Jackson County opens final stretch of new trail

By Jeff Fox
The Examiner

A new hike-and-bike trail in Eastern Jackson County fulfills a long-held dream, says a bicycling advocate. In essence, Missouri now has the connections that add up to a cross-state bike ride. 

“It’s really very, very close to a continuous trail right now,” said Brent Hugh, executive director of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation. 

He added, “We’ve been talking about this for literally decades.” 

The Katy Trail alongside the Missouri River near Rocheport.

Jackson County officials on Saturday are set to dedicate the second portion of the Rock Island Trail, running 13.5 miles from the Truman Sports Complex south and east through Raytown and Lee’s Summit. The first part, 6.4 miles from Jefferson Street in south Lee’s Summit north to Brickyard Road, was dedicated two years ago.  

The county and the Kansas City Area Transit Authority paid the Union Pacific $52 million in 2016 for 17.7 miles of old Rock Island tracks for the stated purpose of putting in commuter rail service – with plenty of room in the corridor for a trail along the side. Those tracks had been idle for 35 years. 

A county official at the time said a trail would open by the spring of 2018. The commuter rail plans never came to anything, but the county pressed ahead through legal hurdles to build this trail.  

“This is the last big, difficult piece that connects so many people,” Hugh said, pointing out that this a major metro population in touch with trails that cross the state. 

For all intents and purposes, Hugh said, the new trail “really is part of the Katy Trail,” referring to the popular trail that runs east and west across much of the state. 

Here’s what he means: 

Make sure your water bottles are full, strap on your helmet and set out from the trailhead south of Arrowhead Stadium, taking the old railroad bridge over Blue Ridge Cut-off and heading toward downtown Raytown. 

Despite being in the middle of suburbia, the trail is fairly secluded – a beautiful ride, Hugh says. He lives in Raytown a couple hundred yards from the new trail and has used it to "to commute to meetings and stuff,” he said. 

“When I finally was able to put my bike tires on it, I was astonished” at the trail’s beauty, he said. 

Keep heading south. Enjoy the historical Vale Tunnel near Bannister Road. Take the trail all the way to Jefferson Street in south Lee’s Summit. 

Now comes a challenging piece – a gap of about eight miles in the Greenwood area to the next dedicated bike trail. The northern end of that trail – a state trail also called the Rock Island Trail – is in Pleasant Hill. So you have to take roads – paved and busy or gravel and less congested, Hugh says. Go to mobikeded.org for suggested options. 

Officials have acknowledged the need for a formal connection, and the county says construction should begin next spring. 

“They’re planning to bridge that,” Hugh said. 

At Pleasant Hill, you’re back on trail. The state opened what it also calls the Rock Island Trail in 2016, running 47 miles from Pleasant Hill south to Windsor. 

And Windsor means the Katy. That 240-mile trail runs from Clinton east to Machens, which is a few miles past St. Charles. Along the way, it takes riders through Windsor, Sedalia, Boonville and Rocheport. It passes across the river from Jefferson City and runs through the wine country around Augusta. From Boonville to Machens, it generally runs along the Missouri River. 

A trail in Columbia connects with the Katy, and Hugh said to expect more of that kind of thing, including connections to the new trail from elsewhere in the Kansas City area. There is hope that someday the county’s popular Little Blue Trail in eastern Independence will be extended south to connect with the county’s Rock Island Trail. 

“Everybody is going to want to network into that,” he said.  

Hugh pointed to other options as well. Amtrak serves Hermann, Washington and other Missouri cities on or near the Katy, and Amtrak allows bikes. You could, for instance, take the train to Hermann and ride back to Kansas City. 

Work also is underway for yet more miles of trail that also would carry the Rock Island name, for the company on whose old railbeds riders would pedal. That Rock Island Trail would connect Windsor, Versailles, Cole Camp, Eldon and Owensville – about 200 miles of added trail. Fundraising is underway with a deadline at the end of the year.