A landmark along the recently opened 47-mile Rock Island spur is a large lake where steam locomotives once refilled their boilers.   

PLEASANT HILL, Mo. – Katy Trail State Park just took a giant step toward achieving its longtime goal of stretching across Missouri’s midsection to join the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas.

The move enabled the Katy Trail to reclaim its title as America’s longest rails-to-trails conversion.

Gov. Jay Nixon recently visited Pleasant Hill to cut the ribbon to open a new section of the trail built on an abandoned Rock Island Railroad line. The 47.5-mile stretch runs from Windsor to Pleasant Hill on the western edge of the trail.

Previously, the Katy Trail had stretched 238 miles from Machens, the eastern end north of St. Louis, through Windsor to Clinton. The new Rock Island Spur of Katy Trail State Park runs from Windsor to Pleasant Hill, moving closer to Kansas City.

“You’ll be able to go 287 miles on an incredible asset,” Nixon told the crowd that turned out for the ribbon cutting.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the national group that promotes the preservation of inactive rail lines as recreational trails, had listed the John Wayne Pioneer Trail in Washington as the country’s longest conversion at 253 miles.

Days after the Rock Island ribbon cutting, the Conservancy revised its national trail statistics, promoting the Katy Trail from second to first place.

Brandi Horton, vice president of communications for the group, said Katy Trail State Park was “the longest continuous rail trail in the country” with the new addition.

“The two now form the longest connected rail-trail system,” she said.

Besides for state pride, and the attention that the longest recreational trail gets from riders throughout the world, Nixon noted that a long-standing commitment was being met.

“Almost eight years ago, as a brand-new governor, I stood right here in Pleasant Hill — maybe with many of you — to talk about that promise of linking Kansas City to the Katy Trail,” he said at the ribbon cutting.

“Today, we celebrate a promise made, and a promise kept. We are taking the Katy to KC!”

Communities Welcome the Trail

Pleasant Hill long has been a railroad town, and still has an active Union Pacific line. The vintage buildings in the historic district include the old railroad depot, which has been renovated into interesting shops and the Chamber of Commerce office.

An outdoor sign on the highway leading into Pleasant Hill now reads, “Where the tracks meet the trail.”

“We’re 35 miles southeast of Kansas City, on the corner of the metropolitan area,” said Shelby Teufel, interim city administrator for Pleasant Hill.

“Connecting to Kansas City will draw more visitors to the area,” she said. “We’re looking for more statewide travelers on day trips, and, in the long term, people who may make this an overnight trip.”

Like the rest of the Katy Trail, the Rock Island Spur is a 100-foot-wide linear state park with a path of compacted gravel in the middle. Both sides border private property.

Because the landscape includes rolling hills, the extension has many sections that have been built up in the valleys to keep the terrain flat, as well as several bridges.

The area of Missouri is agricultural, with many crop farms and cattle ranches along the trail corridor. It travels from Windsor west through the small towns of Leeton, Post Oak, Chilhowee, Denton, Medford, Hadsell and Wingate to Pleasant Hill.

A landmark on the route near Medford is the large Rock Island Lake, where steam locomotives once stopped to refill their boilers.

“The Rock Island corridor cuts through some pristine areas that folks can’t access from the road,” said Melanie Smith, Katy Trail coordinator for Missouri State Parks. “You see livestock, you see working farms. Riders and hikers will certainly enjoy the variety.”

Kim Anderson, city administrator of Windsor, was excited because the majority of the trail to Pleasant Hill is open to equestrian use. The 20 miles of trail from Sedalia into Windsor also welcomes horses.

“We’re smack dab in the middle of the equestrian section,” said Anderson, who opened Kim’s Cabin, with two horse pens, on the trail. “Lots of people know now they can come and ride.”

Anderson said she attended meetings in Pleasant Hill of property owners who lived along the new stretch.

“I told them the people that would be coming through their community would spend money to eat in their restaurants, to stay in their hotels and cabins,” she said.

“I told them that the Katy Trail gets 400,000 visitors a year, and they come from all over the world.”

What’s Next?

Later in December, Gov. Nixon held a news conference at Ameren headquarters in St. Louis at which the utility announced it will transfer to the state a 144-mile stretch of the former Rock Island rail line for future development as a hiking biking trail.

Michael Moehn, president of Ameren Missouri, said Ameren has been working to clear the path of vegetation and plans to transfer it to the state by the end of 2017. It purchased the rail line in 1999.

The proposed new trail will stretch from Windsor to Beaufort, south of the Missouri River, and will be called Rock Island Trail State Park.

“The new trail will bolster Missouri’s position as the nation’s premier hiking and biking destination — and strengthen local economies all along its path,” Nixon said.

The governor said the new trail is different from the Katy Trail, much of which runs along the Missouri River.

“The trail is flat, but the topography around it is not,” Nixon said. “It will give people a much more expansive view of the norther edge of the Ozarks.

“There are some really dramatic railroad bridges. It’s the most stunning landscape Missouri has to offer.”

For more information, visit mostateparks.com.