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.
Golden vines cascade down the gentle rounded slopes surrounding Augusta, the heart of Missouri River wine country — or Rhineland, as it is sometimes called. Nostalgic German immigrants, reminded of their beloved Rhine River valley, flocked to the Missouri River in the 1800s, bringing with them their Teutonic architecture, fondness for flowers, and traditional winemaking skills. Back then, when Missouri’s vineyards were second only to California’s, 11 wineries flourished here, until Prohibition turned off the taps. Several dozen have since reemerged along Missouri’s wine region, opening their cellar doors both to judges (who have awarded gold medals to a number of fine vintages) and to visitors. A perfect place to sample some of this prize-winning nectar is the Mt. Pleasant Winery, where a shady veranda overlooks countryside and rivers.
As Rte. 94 continues west, it passes through the little German town of Dutzow, founded in 1832 by members of the Berlin Emigration Society. One point of interest that’s easy to miss is the cemetery, just down the road, where the earthly remains of Daniel Boone may — or may not — be laid to rest.
Boone’s body lay here beside that of his wife for 25 years after his death in 1820. Then the state of Kentucky insisted that its founding father be moved back home. Missouri acquiesced, but some skeptics maintain that Kentucky got the bones of a young slave — a story supported by a forensic expert — while the great backwoodsman remains exactly where he wished, on this hill overlooking his beloved Missouri bottomland.
Boone wasn’t the only one lured by the river bottom; farmers love its rich soil as much as builders appreciate its level terrain. But for those who live close to the river’s banks, flooding is a perennial threat. Serving as a poignant reminder is the St. Johns of Pinckney United Church of Christ. Sitting picture-perfect on a river bend three miles past the village of Treloar, it is the only structure in the area that survived the high, raging floodwaters of 1993.
From Dutzow the drive detours south on Rte. 47, crossing the Missouri River to reach Washington. With a population of 14,000, this town is, by local standards, considered something of a metropolis. A bit of history was made here in the 1860s when a woodworker mechanized the manufacturing of corncob pipes. The factory that supplied such aficionados as Mark Twain and Gen. Douglas MacArthur still stands on Front Street, turning out some 4,000 pipes a day.
Back on Rte. 94, the drive proceeds west until it intersects with Rte. 19, where it once again leaps across the river on its way to Hermann. This flower-decked town with its salmon-colored brick buildings — many of them brightened by lacy white curtains — echoes the tastes of its prim and proper German founders. At the Deutschheim State Historic Site, two houses filled with original furnishings recall domestic life in the 19th century. History still in the making can be found nearby at Stone Hill, one of Missouri’s biggest and oldest vineyards. Wine flows freely and oompah music fills the air during Oktoberfest, the traditional fall harvest celebration.
8. Jefferson City
Passing through one drowsy town after another, the road continues across green velvet countryside dotted with old farms. Some 40 miles beyond Hermann, Rte. 94 approaches Jefferson City, Missouri’s genteel capital. Proudly announcing the city’s main business and the reason it was first erected in 1826 — government — the gray dome of the state capitol building dominates the city’s skyline, presiding over modern buildings as well as the 1871 Governor’s Mansion and other official buildings. Length: About 120 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: April to November.
Words to the wise: Springtime flooding may close some roads.
Not to be missed: For a guide to local wineries, call 1-800-392-9463.
Nearby attractions: Forest Park, site of the 1904 World’s Fair, St. Louis. Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis. Lewis and Clark Center, St. Charles. Winston Churchill Memorial, a reconstructed church from 17th-century London, Fulton.
Further information: Missouri Division of Tourism, Box 1055, Jefferson City, MO 65102; tel. 314-751-4133, www.visitmo.com.
[sale-item img=”http://media.rd.com/rd/images/rdc/products/the-most-scenic-drives-in-america-pd.jpg” title=”The Most Scenic Drives in America” price=”25.00″ link=”http://www.readersdigeststore.com/The-Most-Scenic-Drives-in-America/M/0762105801.htm?trkid=rdv_store”]