We've all been there at some time or another – a ride that seems more like a trip along a bicycle interstate than a leisurely pedal along a scenic trail. Don’t worry – Florida’s award-winning trail network provides plenty of opportunities to relax and enjoy a peaceful ride that is perfect for a day away from it all. From remote off-road adventures to near-town nature rides, the Sunshine State has it covered.
Nature Coast State Trail
Explore 32 miles of North Florida as the Nature Coast State Trail passes through parts of Dixie, Levy and Gilchrist counties in North Central Florida, due west of Gainesville. The trail is paved and isn’t completely linear like most bike paths – instead, it’s T-shaped. You’ll find the intersection at Wilcox Junction, with the nearest trailhead located in Fanning Springs. Looking for a fantastic North Florida adventure? Make your ride on the Nature Coast State Trail part of a multiday trip, taking in the multitude of recreational opportunities found at nearby Fanning Springs State Park and Manatee Springs State Park. Fanning Springs can be easily accessed from the Nature Coast State Trail; Manatee Springs is about five miles from the trail. Make sure to bring along your camera – deer, turkeys and many other species of birds are frequently spotted along the path, and there’s a great scenic vista from the historic trestle bridge over the Suwannee River.
Directions and more information about the Nature Coast State Trail can be found at the www.FloridaGreenwaysAndTrails.com website.
Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail
Can you say diversity? The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail is only 16 miles long, but it traverses some of the most scenic areas found on any bike path, making it a favorite ride of nature-seekers. The trail travels east from Gainesville and the University of Florida to the rural town of Hawthorne, crossing Prairie Creek on its way through the Paynes Prairie Preserve and Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area. The topography along the trail varies, so you’ll get a chance to climb a few hills along the way. Ancient live oaks and cypress trees give way to farmland and scenic vistas along the trail, with plenty of places to pull over and enjoy a picnic or snack. The Boulware Spring City Park is where you’ll find the western terminus, and 15 miles to the east, near U.S. 301, is the Hawthorne Trailhead.
For more information on the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, visit the Florida State Parks website.
Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway / I-75 Land Bridge Trailhead
In 1935, construction was begun on a barge canal to connect the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean north of Orlando and south of Jacksonville. After nearly 60 years of sporadic construction, the project was officially canceled in 1991 and the corridor was turned over to the State of Florida for conservation and recreational use. Stretching from coastal Citrus County northeast to the St. Johns River, this 110-mile greenway provides both residents and visitors a place to discover the beauty and variety of Florida’s natural resources.
One of the unique features of the Cross Florida Greenway, the I-75 Land Bridge, allows wildlife and nonmotorized recreational traffic to pass safely over Interstate 75 near Ocala. The 200-foot-long structure was completed in 2000 and has the distinct honor of being America’s first land bridge. Find access to this section of the Cross Florida Greenway at the Land Bridge Trailhead, located on CR 475A in Marion County. Biking, hiking and horseback riding are popular activities at the Land Bridge Trailhead – with some dedicated trails for each and some multi-use trails.
Bring your mountain bike and explore the 1.5-mile trail through huge live oaks as you make your way to the Land Bridge. Once atop the shrub- and tree-lined bridge, pause and look down at the traffic on Interstate 75, and ponder how enjoyable it is to be biking along the Cross Florida Greenway instead of busily racing along the highway below. On the western side of the Land Bridge, the trail continues another 2 miles to the 49th Avenue Trailhead. The more adventurous can consider tackling the 42-mile International Mountain Bicycling Association-designated Epic Ride, a collaboration between the Ocala Mountain Bike Association and www.FloridaGreenwaysAndTrails.com that traverses the Greenway between the Santos and Ross Prairie trailheads.
General James A. Van Fleet State Trail
For nature lovers, the 29-mile paved General James A. Van Fleet State Trail, west of Orlando, can’t be beat. Originally named the Green Swamp Trail, it was renamed in honor of U.S. Army General James A. Van Fleet, a highly decorated World War I, World War II and Korean War hero from Polk County. In 1992, the trail was dedicated to General Van Fleet on his 100th birthday; he died six months later.
Deer, otters, wild turkeys, alligators, herons, sandhill cranes and a large number of other species are all common on the Van Fleet Trail as you travel through the Green Swamp, one of Florida’s most important watersheds and the source of four major rivers. Four trailheads provide easy access to different sections of the Van Fleet, with the northernmost point located at Mabel in Sumter County, and Polk County’s Polk City marking the terminus to the south.
Only one curve can be found in the Van Fleet trail; otherwise it is a flat, straight path with nine bridges and convenient benches spread throughout its length. While the trail itself doesn’t offer many changes, the scenery surrounding the pathway transforms as you pass through many habitats including cypress swamps, hardwood hammocks and pine forests. In each area, you’ll feel as if you have turned back the hands of time and stepped into Florida’s past.
The trail remains open during hunting season. For obvious reasons, visitors are encouraged to wear fluorescent orange during that time.
Water and restrooms can be found at the Mabel and Green Pond Road trailheads and just across the street from the Polk City trailhead. For more information, maps and directions, visit the General James A. Van Fleet page on www.FloridaGreenwaysAndTrails.com.
Bear Island – Big Cypress National Preserve
At Bear Island, you’re miles away from it all. Nestled in the westernmost section of the 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve in far southwest Florida, Bear Island is naturally home to an astonishing amount of wildlife, including the endangered Florida panther. Arguably the best place for riding in the Everglades, biking at Bear Island is best in the winter months, when the insects have decreased, making the ride much more enjoyable. If you’re riding at other times of the year, insect protection is a must.
It’s a popular destination for biking – instead of a marked bike path, you’ll be riding on off-road vehicle trails, so be prepared for areas that may be somewhat difficult to negotiate. For the most part, the ride is on hard-packed gravel road, so mountain bikes or hybrid bikes with wide tires are recommended. Three primitive campgrounds are available (one of which is accessible by car). For the two more primitive sites, be sure to call ahead as you’ll need a permit to camp at these off-road locations. Bear Island is very remote, so you’ll need to bring along at least a basic first aid kit, sunscreen and plenty of water, and be sure to tell friends or family about your plans.
Ready to hit the Bear Island trails? On your way to Bear Island, stop by the Oasis Visitor Center at 52105 Tamiami Trail East or the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center at 33000 Tamiami Trail East Tamiami Trail for the proper permits, maps and directions.
Things to Bring
When biking, your ride is always more enjoyable when you’re properly prepared. Make sure to wear clothing that’s appropriate for the weather, and always wear a helmet. Pack a snack or lunch, plenty of water, sunscreen and insect repellent. On any outing, tell a friend or family member your plans, and properly secure your vehicle at the trailhead. Then it’s time to hit the trail!