Florida is the land of outdoor fun. Even in July and August, you can usually find fun and a cool breeze at the beach. Florida has an extensive offer of 175 state parks and has been nationally recognized as a leader in the development of recreational trails. From the state Greenways & Trails system to city and county trails, Florida has a humongous network of over 10,000 miles of trails, either finished or planned.
According to Samantha Browne, head of the Florida Greenways and Trails office, more than 10.5 million people used the state’s trail network in the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
“Our partnership with cities and counties,” says Browne, “has definitely made it a success.”
The State of Florida is working with local governments and private groups to eventually criss-cross the state. In one case, with the Florida Coast To Coast Trail, you will be able to ride your bike from St. Petersburg on the Gulf coast to Titusville on the Atlantic coast, a trip of about 140 trail miles.
While much of the state network is still in the pipeline, existing trails have been in use for decades. Here are some of the best.
The Diverse Cross Florida Greenway
The Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway is a sprawling network of public lands and recreation trails across North Central Florida that runs 110 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Johns River south of Palatka. There are paved trails, mountain bike trails, and equestrian trails.
1. The Santos Mountain Bike Trail
One of the most popular on the Greenway is the Santos Trail near Ocala. You will find riders on mountain bikes and horseback. The mountain bike trail is the most daunting. My experience on the Santos Trail was a bit unnerving.
I teetered at the top of the hill. Below a gauntlet of roots, rocks and sugar sand stood ready to grab my front wheel and launch me over the bars. The words “insurance copay” kept running through my mind. Mountain biking on the Cross Florida Greenway is great fun, arguably the best in Florida, and occasionally punctuated by moments of pain and panic. It’s a combination that adrenaline junkies must love.
2. The Withlacoochee Bay Trail
At the western end of the Greenway, you find the paved Withlacoochee Bay Trail. It’s popular with road and recreational street bikers. The trail runs more than 5 miles to an end-point overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
3. The Granddaddy Pinellas Trail
The Pinellas Trail starts in downtown St. Petersburg and runs north for more than 60 miles, through three counties, where it ties in with the ambitious Coast To Coast Trail network.
Paved and with slow gentle curves, the Pinellas Trail is an abandoned railroad bed that was converted to a trail in the early 1990s. You encounter long stretches of peaceful isolation shrouded by trees and buffered from the city sights and traffic sounds only a few yards away. It is flat, safe, and unchallenging.
Probably nowhere does the trail come more alive than in Dunedin. Here the trail rolls through the downtown area, serving as a focal point for shops and restaurants along Main Street. The city provides bike racks, public restrooms, and parking for trail users. The trail is the center of bustling downtown activity on weekends.
A three-mile spur runs west along the Dunedin Causeway to Honeymoon Island State Park. There are beaches, kayak rentals, fishing from bridges, and a ferry service to take you to Caladesi Island State Park. Park your bikes, take the ferry, and enjoy the soft white sands of Caladesi. It is one of the prettiest beaches on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
4. The West Orange Trail
A key link in the Coast To Coast Trail is located in the Orlando area, the West Orange Trail. This is another trail that has rejuvenated a downtown district in the town of Winter Garden. The trail runs right down the middle of the main street.
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.
Even when it’s completed, not many people are going to ride the full length of the Coast To Coast. In urban areas, it’s regarded as a commuter trail. Studies a few years back said commuter trips account for 25–35 percent of trail use.
5. Florida Keys Historic Trail
Most of the Keys are connected by a bike trail that is separated from traffic on U.S. Highway 1. The Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail was built on the right of way of the rail line that once connected mainland South Florida with Key West.
Travel in the Keys is defined by mile markers, and each mile along the way takes you past historic benchmarks. 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. 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. Highway 1. Crossing back and forth can be dicey.
At 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 bridge is now used as a fishing pier and jogging trail. Another great side road trip is on the Atlantic side of SugarLoaf Key, where you ride nearly abandoned roads past a handful of ocean-side estates.
Riders can travel the full length of the trail from Key Largo to Key West. Along the way, there are opportunities to stop for restaurants, visit state parks, or hit the beach. Most riders choose to make it a multi-day trip, stopping in state parks to camp overnight, or finding a local hotel. Just remember to plan. Campgrounds and hotels in the Keys fill up far in advance.
6. Withlacoochee 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, about 50 miles, and 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 railroad right-of-ways, 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 town of Floral City 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 the trailside where you can relax with cold drinks and a snack.
The north end of the trail will eventually connect with the Coast To Coast network.
7. The Glorious Gasparilla Trail
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 of Charlotte Harbor. The trail used to be a private rail line that allowed rich industrial barons from 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 golf carts.
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 trail ends at the Gasparilla Island State Park and Lighthouse. 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 heading into Boca Grande for lunch and shopping.
8. Tallahassee’s St. Marks Trail
One of the oldest trails in North Florida is the St. Marks Trail, which runs south from Tallahassee, on an old railroad right of way, about 21 miles to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, at the Gulf of Mexico. Much of this trail is through forested areas, a welcome break from the Florida sun.
9. Biking Anna Maria Island
The Anna Maria Island Trail is a series of trials that run the full length of the island, from Tampa Bay on the north end to Bradenton Beach county park, a distance of about 15 miles. The trail is best for leisurely bike riders, as the trail is shared with pedestrians in the island communities.
10. The General Van Fleet Trail
The Van Fleet trail in Central Florida is a straight 27 miles of paved trail in Polk County. It runs through Florida’s Green Swamp, and you have to watch out for occasional swamp critters (alligators) that sometimes rest on the trail. If you’re into speed racing with your buddies, this is a good trail to ride. There is only one curve in its entire length.
Many of the trails in Florida are proving to be economic boosters for the communities they run through. According to Samantha Browne, “they are good for the local economies. People stay in hotels, eat in local restaurants, and sometimes camp in local campgrounds.”
As for the future, Browne said, “We want to connect Pensacola to Key West, that’s the goal.”
One thing is for sure, as new trail links are opened, there is no shortage of opportunities to get outside and enjoy that great Florida weather.
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