Potatoes, pines and dark waters

On a cold clear January day, Walt Barry and I decamped from Anastasia State Park and took ourselves and our bikes to nearby Vermont Heights.

Yes, there is a Vermont Heights, Dorothy. It’s right outside St. Augustine, just east of I-95 on State Rd. 207 You can look it up. More importantly, it is the eastern jumping off point for the Palatka-St. Augustine Trail.

This was our first opportunity to do an out-and-back on the 19-mile trail. And it was a perfect day for it.

A cold breeze was coming up from the south, but we had clear skies and big sun.

Weather notwithstanding, it’s an easy ride. Very flat terrain and scenery varied enough to keep things interesting.

Over the years I have ridden various segments of the trail. During my time with Bike Florida we often took cyclists through this intriguing landscape of potato and cabbage fields, wetlands, historic communities and piney woods.

But with the recent completion of the final “missing link” between Hastings and Armstrong, it is now possible to ride the entire length of the trail, from Vermont Heights in the east to the banks of the St. John’s River in the west.

And keep in mind that you are traveling through history on a path originally laid out by railroad magnet Henry Flagler to help drag pioneer Florida into the modern age. In fact, take the short ride east from the Vermonts Heights trailhead and you will come to a spot where the trail abruptly ends and abandoned tracks still remain.

Not too far from Vermont Heights you will arrive at the African-American community of Armstrong. Folks there have been working for years to establish themselves as a friendly “trail town.” Bike Florida helped them raise money to build the Armstrong Trail Head, and it’s well worth stopping there to have a look see. You will be welcomed.

Soon after leaving Armstrong you will cross Deep Creek, with its dark waters and swampy banks. From the bridge you can see a boardwalk that leads to a “swimmin’ hole.” Watch out for gators and snakes though.

Shortly after that the trail will take you right through downtown Hastings. Once dubbed the Potato Capital of Florida, it’s now pretty much a relic of past agricultural glory. Five years ago Hastings residents voted to give up their town government, which was founded early in the last century. But while the era of the Potato Kings may be long gone, the nearby County Line vegetable market still does a booming business.

Just outside Hastings you’ll cycle past another reminder of past ag glory – the home of Bull’s Chips farm. Check out its graveyard of ancient, abandoned farm machinery. And see if you can spot the old time railroad car.

At trail’s end you reach Memorial Bridge, which crosses the St. John’s River into Palatka. The bridge sports a protected bike-ped lane that is physically separated from traffic. So feel free to cross and check out the town’s work-in-progress historic waterfront. Visit the St. John’s River Center while you’re in the neighborhood.

Oh yeah, and before your return trip, lunch at Corky Bell’s is never a mistake.

Is this a great trail or what? Just another corner of Ron’s Florida.

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