If you’ve ever ridden your bike in the country, you know that dogs running out to bark and sometimes give chase can be a pretty regular occurrence. I was out with my buddies along the Highway 36 Bicycle Route in northern Missouri one day when this happened to us. A big, yellow Labrador retriever came barreling out of a farmhouse yard, barking loudly at us as we passed. There were people in the same yard, all yelling too.
We weren’t sure if it was a friendly greeting from any of them, but as the dog pursued us down the road, it was soon obvious that for him, at least, this was a grand and happy adventure. I tried to outpace him, figuring he’d get tired and go home. A 15-mph sprint (if you can call it that) on my loaded touring bike wasn’t enough to shake the determined canine, so we just kept riding and he just kept running cheerfully alongside. We got perhaps three or four miles down the road when the owners finally sent a couple teenage boys in a pickup truck to retrieve the dog.
Such is the simple joy of cross-country riding: discovering new places, meeting new people, having grand and happy adventures of your own. You can go as fast or slow as you want. You can stop any time you please. You can take side trips or maybe just get some ice cream and have a look at your new and unfamiliar surroundings.
With our location right in the middle of the United States, St. Louis sits at the hub of some of the country’s most significant cross-country cycling routes. Many of these are deeply historic, having drawn travelers for a hundred years or more. Think of classic highway systems like U.S. Route 66, or even earlier than that, paths taken by explorers such as Lewis and Clark, who found tracing rivers the best way to navigate as they studied new lands.
Here are five major cross-country routes in Missouri that both local and long-distance cyclists can enjoy, and what you can expect to encounter along each one.
Back in 1976, when the U.S. marked its 200th anniversary, people celebrated in many different ways. “Bikecentennial” was one of the most remarkable, during which approximately 4,100 cyclists rode all or part of the 4,250-mile TransAmerica Trail stretching between Oregon and Virginia.
In Missouri, the TransAmerica Trail cuts east-west mainly in the bottom third of the state. The route is flat-ish for the first 100 or so miles after it enters Missouri from Pittsburg, Kansas, and again for a handful of miles in the Mississippi River bottoms heading into Chester, Illinois. The rest of the route runs right through the Missouri Ozarks. Picture scenic forests, quaint towns and short yet ferocious hills that’ll have you hitting 35 mph going down and 3.5 mph going up.
One of the highlights for cyclists on the TransAmerica Trail is found in Farmington, Missouri, where community leaders have transformed the historic stone building that formerly served as the St. Francis County Jail into a hostel for use by those passing through.
“It’s a really neat thing for our community,” said City Administrator Greg Beavers. His office is right across the street, and he’ll often walk over and chat with cyclists who’ve stayed the night. “We get riders from around the world. For them, staying here is the opportunity to do something special. Many will use it as a rest day, to shop, eat, get a haircut, whatever. We offer a scope of services downtown that makes it really handy for cyclists.”
L.T. Blackwood’s family runs the Trans Am Cyclery in Farmington. He says they get a lot of cross-country riders in their shop.
“May is usually when they start coming through,” said Blackwood. “By the end of the summer, we’ll have probably 300 to 350 people who’re riding the trail stop in.”
For the portion between Missouri and Virginia, the TransAmerica Trail is also designated as U.S. Bicycle Route 76, so follow the green-and-white signs as you ride through.
U.S. Bicycle Route 66
U.S. Route 66 has long held a prominent position in American culture. The famed “Mother Road” was one of the original thoroughfares designated in the U.S. highway system and has represented the freedom of the open road in numerous movies, TV shows, books and songs.
U.S. Bicycle Route 66 starts in Chicago and, roughly tracking alongside Interstate 55, goes approximately 330 miles to St. Louis, following the original Route 66 as much as possible.
Going west from there, it generally follows Interstate 44 from St. Louis down through the Ozarks on the way to Joplin, Missouri, another 330-mile stretch. Beyond that, it’s another 1,700 miles through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, all the way to California, where the route ends at the Santa Monica Pier.
Though the original Route 66 was established in 1926, the comprehensive bike route tracing the historic highway was only completed in 2015. From the start, the bike route has received a great deal of excitement and interest, and not just from history buffs of the old Route 66 roadway, said Jennifer Hamelman, the assistant director of routes and mapping for the Adventure Cycling Association.
“What surprised us was the number of international cyclists it seemed to attract,” said Hamelman. “European cyclists, in general, have an attraction to the Old West, and Bicycle Route 66 is a perfect gateway from Chicago to the open landscapes of New Mexico, Arizona and deserts of California.
Multiple towns along the way have festivals celebrating their connection to the famed freeway, particularly in the summer months. Additionally, any number of museums and monuments along the way offer a happy diversion for cyclists looking to take a break. From renovated service stations to vintage diners to pop-culture sites like the Rock Fountain Court and Gillioz Theatre in Springfield, Missouri, a ride on Route 66 is trip back in time.
Highway 36 Bicycle Route
Highway 36 is a main artery cutting across northern Missouri between Hannibal on the east and St. Joseph on the west, on the Missouri River about 45 minutes north of Kansas City.
Between these two cities, you’ll find a handful of small towns that, despite their relatively sparse population, have produced an astounding number of notable characters over the years. Mark Twain, of course, is widely known. And Jesse James, too, from St. Joseph. But did you know that Walt Disney (born in Marceline), retailer J.C. Penney (Hamilton) and World War I Gen. John “Blackjack” Pershing (Laclede) all came from this area?
The route is rich with both natural beauty and historic sites that celebrate these people and other interesting chapters of history. Because of this heritage, Highway 36 is known as “The Way of American Genius,” and it has its own bike route that carries cyclists from town to town along mostly scenic, low-traffic roads that parallel the freeway.
I was personally involved in developing this route and rode it from end to end. Numerous campgrounds, lakes and state parks can be found along the way, as well as terrific museums and significant sites to enjoy while taking a break from pedaling.
Jim Wildman, a St. Louis cyclist who now lives in Colorado, also has fond memories of riding the Highway 36 bike route.
“I wish I could say my favorite was Chillicothe, my hometown,” said Wildman. “However, Marceline is at the top of my list. Touring the Walt Disney museum gave me insight how growing up there shaped Walt Disney. It’s a story that many of these great Americans share, who credit what they experienced in rural Missouri as one of the key elements of their contributions in their field.”
In addition to the Walt Disney Hometown Museum in Marceline, cyclists shouldn’t miss the numerous murals in downtown Chillicothe, which celebrate the city as — literally — the “home of sliced bread.” The Mark Twain attractions in Hannibal are a must, as is the excellent Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph.
“And before you leave Marceline, be sure to have a Dusty Miller sundae at Ma Vic’s Corner Cafe,” said Wildman. “It’s the best way I know how to enjoy ice cream.”
Mississippi River Trail/Great Rivers South
Two different trails come through Missouri that generally follow the Mississippi River as it flows south to New Orleans.
The Mississippi River Trail was created through the efforts of a number of local and state governments in the 10 states that touch the waterway. (You’ve probably noticed the distinctive blue-and-green MRT signs along the St. Louis riverfront.) The trail starts at the headwaters in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, and stays close to the river along its 3,000-mile track. Because it relies on local initiatives rather than a national effort, it wasn’t until 2008 that the Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail was published. It documents the MRT as it currently exists, giving turn-by-turn directions and offering information on local services and attractions.
The Great Rivers South bicycle route was created by the Adventure Cycling Association. While it does have stretches where riders follow the Mississippi, there are also long segments where it’s nowhere near the river. Starting in Muscatine, Iowa, riders go through about 100 miles of Iowa and Illinois along the Mississippi before reaching Quincy, Illinois, and Hannibal, Missouri. Continuing south, the route soon turns hard away from the river. It actually bypasses the St. Louis area completely, instead staying 30 to 50 miles west as it travels through towns like Troy and Wright City.
No longer tethered to the Mississippi, the Great Rivers South route starts to get a little wild. For a time, it cohabitates with the Lewis & Clark Trail and Katy Trail between Marthasville and Washington. Leaving the Katy at Washington, the route goes south through Union to St. Clair, where it hooks up with Bicycle Route 66 for about 20 miles. It also has a one-night stand with the TransAmerica Trail as it passes through Farmington, allowing cyclists to string together sections to create their own custom cross-country route if they wish.
All told, the Great Rivers South route is just under 1,400 miles from its start in Iowa to where it ends at Jackson Square in New Orleans. Portions of it also run concurrent with the Underground Railroad, which travels 2,000 miles from Mobile, Alabama, to Owen Sound, Ontario, marking the secretive route escaped slaves used when seeking freedom before and during the Civil War.
Lewis & Clark Trail
Beginning just across the river from St. Louis in Hartford, Illinois, the Lewis & Clark Trail follows the route taken by the party led by Cpt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark between 1804 and 1806 as they explored the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. The route, which Adventure Cycling Association describes as one of its most challenging, generally follows the Missouri and Columbia rivers over 3,100 miles to Seaside, Oregon.
In the St. Louis area, when riding the Lewis & Clark, cyclists take the Great River Road north from its origin at the spectacular Lewis and Clark State Memorial Park and nearby Confluence Tower in Hartford up towards Grafton and Pere Marquette State Park. The Brussels and Golden Eagle ferries transport riders to Missouri, and from there, the route goes through northern St. Charles County before connecting with the Katy Trail.
The Lewis & Clark Trail uses the Katy to cross much of Missouri until breaking off near Boonville to continue tracing the Missouri River as it approaches Kansas City. After that comes as much scenery and history as a person can handle, through Nebraska and Iowa, North and South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
The main route is made up of paved roads, bike paths and unpaved rail-trails, with occasional short sections of gravel roads. Conditions vary from rural to urban. The path follows the rivers that Lewis and Clark’s expedition traveled and is mountainous for long stretches after leaving Missouri, so a cyclist needs to be fairly self-reliant due to portions with sparse population and limited services.
However, if you’re interested in testing your mettle along the same route its namesake explorers navigated more than 200 years ago, the Lewis & Clark Bicycle Trail is your chance.
If you’re considering a ride on a cross-country cycling route, even a short jaunt across a county or two, be aware that while these routes do have segments that follow separated bikeways — like the Katy Trail, for example — most often you’ll be on the street, sharing space with motor vehicles. Knowing the cycling rules of the road and staying attentive are imperative. That being said, designers have been careful to keep riders as safe as possible when laying out each route. In general, quiet roads are favored over busier ones, even when less direct, and if there’s a dedicated bike path or marked bike lane, these are used where possible.
For routes, maps, tips and detailed information about cross-country cycling, the Adventure Cycling Association is your best bet. You can find the national nonprofit online at adventurecycling.org.
Author: David Fiedler is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.