From the Panhandle to the Keys – Florida Biking

From the Panhandle to the Keys

Bicycles and Florida make a pretty good team. There’s lots of natural beauty: cold springs (Fountain of Youth, remember?), rivers, lakes and forests. And if it’s the beach you’re after, Florida has the most miles of beach-accessible roadways. Florida offers good roads and a transportation department that takes bikes into consideration. Plus Florida gets only vaguely hilly, which means that while the state may not offer a lot in downhill thrills, you’ll also have very few agonizing uphill plugs.Bicycling on the beach at sunset

And of course there’s that famous climate. Winter is probably the best time for serious bike touring. Temperatures south of Daytona are in the 70s to 80s; north of Daytona they’re in the 60s to 70s. Rain is infrequent. In the summer it’s multiple water bottle weather, with humid 80 to 90 degree temperatures all over the state.

Florida has an enlightened bicycle policy. Which is not to say that you can just cycle anywhere. Cyclists must hand pick their routes to avoid congestion and to keep out of the way on the farm to market routes. Which means you should have a good set of  maps

(Florida Atlas and Gazetteer is the handiest reference around. It features large scale full-color maps detailing the state and showing highways, back roads, and natural features; it also lists beaches, parks, campgrounds, bicycle routes, and more.
You won’t find any better deal than the Florida county maps. Last we heard, maps were 30 cents a piece. But call them at (850) 414-4050 for current prices and ordering information. If their supply of printed maps is out, they may send you a photocopy. But at these prices, who’s complaining?
The Suwannee Bicycle Associationoffers map packets of various statewide routes & touring information, including Department of Transportation (DOT) maps, Mt. Dora maps, southeast Florida rides. For a list, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to:
Lys Burden
P.O. Box 247
White Springs, FL 32096)
  Photo of bicyclists on wetland road

South Florida is a little too crowded for comfort. Still, if you want to give it a go, try the two day Everglades to Keys Tour.

Map of south Florida

Central Florida is much less crowded,

Photo of bicyclists seen through reeds

and north Florida is best of all. The 6-day tour of Florida Springs

Map of north central Florida

Tourin the north central part of the state, and the Seven Hills

Map of northwest Florida

Tourin the panhandle tour can be done as one stretch, or in pieces. If you’re in the area, but don’t have seven days, it’s hard to beat the day trips at Gar Pond and Big Shoals.

Off-road bicyclist

What bike to use? You’ll see more mountain bikes than anything else– though maybe All-Terrain Biking (ATB) would be a more appropriate term for Florida . The fat tires and upright position make it an ideal around-town bike, as well as offering an exhilarating trail experience. Most any bike will do for short rides of under 30 miles per day. Even if you prefer a touring bike, consider more standard or wider touring tires, or even mountain bike tires if you’re going to venture into the quieter rural areas. This change will open up many other roads and trails. Many people are discovering the value of hybrid bikes, which combine the softer and more comfortable ride of mountain bikes with the efficiency of a touring bike. Hybrids are ideal for getting out on Florida backroads, where other traffic seldom ventures.

Rail Trails

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as well as many local recreation and parks departments are acquiring railway abandonments and developing”linear parks” for bicycling as well as hiking, jogging, rollerblading and horseback riding.

Gainesville – Hawthorne Rail Trail. . . 16.2 miles. Good wildlife viewing.
Withlacoochee State Trail. . . 46 miles through several ecozones
General James A. Van Fleet Trail. . . 29 miles through the Green Swamp
Tallahassee – St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail. . . Historic 16-1/2 mile trail ending at a coastal village
Pinellas Trail. . . Popular, 34 mile urban trail. Meet people.
West Orange Trai. . . When finished, this 30 mile trail will connect to the Cross Seminole
Blackwater Heritage Trail. . . 8-1/2 mile in a state park known for its pristine, sandy bottom river
The Cady Way Trail. . . Short, 5 mile urban trail in Orlando that is being integrated into a terrific city-wide biking system.
Jacksonville – Baldwin Rail Trail. . . 14.5 mile trail through pretty section of north Florida

Gainesville – Hawthorne Rail Trail
The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail is a 16.2 mile trail which goes through part of Paynes Prairie State Preserve and Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area. The first 2.5 miles from Gainesville are limerock (with a separate dirt path for horses) and pass through historical and natural areas which provide excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. The next 8.5 miles are rough gravel and dirt. This section passes over streams and through wetlands that are within the Orange Creek Basin watershed. The last 5 miles to Hawthorne are paved, and wind through pine forests and wetlands. The entire trail will eventually be paved and is in process. There are also other off-road bicycle trails in the 21,000 acre Paynes Prairie Preserve.

Withlacoochee State Trail
The Withlacoochee State Trail is a 46 mile paved trail from Dunellon to Trilby, and is the first trail paved with recycled crumb rubber. The trail passes through the Withlacoochee State Forest, near several regional parks, Fort Cooper State park and many small, rural areas of central Florida. It traverses upland mixed forest, sandhill and wetland communities and provides many opportunities for viewing wildlife such as gopher tortoises, bobcats, deer and turkeys. There are trail heads at Citrus Springs and SR50.

General James A. Van Fleet Trail in the Green Swamp
The 29-mile Van Fleet Trail from Mabel to Polk City passes through the Green Swamp which is home to many varieties of wildlife and plant life. Twenty two miles of segments are paved, 18 from Polk City on the south and four miles from Mabel on the north end. The remaining 8 miles, which were gravel surface, were paved in 1998. There are trail heads at Polk City,  Green Pond and Mabel.

Tallahassee – St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail
The 16-mile paved St. Marks Trail follows the historic Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad line, passes through part of the Apalachicola State Forest and terminates at the small coastal village of St. Marks. The City of Tallahassee has extended this trail approximately 5 miles to the north into Tallahasseem making the trail 21 miles.

There is an equestrian trail adjacent to the St. Marks Trail, and an off-road bicycle loop trail through the forest near the northern end of the trail. The southern two miles of the trail have been designated a segment of the Florida National Scenic Trail, which continues on the other side of the St. Marks River to historic Port Leon and beyond. Hail a passing fisherman for a ride across the river.

Pinellas Trail
The 34-mile Pinellas Trail is one of the most popular urban trails in the U.S. There are restaurants, camp grounds, motels, bicycle and roller blade rentals and other services located on or near the trail. The trail passes through many coastal towns and cities in Pinellas County, from the Greek community of Tarpon Springs on the north to St. Petersburg on the south. Currently 32 miles of 15′ paved trail are completed. There are also plans for future extensions to the north as well as additional connecting spurs. A detailed trail guidebook is available by calling the Pinellas County Planning Department at the above number.

West Orange Trail
This 14′ paved trail is currently 5 miles long from the County Line Station (west of Oakland) to Park Avenue in Winter Garden. There is a beautiful trail head, complete with all amenities, at County Line Station. Phase two, which  continues from Winter Garden to State Road 441 in Apopka, was completed in the summer of 1998. This is now a 30 mile multi-purpose trail and connects to the Cross-Seminole Trail to the west.

Blackwater Heritage Trail
Ready in early summer 1997. In Blackwater River State Park, the Blackwater Heritage Trail will cover 8-1/2 miles from the town of Milton to Whiting Field Navy Base in the Florida panhandle.

The Cady Way Trail
The Cady Way Trail is a 3.5 mile paved trail which links the City of Winter Park recreational and residential areas with Orange County neighborhoods, the Naval Training Center and the Orlando Fashion Square Mall. This is one of the few recreational trails in Florida that serves as transportation corridors, and is being integrated into a system that will let you bike all through Orlando. The trail is 10-16′ wide, and in places it is divided into separate 10′ and 6′ paths. The trail is open from dawn to dusk and can be used by bicyclists, in-line skaters and pedestrians. There are shelters and rest stops with benches, trash receptacles and water fountains located along the trail.

Jacksonville – Baldwin Rail Trail
Ready in early 1998, the Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail-Trail will be a 14.5 mile trail corridor located approximately 1.5 miles north of I-10, between Imeson Road and County Road 121.

State Parks and Preserves

You can ride at a few Florida state parks, preserves and other public land. Here are some good leads . . .

Guana River State Park
O’Leno State Park
Paynes Prairie State Preserve
Tosohatchee State Reserve
Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve
Myakka River State Park
Caya Costa State Park
Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
Highlands Hammock State Park
Lower Wekiwa River State Reserve
Talbot Islands GeoPark
Teneroc State Recreation Area

The Florida State Parks web page has good descriptive rundowns and photos of all these places.

State Forests

While probably not on anybody’s top ten list, these state forests should have at least one bikeable trail. Do some exploring, and what you find.

Little Big Econ State Forest
Blackwater River State Forest
Pine Log State Forest
Cary State Forest
Withlacoochee State Forest
DuPuis Reserve State Forest

Water Management Districts

If you really want to get off the beaten track, the Florida’s five Water Management Districts also allow bicycling on some of their properties. Each Water Management District has its own Public Use Guide which tells where cycling is allowed. As with the state and national forests, it is best to call ahead for specific information and get a permit, if needed. These land are not as well known as the national and state forests, and are off the beaten track. If you go, about your trip!

Northwest Florida Water Management District, (904) 539-5999
Suwannee River Water Management District, (800) 226-1066 (north central Florida) If you’re interested in the Suwannee River: Gar Pond & Big Shoals.
St. Johns River Water Management District, (800) 725-5922 (northeast Florida)
Southwest Florida Water Management District, (800) 423-1476
South Florida Water Management District, (800) 432-2045

Many thanks to the Florida Department of Transportation for information used in this piece.

“Where other traffic seldom ventures.” Bikes offer the perfect way to get off the mainstream tourist conveyer belt, and discover the hidden corners of a state that is a major travellers destination for many good reasons. No packaged experiences here . . .


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