Van Fleet State Trail – Top Florida Eco-Bicycling

The General James A. Van Fleet State Trail is one of the jewels of bicycling in Florida. Built on an abandoned rail bed, the bike trail is entirely paved in asphalt approximately 12 feet wide. Except for a single curve, the trail runs straight for 29 miles, crossing a few unpaved forest roads and only two sparsely traveled paved roads. The Van Fleet Trail is one of the most rural bike trails in Florida – isolated and quiet.

Because of its length, remote location and straight path, the Van Fleet Trail is a destination for serious cyclists to train and ride uninterrupted by traffic. Those same attributes make it an attractive ride for the recreational biker or those with small children who don’t want to deal with car traffic. Hikers, joggers, in-line skaters, and horseback riders also enjoy the trail.

For those who are willing to slow down, the Van Fleet Trail goes through one of the most diverse and abundant wildlife habitats in Florida. On any given day, the rider might see gopher tortoises, alligators, snakes, bobcat, deer, otters, osprey, wild turkey, quail, eagles, butterflies, squirrels, and more.

The trail traverses several ecosystems along its 29 mile path, including swamp, cypress and hardwood forests, pine flatwood, prairies, and sandhills. On private land along the trail, cattle can be seen grazing. The trail runs through a portion of the Green Swamp, the headwaters for the Withlacoochee, Little Withlacoochee, Hillsborough, Ocklawaha, and Peace Rivers. Second only to the Everglades in its environmental importance, the Green Swamp is critical to the maintenance of Florida’s aquifer and groundwater supply.

Facilities along the Van Fleet Trail are limited. There is one water fountain and one restroom between the two terminuses. During the mid-day, the trail is mostly unshaded. This is Florida and even in winter the ride can be hot, so riders should use sunscreen, bring lots of water, and pack food. Since the trail runs through the Green Swamp, insect repellent is also important. Covered benches are located along the length of the trail, offering both shade and scenic views.

From the southern-most trailhead at Polk City (junction of routes 33 and 655), the Van Fleet Trail runs north to the tiny hamlet of Mabel (route 50, west of Clermont). The Polk City trailhead offers plenty of parking, picnic tables, and restroom facilities. The first five miles north are the busiest sections of the trail, passing farms and pastures. Near the 5 mile marker is the lone curve in the trail.

At the Green Pond Road trailhead, near the 10 mile marker, are parking, restrooms, a covered picnic pavilion, and water fountain. While gopher tortoises can be seen along the length of the trail, they seem particularly abundant along the trail north of the Green Pond trailhead. The habitat here also changes, from pastureland to pinewood forest and cypress swamp.

Slightly less than two miles north of the Green Pond trailhead, the trail crosses the first of three short bridges spanning the headwaters of the Withlacoochee River. This is a great area for spotting wildlife; a big gator can usually be seen at the second bridge. Particularly scenic here are the cypress strands draped in Spanish moss lining both sides of the trail. Late afternoon is probably the prettiest, with the sun shimmering off the moss and reflecting in the water (during rainy season).

At the Bay Lake trailhead, near the 20 mile marker, full facilities are planned for the future. Presently however, this trailhead only offers parking. From here, a scenic ride brings the rider to the Mabel trailhead at 29 miles; here are parking, a picnic pavilion, restrooms and water.

Whether a casual bicycle rider or a serious cyclist, the Van Fleet State Trail is a Florida treasure that holds a myriad of wonders for to all.