We get it. You want to ride.
You long to get out there on your bicycle, to explore the best that natural Florida has to offer. To exercise your body and your mind. To leave your sedentary existence behind, if only for the day, or perhaps just a few hours.
But you are not comfortable riding on the roads. Traffic worries you. You don’t feel safe occupying the same space with cars and trucks and distracted drivers with cell phones.
Not to worry.
The really cool thing about Gainesville is that it is pretty much the epicenter of Trail Country. If you have a bike rack, or enough on-board cargo space to stow your bicycle, you are within easy driving distance – an hour or so – of at least four quality rail-trails.
No need to share the road. Just get on a trail and sing along with Queen: “I want to ride my bicycle…..”
Here they are in order of proximity.
The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail: This one literally starts at Depot Park in downtown Gainesville and runs for more than 15 miles, all the way to downtown Hawthorne. Along the way you can stop at the Boulware Springs Trailhead for water and restrooms. You might want to take a bit of time off the bike to stroll the walkway into Alachua Sink at Paynes Prairie. There are rolling hills and scenic prairie overlooks. You can stop at Prairie Creek and watch the fishing, or maybe even cross under the Hawthorne Road bridge and take a peek at Newnans Lake. You can explore tiny Rochelle, cross Lochloosa creeks and, when you get to Hawthorne, maybe have lunch at Diane’s Old Time Barbecue, or visit the Historical Museum before heading back to Gainesville – where you just might consider a cold beer reward at First Magnitude, conveniently situated at trail’s end. This is one of Florida’s oldest rail-trails and it never loses its charm.
The Lake Butler-Palatka Trail: Just a 35-minute drive east will take you to the trailhead at Grandin, in Putnam County. From there you can ride either west toward Keystone Heights or continue east toward Palatka – or better yet, go first one way and then the other. Either way the ride will take you through the heart of this area’s sand hills and lakes country. The important thing to remember is that this 47-mile corridor is very much a work in progress. As this is being written, construction continues on a trail extension that will go all the way into Palatka. Once that is completed, it will be possible to connect with the Palatka-St. Augustine Trail that will take you over the St. John’s River to the farm town of Hastings, the charming trail-communities of Armstrong and Elkton and then on to the very outskirts of the Ancient City itself.
Nature Coast Trail: It’s a 40 minute drive west from Gainesville to Old Town. From there the Nature Coast Trail runs for 32 miles – west to Cross City, south to Chiefland and east to Trenton and extending in the direction of Newberry. This trail runs through the heart of a slice of old Florida that was once connected to the rest of the world by steamboats and railroads, and the highlight of the trail is a Suwannee River crossing via an one-time iron railroad bridge. The trail is in close proximity to Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs, so a quick dip in cold water, or a time out for a bit of kayaking is not out of the question.
Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway Trail: A 56 minute drive south on U.S. 441/301 will take you through Ocala to the Santos Trailhead and the recently opened 23-mile Cross Florida Greenway Trail. What makes this trail different from most others is that it was not constructed on a former railroad right-of-way, meaning that it doesn’t run straight and true in typical railroad fashion. Rather this trail takes delightful twists and turns though the deep forest and over the low hills of the Cross Florida Greenway Corridor. Instead of crossing busy roadways, the trail dips under them via a series of tunnels. And when you get to I-75 can keep riding west unimpeded thanks to the trail’s attractively landscape “land bridge.” Oh yeah, along the way you will pass the Florida Horse Park, so don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself sharing the trail with a number of earnest looking individuals who are in the process of training their mounts for upcoming races. On the drive back, consider stopping in Ocala’s restored downtown for lunch in one of its many restaurants.
(I wrote this piece for the latest edition of Gainesville Magazine.)