When my wife Joan and I decided to move to Florida in 2003, I had two requirements. First, that we would not move south of Orlando (I grew up in Ft. Lauderdale), and second, that I would be close to a bike trail. We decided on Lake County, in part, because there were three long bike trails within a close distance:
- West Orange Trail – goes from Clermont to Apopka, Florida – round trip is just over 30 miles
- Van Fleet Trail -goes from Mabel to Polk City – round trip is just over 60 miles
- Withlacoochee Trail – goes from just outside Brooksville in the south to Crystal River in the north – round trip is just over 90 miles.
In this post, I’m going explain why the Van Fleet is my favorite. Being a lawyer is a stressful job, so I ride my bike for stress release. I’ve been riding a recumbent because over 15 years ago I was tired of numb hands, a pain in my neck, and lack of feeling because of the seat. I am not in a hurry and my biking partner and I chit-chat the entire ride. We do not solve all the world’s problems, but we make a dent in our own.
I occasionally ride on the street and other busier trails, but the Van Fleet for me is perfectly rural and doesn’t have a ton of bike traffic. Van Fleet holds wildlife galore and only has 4 or 5 stop signs for road traffic. For example, the first mile on the West Orange Trail from Clermont east has at least 4 to 5 stop signs with moderate to heavy traffic.
The Van Fleet Trail
From the North, the Van Fleet starts in Sumter County, travels southeast in Lake County and then into Polk County. When I ride the Van Fleet, I catch the trail at the most northern trailhead in Mabel, Florida. The trailhead is on SR 50, a couple miles west of the Sumter County line.
Wikipedia doesn’t even have a population for Mabel. The Mabel trailhead has a bathroom if you want to call it that. You probably want to go to the bathroom because the next one will be at Bay Lake Road, which is about 9 miles out. Guys don’t have to worry about the accommodations as much as women.
For the first 9 miles, you don’t have to make a stop for road traffic and Bay Lake Road actually goes into the Withlacoochee state forest, which has no real westbound road traffic.
If you travel southbound for another 9 miles or so, you will hit another restroom, just north of Green Pond Road. Another mile or so South is Poyner Road. You have to watch for street traffic at this stop sign because the main road from the west jogs around right in front of the trail.
If you still have the energy to travel south at around mile-marker 24, you will hit Deen Still Road. I recommend walking your bike across this road because cars fly by at 55 to 60 miles per hour. During our normal rides, we usually turn around and head back north at mile-marker 25. On the days where energy abounds, we will go all the way to Polk City, which is another 5 miles. There is not much cross traffic to worry about after Deen Still and before Polk City.
Wildlife on the Van Fleet Trail
Probably the most entertaining wildlife on the trail for me are the wild turkeys. They will be on the trail and when we come up to them instead of moving to the side or flying off, they will put down their heads and race us. I’ve had this happen for a mile or so before they decide to fly off.
Over the years, I’ve met large and small gators, plenty of snakes, cows and bulls that break out from their farms, horses, wild boars, plenty of turtles and tortoises, snake (watch out of the rattlers and there are coral snakes on the trail), hawks, eagles, owls, osprey and of course vultures.
Safety Tips for riding Van Fleet Trail
- The trail is rural so it is best to ride with a partner.
- I have AT&T cell service, which is spotty at best on the trail.
- There are no amenities bring enough water and snacks.
- Even though you feel strong on your first leg out remember that you will be more tired on the return trip. I recommend that you only use 35-40% of your energy going out, and save 60-65% for your return.
- People on the trail are friendly and will help if you have a problem with your gear, but there are not a lot of people so make sure you have spare tubes and a good pump to change a flat.
- Stay away from the wildlife. Today, I saw some young adults messing around with a snake, this is the kind of stuff that causes folks to get in trouble.
Well there you have it, the Van Fleet trail is my favorite, give it a try and hopefully you will like the trail also.
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