including the iconic 240-mile Katy Trail State Park, the Rock Island Trail will eventually help make up a 400-mile trail loop connecting St. Louis and Kansas City.
Below are some of our favorite destinations along the route (just to get you excited!), which is undergoing trail development and is not yet open for use. Learn about the project’s progress.
Windsor: Western Gateway for Recreation, Transportation
Located at the western end of the 144-mile Rock Island Trail corridor is Windsor, a small town of roughly 2,800 people with big potential—eventually serving as a seamless gateway to Katy Trail State Park connecting Clinton and Machens. Here, trail users can also take the developing 60-mile Rock Island Spur of Katy Trail State Park west all the way to Kansas City.
In the proud “trail town” of Windsor, you’ll find friendly shops and eateries; multiple lodging options designed for long-distance hiking and bicycling; an active collection of Amish specialty stores and businesses; and Farrington Park Lake—a 15-acre green space and camping/RV-friendly park area that runs adjacent to the Rock Island Spur and is used for major events. (Once owned by the Rock Island Line and named after its first president, the space became a city park in 1954.) Also commemorating Windsor’s former rail town status is the “Spirit of 76,” a restored caboose that came to the area in 1990. Of note: Windsor serves as the northern Gateway to Harry S. Truman Lake and Harry S. Truman State Park, a major outdoor recreation area less than 20 miles south, as the crow flies.
Rosebud: A Rose by Any Other Name
Toward the eastern side of the developing Rock Island Trail is a 24-mile section between Belle and Gerald that will connect five unique former railroad communities—including Bland, Owensville and the aptly named Rosebud. For it was there in the 1890s when local landowners named the new depot along the freshly built Rock Island Railroad “Rosebud” after the wild rosebush that sat in full bloom nearby.
Today, the eclectic rural community that calls itself a “small town in the country” boasts a variety of shops, boutiques, restaurants and inns—many of them situated along US 50, which forms the town’s main thoroughfare. Of note is Rosebud’s Grand Antique Mall, a 50-vendor craft and collector’s mecca that is open the second Saturday of each month—the same day as Rosebud’s farmers market (May to October), featuring local producers and growers. Other highlights include the Pioneer Homestead and Village at Zelch Farms, and Tea Lake, a 216-acre wildlife preserve offering fishing and camping. Rosebud is further positioning itself as destination link to the outdoors via the development of an RV park that is being created by Jerry Reinhold, owner of Reinhold Electric of St. Louis.
Gerald: Preserving Railroad Heritage
The Gerald–Belle corridor will have much to entice trail fans and rail fans. In Gerald, a town of less than 1,400 people in Franklin County, visitors will find quaint Main Street shops and eateries as well as the only original Rock Island train depot remaining, which was completed in 1909 after the first depot, built in 1902, was destroyed by a fire. In 1986, the depot, which was moved from the train corridor to Legion Park and is maintained by the local chamber of commerce, serves as a draw for history and railroad aficionados.
Owensville: Celebrating German Roots
The communities along the Gerald–Belle corridor sit in the Missouri German Heritage Corridor, and this connection is celebrated in Owensville through a friendship with Altena, Germany. Owensville is located in Gasconade County, which saw its “Golden Age of German Culture” between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, according to the Gasconade County Historical Society, which maintains a museum dedicated to area history. Today, the town offers a unique blend of art and history museums, food specialty stores and wineries. Owensville also manages 106+ acres of parks, including a campground, water park and golf course. Trail development is underway here, supported by a federal Transportation Alternatives grant.
Osage County: Gasconade River Bridge
Completed in 1903, the Gasconade River Bridge in Osage County saw its last train cross in 1979. Today, the stunning disused trestle—which stretches for 1,776 feet (an equivalent of 5.5 football fields) and sits 110 feet high—is undergoing a rebirth along the Rock Island Trail corridor in an effort to transform the defunct crossing into a safe walking and bicycling facility. The structure will be a star feature of the trail along with two of the state’s longest tunnels. Missouri State Reps. Bruce Sassmann (D-062) and Willard Haley (R-058) are championing the project, which is being driven by the Missouri Department of Transportation as part of Gov. Mike Parson’s Focus on Bridges program.
Trail of the Month – December 2016: Missouri’s Rock Island Trail State Park
Other Highlights Along the Route
Belle, with a population just under 1,400, is a neighborly town where trail users will find quaint shops, eateries and other offerings of small-town life. The environment perhaps makes it the ideal spot for a thriving art scene, which is overseen by the Osage Arts Community, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the environment and history while providing a retreat for visual and literary artists.
At the western end of the Rock Island Spur sits Kansas City, known for many things, including barbecue, jazz, the arts and—of course—sports. Sports fans will find plenty of the latter trailside at the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex, which contains Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Kauffman Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals.
While many communities in this list serve as gateways to the Ozarks, Eldon takes top billing, situated just 15 minutes north (in central Missouri). The city of 4,000+ people boasts the famous Stark Caverns (5 miles south), featuring geological formations and highlighting the region’s Native American history. In Eldon, you’ll also find an array of options for fine dining, shopping and lodging.
Serving as the Morgan County Seat, Versailles is a family-friendly community of fewer than 2,500 people with shops, parks, an open-air market and many special events annually. More than 100 businesses hail from Versailles’ large Mennonite community, and cultural hot spots include the Royal Theatre, a popular music and performance venue, and the historic Martin Hotel (now a museum).
The smallest community on this list with about 1,000 people, Cole Camp in Benton County stays a happening place via the many big events it hosts each year—from holiday-themed festivals to craft fairs and even Zucchini Races—earning its local moniker of “Festival City.” This historical town with a rich German heritage was also the site of one of the first land battles of the Civil War.