Would you, could you, might you believe that touring and long-distance recreational trails are going to lead Florida’s future?
This week Florida tourism officials had their first look at a trails website that will launch in October, while two days later the state Office of Greenways and Trails declared a new focus on long-distance destination trails.
Bike Florida has helped lead both initiatives. Both will result in more people than ever touring Florida backroads and trails.
Along with fully finished trails on the new Visit Florida website will be routes-becoming-trails that include the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop. That’s the northern east-central route that Bike Florida pioneered in November 2008. People loved the inaugural week-long ride. Since then, three more tours have covered all or most of the 260 miles, and next month another 500 or more cyclists will tour the route during Bike Florida’s annual mass mostly camping ride.
Florida has long been a touring treasure. That’s sometimes hard to imagine when Disney, beaches, golf and citrus dominate. Yet counties everywhere north of I-4 and some south, too, remain full of easy-greeting small towns, down-home barbecue and Friday nights when high school football is still about town pride and so are champion quilters and the occasional ballplayer that has made it to the majors.
In urbanizing parts of Florida also, public policy has gotten behind long-distance trails and touring. Seminole County, just east above Orlando, is designating gateway towns to highlight its trails that include trail-only bridges across major highways. The first trail-only bridge in the state, by the way, was planted with trees and shrubs. It’s also a wildlife corridor over I-75 along the Cross-Florida Trail in Marion County. Another such natural trail now also carries humans by day and wildlife by night across I-95 in Flagler County.
Pinellas County first made urban trails popular with its 34-mile Pinellas Trail that connects bayfront St. Petersburg with Florida’s beloved Greek town famous for sponge fisheries, Tarpon Springs.
Centered by Jacksonville, six counties in northeast Florida have revived a trails coalition. Last year, routes of the region drew an inaugural 20 cyclists from coastal Georgia who sampled regional trails. In part, they toured from St. Marys across the state line to Fernandina Beach on board the Cumberland Sound Ferry, formed precisely to accommodate long-distance cyclists sampling portions of the East Coast Greenway.
Bicycle clubs throughout Florida of course offer weekly tours and they typically welcome non-members visiting locally to join their rides. There’s a good listing of Florida cycling clubs at the Florida Bicycle Association website, www.floridabicycle.org.
North in White Springs, the Suwannee Bicycle Association runs special-occasion tours throughout the year. Touring farm-to-market roads in this still rural region up against the Georgia line has been popular for more than 30 years. White Springs is a hub of Florida folklife and, at the Stephen Foster State Cultural Center, home of the annual Florida Folklife Festival. That folklife event takes place each year during Memorial Day Weekend. Soon after bicycle touring began, White Springs also became home of a paddling trail along which tours use park cabins and basic platforms for overnighting.
The college town of DeLand, a county seat that’s also the home of Stetson University with an Amtrak station that can handle bicycles as checked baggage, is also becoming a touring center. It’s not just the start-finish for next month’s mass tour. DeLand centers the River of Lakes Heritage Corridor, which is home of the annual Florida Wildflower Festival and hub of the Spring-to-Spring Trail that’s featured on the current Florida Trails Month poster of the Office of Greenways and Trails.
To learn more about the Florida cycling scene, visit www.bikeflorida.org