The people of Marysville, Kansas know a little something about trails. The town was a stop on the original Pony Express route. The Oregon Trail passed close by, as did the Ponca (Nebraska) Trail of Tears.
I’ve always been fond of this section of the Great Plains and am somewhat familiar with the rail trails that have been built in Kansas and Nebraska, so there never was really any doubt that I was going to get off Interstate 80 at Kearney Nebraska and work my way southeast towards the Flint Hills via lightly traveled two lanes on my way back to Indiana this past weekend. I’m glad I did, as it gave me the opportunity to cycle the entire 11.5 mile length of the Blue River Rail Trail from Marysville to the Nebraska line.
I really like this trail. I like all trails, more or less, but this one especially. I wasn’t sure how far I was going to go because I had over 600 miles of driving to complete by the end of the day on top of 950 the day before but I ended up riding the entire route all the way to the Nebraska state line. I could have kept going, as the folks in Nebraska are extending the trail to Beatrice where it will connect with the Homestead Trail into Lincoln. The new section will be called the Chief Standing Bear trail in honor of the Ponca chief. When completed, it will be possible to cycle the entire 59 miles from Marysville to Lincoln on converted rail trails.
It gets even better. Advocates in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri have visions of an extensive four state trail network linking communities both large and small across the region. When this network is built, it will be possible to cycle from Lincoln to Kansas City and from there on to St. Louis via the iconic Katy Trail and the soon to be completed Rock Island trail. It will be a fabulous economic driver as entrepreneurs will open lodges, inns, coffee houses and restaurants to serve those cycling through. The Blue River Rail Trail is part of this proposed network.
I arrived in Marysville well after dark on Friday evening so it was too late to do any real reconnaissance. No worries. None was needed. I stayed in a pleasant and affordable motel on the appropriately named Pony Express Highway. I didn’t know the parking situation at the trailhead (there’s plenty) and so I decided to park downtown figuring it would add a few extra miles to the ride and give me the opportunity to get a feel for the community. I’m glad I did. Marysville has a quaint and vibrant Main Street lined with shops and restaurants. It’s a little like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting. I arrived just after sunrise, so nothing was open except for a single coffee house. When I returned, the street was bustling.
There’s a short section of paved trail in town and then a gap to the trailhead which is located about a mile north of downtown. There are plans to fill in the missing link, but for now simply travel up 8th Street, turn left on Jayhawk and follow the road around the curve to the trailhead. You can’t miss it. Park anywhere except in front of the gate.
The ride from downtown to the trailhead is surprisingly hilly. There are brick roads, asphalt roads and gravel roads, suggesting that a bike that’s at home on a variety of surfaces is your best bet here. I rode my ancient hardtail Specialized rig. My Kona Rove would have worked fine, too. Fat bikes? Sure. Road racing bikes, probably not, but this isn’t a ride to speed through. Slow down and savor this place while you can.
Once on the trail, I was greeted by a stiff north wind but even that worked out well since the trail winds north along the Blue River from town to the Nebraska state line. I’d have the wind at my back coming home.
The Blue River Rail Trail is a glorious ride. The trail itself is crushed limestone…the perfect material for bicycle touring trails. It’s relatively inexpensive to install, which means you can install more of it for less money. It drains well and provides a nice surface for a variety of bicycles. It literally repairs itself. The trail bed was in excellent shape…smooth and fast. There were occasional benches and plenty of signs including markers every half mile.
The scenery along this route is surprisingly varied and beautiful. The route traverses river bottom lands so there are fields and stands of trees. There are also some rock outcroppings that add a little variety. You’ll cross a number of bridges along the way including a delightful covered bridge that was built exclusively for the trail.
There aren’t a lot of road crossings and the ones there are don’t carry much traffic. Kansas state highway 233 crosses high above the trail about 9.5 miles north of Marysville. There’s also a Farmer’s Union Grain Elevator along the route. Other than that, you’re not likely to see any motor vehicle traffic at all.
As nice as the route is, the real reason to visit Marysville is the hospitality of the town’s residents. I met a local couple on the trail. We struck up a conversation and I ended up enjoying breakfast in their Craftsman bungalow in town. Peter is a school teacher while Sarah is the editor of the local newspaper, the Marysville Advocate. Both are passionate advocates on behalf of the trail, health and the great outdoors. We talked bicycles, transportation, trail building, wellness and sustainability. It was a delightful visit. There’s no better way to end a morning in this special little corner of America’s heartland than with some new friends.