Florida Trails- St. Pete Times, March 14, 2003
As I teetered at the top of the hill, the words “insurance copay” kept running through my mind. Below all I could see was a gauntlet of roots, rocks and chewed up sand ready to grab my front wheel and launch me over the bars. When you go mountain biking on the Cross Florida Greenway in Ocala, be prepared to get a little lost and a little bruised. But you’re going to have a lot of fun.
The Greenway is a part of a trail system that covers more than 4,000 miles of trails in State Parks and state lands. There are probably several thousand more miles that are maintained by cities and counties around the state. Trails have increased tremendously in popularity as more are built, and more riders decide they’ve had enough playing matador and bull games on crowded urban roadways.
The Pinellas Trail is the heaviest used and most successful of all the trails in the state. It drew 970, 227 visitors last year. The state-operated Cross Florida Greenway near Ocala logged 611,802 users over the past year.
Tampa Bay area riders are already familiar with the Pinellas Trail, one of the first and most successful urban trail rides in the country. Here are five other rides, each offering a unique trail experience, and the opportunity to explore different parts of Florida. The Greenway is a mountain bike experience. The others are paved.
Withlacoochee State Trail
The Withlacoochee State Recreation Trail follows an old rail bed along the western banks of the Withlacoochee River through parts of Polk, Hernando and Citrus counties. It is long enough that you can make it a weekend adventure if you want to do the whole thing
Like most “Rails To Trails” bikeways that used to be a railroad right-of-way, it is paved, generally straight and flat. Call it an illusion, but no matter which way I go, I always seem to be climbing uphill. Still, this is not a hard ride and you see people of all ages, shapes and sizes riding everything from high tech racing bikes to old beach cruisers.
The trail rambles 46 miles through rural countryside, small towns, the Withlachochee State Forest, and the city of Inverness. The most popular starting points are the Ridge Manor Trailhead just off State Road 50, east of I-75, or in Inverness.
The town of Floral City greets trail users with water fountains at the north and south city limits, and a small gazebo that offers a shady rest stop downtown. This is a good place to get off the trail and tour oak lined streets that aren’t clogged with traffic, or stop in shops or restaurants. There is a country store in Istachatta that has covered tables at trailside where you can relax with cold drinks and a snack.
There are several community parks located along the trail. Fort Cooper State Park is nearby.
Keys Historic Trail
Many of the guidebooks caution you against biking in the Florida Keys because of the traffic. People who take that advice are missing out on one of the most beautiful and historic bike trips in the country. Most of the Keys are already connected with a bike trail that is separated from traffic on U.S. 1. The State Parks Department and local communities are working on a bike trail plan that will eventually connect the entire 106-miles between Key Largo and Key West.
The ride is one of the most scenic anywhere. In some places you have spectacular views of the Atlantic and Florida Bay on either side. The trail sidetracks onto local neighborhood streets through some areas of Tavernier and Islamorada.
Travel in the Keys is defined by mile markers, and each mile along the way takes you past historic benchmarks. You can almost hear the sound of the pile drivers working on Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. The monument to the 500 people who died in the great hurricane of 1935 is located near mile marker 81 in Islamorada.
The bridges offer the most spectacular views, and some have separate bike and pedestrian crossings so you can take your time and enjoy the scenery. Even the famed 7-Mile Bridge has an eight-foot pull-off lane that serves as a suitable bike lane. You want to use caution and move quickly at the smaller bridges because these are where riders and traffic come back together again. There are also places where the bike trail alternates between the east and west sides of U.S. 1, and crossing back and forth can be dicey. This is not a good ride for children.
Just south of Marathon you can take a short side trip on the old railroad bridge that takes you out to watch the sunset at Pigeon Key. The old bridge is now used as a fishing pier and jogging trail. Another great side road trip is on the Atlantic side of Sugar Loaf Key, where you ride nearly abandoned roads past a handful of ocean-side estates. The road turns into a hiking and mountain bike trail that leads back into the mangroves. Another route takes you to an abandoned 4-mile paved loop road that offers riders and hikers unfettered freedom to bird watch and enjoy the vistas of secluded bays and mangrove forests.
This is a short ride, but a great weekend getaway. The signature feature of the Gasparilla Trail is the destination, the town of Boca Grande. This former millionaire’s hideaway sits on the Gulf of Mexico, at the entrance to Charlotte Harbor. The paved trail used to be a private rail line that allowed rich industrial barons of a century ago to ride to their beach mansions in their private rail cars. Many of the locals now use the trail to commute around the island in their private golf carts. You can travel it on your private carbon fiber racing bike, or even that old private Huffy you bought at Wal-Mart 20 years ago.
The old railroad station now holds restaurants, boutiques and artsy gift shops. There seems to be art galleries in every block. Tarpon fishing is the big attraction here in the spring and summer. Tournaments offer prizes in six figures for the biggest fish. Come hungry. Boca Grande is full of small, locally owned, one-of-a-kind restaurants that range from quick lunch stops to gourmet dinners.
The Gasparilla is probably the only trail in Florida where you have to be ready to swerve and brake for iguanas darting in front of you. Descendants of house pets who escaped to freedom, some of them are up to three feet long.
The trail’s end is at the Gasparilla Island State Park and Lighthouse, which is also a good starting point. A round trip up the island and back is only about 13 miles. Ending at the park lets you use the restrooms and showers to clean up before you head into Boca Grande for lunch and shopping.
Cross Florida Greenway
The Cross Florida Greenway is a spaghetti plate of interwoven hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails near Ocala.
The busiest section of the trail flanks both sides of Interstate 75 south of Ocala, connected by a “Land Bridge”. The bridge was built specifically to carry trail users and wildlife across the highway. I’ve often imagined the possibility of a mountain biker and a Florida black bear each trying to cross the bridge at the same time. Hmmm, kinda tasty except this helmet thing is a little tough to chew.
Horses outnumber bikers and hikers in this part of the Greenway. Each group of users has it’s own trail designations but they are not always clearly marked and there is a lot of communal traffic.
The mountain bike trail at the Land Bridge has a schizophrenic personality. East of I-75 it’s flat and tame. To the west it turns into a roller coaster of hills with steep climbs and intimidating downhills. Not far away is the Santos Trail, which is on the Greenway, but privately maintained by the Ocala Mountain Biking Club. Santos has been around a long time and has a good mix of trails with varied degrees of difficulty.
Land for the Greenway was originally going to be used for the ill-conceived Florida Barge Canal. When completed the Greenway’s network of trails will stretch over 100 miles from Yankeetown on the Gulf coast to Palatka on the St. Johns River.
West Orange Trail, Winter Garden
The most popular ride in the Orlando area is the paved 19-mile long West Orange Trail, which starts near the Lake County line and runs northeast to Apopka. Much like the Pinellas Trail without the urban congestion, the West Orange Trail runs through small towns, subdivisions and rolling hills west of Orlando.
Family restaurants, antique shops and boutiques line the trail in Winter Garden. The trailhead at Winter Garden Station is the most popular access point. It has plenty of shaded parking, restrooms and vending machines. There is a bike rental concession at the trailhead in Oakland, just off State Highway 50.
There is an entrance to the Oakland Nature Preserve Park near the west end of the trail. A number of small parks and an equestrian park are located along the way.
The West Orange Trail is a popular ride for the Florida Freewheelers Bike Club, and for smaller groups of regular riders. Most of these groups welcome visitors and there is no charge to ride along as you tour Orlando’s suburbia. The trail borders subdivisions, golf courses, business parks and citrus groves. Some stretches are heavily tree shaded, offering a welcome break from the beating sun in the summer.
If You Go
If you want to take off for a day or weekend of trail riding, check the Florida Greenways and Trails Office website. It has information and maps about most public trails in Florida. Links to all of the trails mentioned in this article can be found at the one web address.
(352) 726-2251 or (352) 344-1640 for information about the trail, group rides, and bike shops.
Fort Cooper State Park
D2 – 3100 South Old Floral City Road, Inverness, FL 34450
Inverness Place Bed & Breakfast
811 Zephyr Street, Inverness, FL 34450
Moonrise Resort, Camping and cabins
FLORIDA KEYS HISTORIC TRAIL
A great site for hotel information throughout the Keys.
Coconut Cay Resort
A bike-friendly and centrally located place to stay, M.M. 51, Marathon
More information about biking in the Keys
THE GASPARILLA TRAIL
Gasparilla Island State Park & Lighthouse
Boca Grande, Florida 33921
Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce
For lodging, bike rentals, and tourist information.
CROSS FLORIDA GREENWAY
Ocala-Marion Chamber of Commerce
For information on lodging, restaurants and bike rentals.
WEST ORANGE TRAIL
Orange County Parks & Recreation Department
Florida Freewheelers Bike Club