Rails to Trails, for Smooth Florida Biking and Hiking

    Florida's bicycling and hiking trails offer paved surfaces with modern amenities through urban settings with art and coffee shops and rural areas with wildlife and equestrian paths.

    By Katherine O'Neal.

    With myriad greenways and trails weaving across the state, Florida is a paradise for cyclists and hikers. Several dozen trails, converted from abandoned railroad beds, are remarkable examples of adaptive reuse that enrich communities and support the environment. Their creation was fostered by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national non-profit organization that's been striving for 25 years to network the nation with these beautiful trails.

    Paved surfaces and gentle grades make rail-trails wheelchair-friendly and inviting to skaters. Several routes are paralleled by un-paved equestrian trails, and many offer convenient access to historic sites and recreational resources, including links to other greenways. These welcoming paths roll through diverse environments, from scenic natural and coastal areas to picturesque towns; a few even cut through the heart of bustling cities - wherever trains once thundered across the landscape.

    Van Fleet State Trail

    The striking contrasts of Florida amaze me. Less than an hour from Orlando's glitzy attractions and crowds, I escaped to a deliciously secluded world of staggering natural beauty. During an afternoon journey on the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail, I encountered precisely four other cyclists, three joggers, one in-line skater and an elderly couple walking a poodle - in nearly 29 miles.

    Start a full round-trip excursion at the northern trailhead, by the almost invisibly small village of Mabel. The southern end terminates outside the town of Polk City, and you can reward yourself with a hearty meal at one of the casual, country eateries in close proximity along Route 33. Shorter jaunts can begin at two mid-section trailheads. With the exception of the Bay Lake Road access point, which offers only parking, the trailheads offer restrooms, water and covered picnic tables.

    The most rural of Florida's paved trails offers superb opportunities for bird watching and wildlife viewing, and covered benches or viewing stations occur every mile. Sunrise and dusk are the best times to spot white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, otters and even bobcats. The trail has even acquired a reputation for its prolific butterfly populations, which peak in autumn.

    The former railway corridor, once used to transport citrus, presents a flat, straight passage from top to bottom. While an undeviating 29.2-mile-long path may sound monotonous, the densely forested northern section cuts through what remains of the great Green Swamp, and several rustic plank bridges span wide creeks.

    Moving south, the landscape includes several open, sunny fields. Ranches, with cows and Brahma bulls, surrond this region. Thick pine forests extend for nearly 10 miles at the bottom of the trail. (Mileage markers painted on the path make tracking distances simple.)

    The only sounds that broke the silence of this sylvan serenity were rustling leaves, trilling birdcalls and the hum of my tires. For me, the Van Fleet Trail presents a prime opportunity for rolling meditation.

    Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail

    The Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail is a green jewel that sparkles in a busy urban setting. Stretching between St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs for 34 miles, this heavily utilized rail-trail links cities and towns with an attractive recreational corridor. Colorful railway-inspired artwork decorates the entrance to the towns along the way.

    The trail is popular among locals, so you're likely to encounter dozens of people biking, walking, jogging and rollerblading in densely populated neighborhoods. Painted markers separate cycling and pedestrian lanes. Expect to be scolded politely if your bike wanders across the line. Park rangers and volunteers patrol the trail, answer questions and offer travel pointers.

    Numerous cross-streets in downtown areas mean dealing with more traffic than on most rail-trails, but there's an agreeable trade-off: An abundance of shops, restaurants and coffeehouses are always close. Eight overpasses have been constructed to get trail-goers safely across busy highways. (Those in wheelchairs may find the steep ramps extremely challenging.)

    There's a bounty of bike rental shops throughout the region. Buses equipped with bike racks enable cyclists to move about Pinellas and adjacent counties easily and efficiently. With few minutes of bike-loading instruction, you're good to go, quite literally.

    To navigate the trail with confidence, pick up a free guidebook issued by The Pinellas County Planning Department. They're widely available at libraries and trailside shops.

    Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail

    Florida's first official state trail offers a rich diversity of sights and destinations. In fact, traversing the entire 16 miles of the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail is akin to time-travel: Starting amidst the urban amenities of the modern state capital, you gradually slide into the past as the trail rolls along ancient forests and picturesque rural towns. The southern terminus is located in the little fishing village of St. Marks, where a rustic air of yesteryear still prevails.

    The main trailhead in Tallahassee is accessed in a suburban location. There's a parking lot and restrooms for your convenience. At this point, a 10-mile equestrian trail picks up next to the paved road (you can actually ride horses the entire trail).

    Heading south for less than a mile and a half leads to the Apalachicola National Forest and the entrance to the Munson Hills Off-Road Bike Trail. The varied terrain of this spur loop gives riders looking for excitement plenty of scenic challenges.

    Not far from the Wakulla Station Trailhead you can take an optional side trip to Wakulla Springs State Park, a wildlife sanctuary home to one of the deepest freshwater springs in the world.

    When the scenery changes from towering pinelands to cabbage palms, you'll know you're approaching the coast. Work up a good appetite before arriving in St. Marks: Several locally renowned seafood joints offer phenomenal fresh catfish.

    Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail

    A recent national survey ranked Gainesville among the best communities for outdoor activities. My personal favorite is the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail. The fully paved 16-mile trail begins at Boulware Springs Park and Historic Waterworks, the site of Gainesville's first settlement. A grassy trail for horses follows alongside and terminates at the Lochloosa trailhead. Picnic tables and water are available at the Hawthorne terminus.

    The beginning portion of the trail is distinguished by a series of small hills - a rarity among rail- trails. Riders not only get a modest uphill workout, but the thrill of speeding down the other side.

    Gracefully arched plank bridges span several creeks along the countryside route, and informative markers provide details on the area's rich history of plantations, citrus groves and cattle ranches. Several tiny rail-station towns still survive.

    Keep the pace leisurely and stop to enjoy the scenic Red Wolfe Pond, Little Sink and Alachua Sink overlooks. With my binoculars, I spotted several great herons and egrets, but the most dramatic encounter occurred directly in front of me when a large buck and a fox stood frozen in a mid-trail standoff. I held my breath until the pair dashed off in separate directions.

    The trail passes by the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a 22,000-acre preserve supporting a variety of species, from sandhill and whooping cranes to alligators and bobcats. After exploring the park's 30 miles of hiking, biking and horse trails, climb the 50-foot observation tower and simply enjoy the view.

    Gasparilla Island-Boca Grande Trail

    The Gasparilla Island-Boca Grande Trail stretches the length of this slender, six-and-a-half-mile barrier island. Yet trailside amenities encompass every quintessential Florida pleasure, from shopping and dining to exploring historic sites and beachcombing. A prodigious number of wild iguanas inhabit the island; you'll quickly become accustomed to the startling sight of exotic critters scampering across the trail.

    If you're looking to awaken the latent adventurer in your soul, head for the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Multiple trails crisscrossing the designated National Natural Landmark are unpaved, making them best to tackle by foot - though mountain bikes can easily traverse the gravel or grass-covered paths. Be sure to grab a map at the Ranger Station. Hikers may even spy tracks of the elusive Florida panther, one of Fakahatchee's many endangered species (though I wasn't that lucky). Cooler months are most welcoming here; mosquitoes can be pesky in May and June.

    For more information about the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, go to www.railstotrails.org.

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