It would be easy to write Boonville off as a town lost in time — you know, stuck out in “the boonies” (pun intended) — but you’d be wrong to do so. While this county seat for Cooper County, Missouri, is home to just under 10,000 people, it remains a charming and active place where you can explore everything from history and nature, to casinos and nightlife when you visit.
If you bicycle, Boonville is a perfect destination. Katy Trail State Park, the nation’s largest rails-to-trails project, which runs for 240 miles from Machens to Clinton, goes right through town. The trail mostly follows the northern bank of the Missouri River on the route of the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) Railroad. The scenery is stunning, including everything from canopied forest and wetlands, to wide open fields and prairie pastures.
Stop and pay a visit to the old train depot as you pedal into Boonville. The only surviving Spanish mission-style station on the line, the depot is a beautiful reminder of the glory of the train era. You can even see MKT Caboose No. 134 parked on a piece of the old track.
At Boonville, the trail currently crosses the Missouri River on the Boonslick Bridge — named for Daniel Boone’s sons, Nathan and Daniel Morgan, who started a business at the local saltlicks, thus establishing the town back in the early 1800s.
The MKT train used the MKT Railroad Bridge, which now sits abandoned with its vertical lift raised. However, after decades of disagreement over what was to become of the bridge, Boonville got ownership in 2010 and the first phase of a restoration project begins this year. The goal is to restore the Katy Trail to the original MKT line once the restoration is complete.
You can walk out on this bridge now, even though it’s not part of the trail yet. I took the opportunity to watch the sunset through its steel girders. The easiest way to access the bridge is from the parking lot of the Isle of Capri Casino Hotel Boonville, where I also enjoyed comfortable rooms and some great food and nightlife.
The Katy Trail is part of the American Discovery Trail, and the section between St. Charles and Boonville is an official segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. You can check out this history with a visit to Boonville’s Visitor Center & Museum in the old Hirsch Wholesale Grocer Co. Distributor Building (circa 1902). You’ll find lots of artifacts, including the keelboat of the Corps of Discovery and models of paddle steamers that once travelled up the Missouri River.
Hiking & Historic Walks
The Katy Trail is great for hiking as well as biking, its crushed limestone surface easy on your legs, so the miles disappear quickly behind you. While it’s beautiful year round, you may want to plan a Katy hike to coincide with the fall colors. The rich reds and oranges of sugar maple, sumac and bittersweet make it an amazing time to be outdoors. The Missouri River is also a flyway for migrating birds and waterfowl, so keep an eye out for great blue herons, sandpipers, Canada geese and belted kingfishers overhead.
If history is your thing, you’ll find that Boonville’s self-guided history tour is the perfect activity to fill the day. Start your walk at the visitor center, picking up the guide to 23 key sites. In total, the city actually has 400 sites and structures on the National Register of Historic places, so no matter where you walk, you’ll find something interesting.
The visitor center is also where you can book a tour of Lewis Miller’s Mitchell Collection (it’s right next door), a museum of the rare Mitchell cars. These cars followed a business that began with Mitchell wagons, manufactured in 1834 in Chicago, and also included bicycles and motorcycles. Miller, owner of the collection, is a direct descendant of the Mitchell family.
Following the self-guided tour, you’ll find yourself in downtown Boonville. The historic Hotel Frederick, a Romanesque Revival building from 1905, is a welcome place to stop for lunch. Furnished with 19th-century antiques, the building has the relaxed charm of a grand dame of years gone by — and the food at its Fred Restaurant & Lounge is delicious! (I had the catfish po boy.)
I also got a peek at some of the Frederick’s restored rooms, all of which have a different character and design. If you like historic décor with all of the amenities of the 21st century, it’s a wonderful place to spend the night.
Three more stops you won’t want to miss include the Old Cooper County Jail & Hanging Barn, Thespian Hall and Hain House & Memorial Gardens. In addition, you’ll find a number of historic markers around the city. These include Civil War battles (Boonville saw two battles and two occupations), Lewis & Clark and Santa Fe Trail markers.
There’s a lot to enjoy getting in and out of Boonville, too. If you love cycling on country roads and want to take advantage of those colorful fall days, you can pick up a guide to the dozens of barns sporting quilts (check the Boonville Visitor Center or the Barn Quilts website in the sidebar).
Barns and quilts, two important pieces of Americana, are celebrated along in Boonslick region. While a quilt painted on a barn once meant the place was receptive to escaping slaves, today the quilts draw attention to the unique architecture of historic barns across the country. The quilts give owners a reason to spend time and money to maintain buildings in danger of crumbling from the ravages of time, thus preserving the roots of rural areas.
And for those who love Budweiser beer and their iconic Clydesdale horses, Boonville is only a short drive from Warm Springs Ranch, the company’s breeding facility that’s open to visitors. Tours are usually packed, though, so be sure to book your time in advance.
With all that Boonville has to offer, you may even find one visit isn’t enough.
Guide to Boonville
Katy Trail Resources
Katy Trail State Park, mostateparks.com/park/katy-trail-state-park
Bike Katy Trail, bikekatytrail.com
Barn Quilts of the Boonslick, boonslicktourism.org
Boonville Tourism, goboonville.com
Lewis Miller’s Mitchell Collection, mitchellcarcollection.com
Warm Springs Ranch – warmspringsranch.com
Stay & Dine
Hotel Frederick, hotelfrederick.com
Fred Restaurant & Lounge, hotelfrederick.com/fred-restaurant-lounge
Isle of Capri Casino Hotel Boonville, boonville.isleofcapricasinos.com
Author: Linda Aksomitis is a contributor to Terrain magazine