Tracing the seductive curves of the Missouri River past cornfields and limestone bluffs, Rte. 94 crosses a once-wild landscape surveyed by Lewis and Clark. If the explorers could visit the region today, they would notice a few changes — among them steel bridges and sleepy towns-but they would still be able to pronounce this fertile patch of central Missouri “most romantic.”
1. St. Charles
When French-Canadian settlers arrived here in the 1700s, they called this spot Les Petites Cotes, after “the little hills” on which they built their homes. Although the name has changed — the settlement blossomed into the town known today as St. Charles — the old spirit lives on in the Festival of the Little Hills, a crafts celebration held every year in late August.
At one time, St. Charles was the last outpost for westward-bound pioneers. (It was here that Lewis and Clark launched their historic expedition to the Pacific.) The city also served briefly as Missouri’s first state capital. Both key roles undoubtedly stemmed from St. Charles’s strategic location on the banks of the Missouri River. Plied by low-slung barges transporting goods from America’s interior, this muddy-green waterway parallels Rte. 94 as it exits town, and remains a constant companion for the rest of the drive.
2. August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area
Among the best ways to discover the varied habitats you will traverse along the drive is to visit this 7,000-acre preserve, located about 10 miles to the west of St. Charles. Numerous trails weave through rolling prairie, white pine forest, and river bottomland — all of them home to thousands of birds.
At the nearby Weldon Springs Conservation Area, a portion of the 225-mile-long Katy Trail twists along an old rail bed, showcasing a very different assortment of natural attractions — tiger lilies, black-eyed Susans, trumpet vines, and a host of other seasonal wildflowers. On summer weekends the scenery is further brightened by swarms of bicyclists and hikers sporting kaleidoscope tights.
As it meanders southwest, Rte. 94 enters a hardwood forest thick with maples, elms, hickories, and oaks and rich in frontier lore. Traveling this way in 1804, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are thought to have visited a then-aged Daniel Boone in his wilderness home, adjacent to Boonesfield Village, a reconstructed 19th-century village. The legendary frontiersman had moved to this isolated spot in the pretty Femme Osage Valley, just north of present-day Defiance. His distinguished four-story, Georgian-style house with a breezy veranda and walnut mantels — a far cry from the rustic cabin one might expect for such a pioneer — stands with many of its original furnishings, providing a worthwhile reason for a detour.
Leaving Defiance, the drive hugs the banks of the Missouri River, following its lazy course through countryside dotted with tidy farmhouses, red barns, white country inns, and fields of corn and soybeans. Along the way, the road ventures now and then across the wooded hills and valleys that form the northernmost reaches of the Ozarks, which are not mountains — despite what many believe — but are the remains of an ancient plateau that, over eons, was dissected by the relentless forces of wind and water.