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  • Chris B

Florida Biking Trip – Feb 2011

February 20 -

We left for Florida on Sunday, February 20th after church and camped at Mistletoe State Park just over the Georgia State line out of Augusta. It was located on Clark Hill Lake. It was our first trip out of the state for the year and our first long trip with the newly build plywood teardrop (pod). We arrived at the park around 8:30 and there was no one and no way to register and pay. We picked a nice site near the bathhouse/restroom facility. I spoke to a volunteer camped nearby and he said a ranger would be by the next morning and we could pay then.

The next morning we were up at daylight and had breakfast. We rode around the campground to see if there was a campground host, but found none. We went back to the front entrance to see if we missed something. We did not have time to wait around for staff to come arrive. Most parks with campgrounds have a system in place to register and pay for late arrival. This one didn't. It was 7:30 and we were ready to get on down the road because I wanted to ride a trail going south out of Tallahassee to St. Marks When I called about it three weeks previously, the park staff said that they were going to take up the pavement and repave the four miles nearest Tallahassee. It would be closed for several months. They said it should already have been started but hadn't. It would surely be closed when I was planning to be there. Fortunately, when we arrived Monday afternoon, they were getting ready to put up barricades and begin work the next day. I lucked out and was able to ride the whole 16 miles.

From the trail terminus at St. Marks, we drove on to Cross City on US 98 west of Gainesville to be in the area for the next days trail ride. As we were driving along in Cross City, I realized we were right at the trail that I wanted to ride the next day, so we immediately began looking for a campground and found one right away. The next morning, Rhonda deposited me at the trailhead of the Nature Coast Trail and I headed for Trenton about 20 miles away. Along the way, I met a man with his bike loaded down. He had ridden from New Orleans and was on the way to Key West. He said he was about out of money and was going over to the Gulf Coast area to see if he could find some work. We didn't talk for long, because he was eager to get on his way.

After meeting Rhonda in Trenton, we drove back to the mid point of the trail where it Teed and another leg went south to Chiefland. When I arrived in town, Rhonda was waiting at the old depot and we had lunch at a picnic table off the parking lot. Before going to the campground at Manatee Springs State Park, we stopped a Winn-Dixie to pick up some things we had forgot. After setting up camp, we rode the bikes down to the springs. The manatee were not in the main springs, but we saw them out where the stream from the springs comes out into the Suwannee River. Back at our campsite and as we were preparing for supper, we had several other campers comment and take a look at our homebuilt teardrop camper.

Wednesday, we drove over to Gainesville and I rode the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail of 15 miles. The Hawthorne Trail was two miles shorter than the guide said. It began right out of Gainesvilles, initially through the Paine's Prairie Reserve, a state wildlife area. The trail zig-zaged around the edge of the reserve to begin with for about the first three miles, but then it was evident that it was on an old rail bed. The trail head in Hawthorne was not well marked and not at the location described on the internet site. I contacted Rhonda on the walkie-talkie and I located her at a parking lot of the small downtown.

When we were studying the route to the trail on the state map, we had spotted a botanical garden on the map just at the edge of Gainesville and decided to check it out. The GPS took us through town and since it was lunch time, we kept our eyes open for a good place to eat. We spotted a Bono's barbeque and stopped. It was very good. We each had a half pork and half beef brisket sandwich. They had four sauces at the table to choose from.. The waitress told us that there were several of these restaurants in Jacksonville also.

The Kanapaha Botanical Gardens were very enjoyable, they would have even better in another month. One could learn a great deal about palms there in the gardens. Bulbs, camellias, azaleas and Japanese magnolias were the main things blooming. There was and interesting collection of bamboo. In the collection, were some varieties that I had only seen in magazines.

We returned to Chiefland and stopped at the library to check email and get directions for a trail head I failed to make a written copy. We then went over to Walmart to get a snorkel and mask for snorkeling in some of the clear springs. Afterward, we headed back to Manatee Springs for a second night.

On Thursday, we drove to Floral City which was the halfway point of the 46 mile Withlacoochee Trail. Rhonda dropped me off and headed for Donnelon about 25 miles away to the north. It was another great trail. The trail went through the towns of Inverness, Hernando, and Citrus City, all of which must have been popular retirement and/or snowbird destination. The trail was loaded with senior bikers and walkers, especially around the developed areas.

Our camp spot for the night was Rainbow Springs State Park. One of the signs to the campground was missing and it took us longer than it should have to get to the park. After setting up the pod, we headed for the springs which was out of the camping area and around the other side of the park. I was ready to put the mask and snorkel to use in the springs. The springs are 72 degrees year round. It seemed rather cool and took some getting use to, but after the second entry into the water, if felt much better. The springs were about the size of a quarter football field. It was clear as tap water. With the mask, I could see a few fish, a turtle, and in several spots I could tell where the springs was feeding the large pool (boils). It was usually evidenced by larger gains of sand and bits of fresh water clam shells. The spring's output is the largest of any in Florida and fourth largest in size.

It was back to Floral City on Friday for the second half of the Withlacoochee. I was not quite up to the conditioning to do the entire trail without a lot of discomfort at the end. Down near the community of Pineola, there was a sign marking the site of a 1956 train wreck. Two freight trains ran together in the early morning hours. The train had not long been equipped with radios and the wreck could have been avoided if they had them turned on. The engineers had refused to use them unless they were given extra pay as radio operators. Four were killed and two injured. One of the engineers that died was one of the leaders of the moment to get extra pay as a radio operator.

Before I started the trail, I noticed a shop near the trail that made decals. I went in and asked about prices and what designs he could do. I had been checking the internet for large decals that I could put on the camper to give it a more commercial look. I picked out a design and asked what he'd charge and how quick he could make it. He quoted a reasonable price and said he could have it ready by five o'clock. I placed the order and headed out on the trail. When I returned later in the day, he had it ready.

We found a private campground in the Woodall's Directory south of Bushnell and headed that way. It was a pretty nice facility loaded with snowbirds. That afternoon there was a bluegrass gospel jam session with more than a dozen good musicians and singers. It was extremely entertaining. They served ice cream and cookies .

Saturday morning, we had a breakfast of ham, eggs, pancakes, juice and coffee for three dollars at the community clubhouse and then headed for the West Orange trail without the pod. The trail ran from Apopka to south of Winter Garden for 22 miles. It started out not being that busy, but got more riders as the morning went on. It was mostly urban, but still a very nice trail. One thing I was impressed with is that on a number of urban trails throughout Florida. It was that they went to great expense to build bridged crossing on a number of the major multi-lane street crossings. When I arrived at the southern trail head parking lot and center it was really bustling. The van was in the lot and Rhonda's bike was not on the rack. She arrived a short time later from the other direction after taking a short ride on a connecting trail. We got back to the campground around 3 pm, just in time to sample some of the fish and onion rings from the two o'clock fish fry. Afterward, we relaxed in and by the pool while our clothes washed in the laundry room near by. They had a movie in the community room that evening, but we decided to relax in the pod and read.

Sunday morning it was back to the Orlando area to ride the Seminole Wekiva and the Cross Seminole trails. The former was another nice urban trail passing through some real upscale neighborhoods and office buildings. The very northern end was in more of a natural area. The two trails was connected by way of a high dollar bike/pedestrian bridge over I-4. I did a total of 34 miles, but did not finish because the final trail head description was not clear and we were not sure of the parking available for the van and pod.

Wekiwa Springs State Park was our camping spot for the evening. We set up camp and headed for the springs. There was a good Sunday crowd there picnicking, sunning, swimming and canoeing down the river beyond the springs. I went in briefly with the snorkel and mask.

Monday morning we were off to the Van Fleet trail for 29 miles, beginning at the small community of Mabel on Florida Highway 50 to Polk City. It was the best trail thus far for being remote and in a more natural setting, away from roads and structures. I even saw seven alligators in the swamps along the way. Rhonda was feeling better after suffering from symptoms of allergies and rode 11 miles on the southern end. We had two nights reservations at the Hillsborough River State Park just northeast of Tampa. On the way, we stopped outside Plant City and Lakeland and bought a quart of fresh strawberries from a stand next to strawberry field that stretched almost as far as we could see. After we arrived at the park and checked in, we rode the bikes around the park and walked some of the trails down by the river.

We arose early on Tuesday to make the two and a half hour drive down to my uncle and aunt's place north of Naples. They have been coming down for the winter from Connecticut for over 20 years We had lunch along with a five hour visit before returning to the state park. Originally, we had planned to visit them on Wednesday, but there was rain in the forecast for Tuesday and not on Wednesday. We figured it was a better day to ride in the van and visit and save the sunny day for biking. As it turned out, it did not rain in the area we were in.

Wednesday morning we drove to downtown St. Petersburg to begin the ride of the Pinnelas trail. After a little difficulty, we found the trail and I was on my way to do the 38 miles through Gulf Port, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Dunnedin, Palm Harbor, and Tarpon Springs. Rhonda had a hard time finding the trail for our lunchtime rendezvous in Clearwater. When I arrived in Dunnedin, I stopped at a police museum and used their phone to call Rhonda. With the help of one of the retired officers there, we designated another location to meet and she plugged it into the GPS. We met up in Palm Harbor and got lunch at the deli at a Publix grocery. I discovered from a trail guide that I picked up at the museum, that the trailhead that morning was actually two miles further east right on Tampa Bay. The info I got off the Rails to Trails website was not correct or not updated.

We headed north after I got up with Rhonda in a shopping center parking lot near the end of the trail since there was no trail head parking. When it was time to find a campground, we decided to go back to Breezy Oaks where had camped on Friday and Saturday and met all the friendly folks. It was also on our way to the next destination. The next morning we drove back up to Donnelon near Rainbow Springs St. Pk and rented a two person sea kayak and paddled the Rainbow River for a couple of hours. The river was clear water, very scenic and teeming with wildlife. Even in spots where the depth was ten to twelve feet deep, we could see the bottom.

Our last camping night was at the Oleno State Park north of Gainesville. On Friday, we had an all day drive home and arrived around 8:30. We had a great trip with perfect weather. The daytime highs were from 77 to 82 with a very nice breeze and the nightime lows were 53 to 60 degrees. This was our first retirement trip to Florida, but we figured it definitely would not be our last. I was able to add nine more bike trails and 226 miles to my trail inventory. I have now done 74 trails in 29 states. I hope to reach a hundred trails before I play out.

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