Sometimes you just have to deal with what lies in front of you - even if it aint all that pretty...
At least that was my initial impression of the Riverfront Trail in St. Louis as I pedaled north from the downtown trailhead. At the south end of the 11-mile, paved, multi-use trail sits the city's signature Gateway Arch, surrounded by a scenic park along the west bank of the Mississippi River. At the north end is another picturesque park and beautiful bluff leading to the iconic Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. The eight or so miles between, well, that's an entirely different story...
St. Louis has always been a working city.
The mighty Mississippi defined the boundaries of its industrial district more than two hundred years ago. After steamboats faded, the railroads came along and laid further claim to what could have been a very inviting shoreline. Power plants, oil tanks, warehouses, elevators, conveyors, railroad tracks and junk yards scar the scenery from the Eads Bridge north to North Riverfront Park. A floodwall does its best to separate the natural wonder from the man-made eyesore, but sometimes the trail is forced to run along the unattractive side of the wall. When the wall ends and the trail straddles the top of the levee, one can't help but notice the stark contrast from one side to the other.
Rather than make excuses for its city's lack of eye appeal, Trailnet - one of the nation's premier regional trail advocacy groups - embraces its riverfront's diversity. Its website touts the trail's path north as a timeline of sorts for St. Louis history. From the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing Underground Railroad Site to the Laclede Power Center, the "Reflections on a River" floodwall art mural to the Native Plant Nursery, each section highlights a point of progress that has helped shaped the metro area not just physically, but figuratively. Taking time to learn about the mighty river's legacy definitely helps a rider better understand the significance of the diverse sights surrounding him.
The most impressive part of my journey northward was crossing the mile-long Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. It's a bit unnerving pedaling across a cantilever through-truss bridge that dates back to 1929. I couldn't get over how narrow it was - only 24 feet wide - and the fact that two lanes of traffic traveled without incident over this great expanse of river for nearly 30 years. It was remarkably solid, thanks to a $4 million dollar Trailnet renovation investment. It was also awe-inspiring with the view of the city skyline off in the distance and what remains of the once treacherous Chain of Rocks rapids in the foreground.
Once on the Illinois side of the river, I had to choose between riding the West Levee Road Trail (north or south) or crossing a second bridge over the Chain of Rocks Canal where more trail options awaited. The canal bridge was every cyclist's dream; one lane for vehicle traffic - alternating turns with a traffic light - and a dedicated, dual-direction, protected bike lane.
At the foot of the bridge, I chose to continue north along the Confluence Trail toward Alton, Illinois. The first two miles of the trail north of the bridge share the levee's gravel road before returning to a dedicated paved path. I followed the gravel as far as the parking lot where the canal begins, just south of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. If I had had more time, I definitely would have ridden the trail south toward the Mc Kinley Bridge which crosses into St. Louis two miles north of the Riverfront Trail's downtown trailhead (due to my work schedule, I actually split this ride into two out and back segments on back-to-back days).
The trails on the Illinois side of the river are maintained by Madison County Transit. Hats off to another great group! I had the pleasure of riding one of the MCT paved trails through Edwardsville two nights prior. The trail system there is top-notch - 100 miles of Class 1 bikeways - connecting growing Edwardsville with communities in six different directions. I enjoyed the rolling hills, ravines, and lack of at-grade street crossings. The entire system seems very well thought-out.
The next time you find yourself heading to the St. Louis area, don't forget to bring your bike along. You can see a lot of what Marquette, Joliet, Lewis, and Clark explored without ever stepping foot on a boat.
More images of my rides through St. Louis can be found on my Facebook fan page in the 30 Days of Biking 2013 album.
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Keep riding and be safe!