One minute I was looking for gators from the sandy shore of Lake Holathlikaha; 20 minutes later I was browsing through framed photographs and paintings and sculptures by some of Florida’s most talented artists.
Scenic Withlacoochee State Trail, one of Florida’s longest rails-to-trails paved pathways, skirts the Withlacoochee State Forest and passes through a succession of small towns such as Floral City — a time-stilled place listed on the National Register of Historic Places — and Inverness — so-named for its Scotlandesque setting of rolling hills and lakeside vistas.
In Your Bucket Because….
- It cuts through the heart of old Florida.
- You can eat and shop along the way!
- Best for active outdoor types and families looking for easy terrain.
Outside of Brooksville
I began my exploration of the 46-mile trail at the Ridge Manor trailhead, six miles north of the trail’s southern terminus and a short drive off Interstate 75 outside of Brooksville. I hiked the wide path across a bridge over Highway 98 and past horse ranches and woods. The trail accommodates feet, bicycles, horses, and other non-motorized modes of transport.
I later rested in a friendly little park, which accompanies each of the eight trailheads. Tangles of Spanish moss dripped from girthy, towering old oaks shading picnic areas and rest room facilities.
Once part of the Seaboard Coast Line railway system, built originally by railroad guy Henry Plant in the late 1800s, the railroad track was one of the first purchased under the Florida Rails to Trails Program in 1989. Reminders of its railroad roots herald trail users along the way – a red caboose, flasher, and depot in Inverness, for example.
That’s where stage two of my trail adventures began. Suncoast Bicycles sits right next to the trail in Inverness and rents quality Trek bicycles and TerraTrike recumbents. My first day I test-drove the trike – a surprisingly agile ride – up and down the gentle hills north to the delightful town of Hernando three miles away.
It was late afternoon as I made my way along postcard lakeside scenes and the dramatic forested drops of old phosphate quarries. I spotted rabbits, squirrels, and one black racer snake along the way. In Hernando, travelers can stop for a snack at the trailside Chicken King or have a rest and swim in Hernando Beach County Park. I wished I could do the latter, but I had a deadline to return my trike before closing time, so I headed back to explore the cyclist-friendly town of Inverness by bike.
The historic town offers a number of dining options for trail users; Little Italy comes highly recommended and lies close to the trail. Liberty Park provides lakeside picnic facilities. While in town, check out the courthouse museum and its new exhibit of prehistoric relics dredged from a nearby river.
My next ride took me south out of Inverness, where the trail parallels Highway 41 for a wooded urban setting. I swerved off the southern entrance to Fort Cooper State Park, which is where I stopped for gator-gazing on the sandy beach. (Tip: Make sure to pay the $2 honor-system entry fee into the park, or you could end up getting stopped by law enforcement and paying an $80 citation.)
Pretty Little Floral City
If hunger strikes along this stretch, a couple of restaurants and taverns are easily accessible from the trail. I, however, held out for Florida Artists Gallery and Café in Floral City. The café is popular with bikers, owner Ann Covington told me, because of its healthy, from-scratch fare. Go ahead, order the cobbler of the day – you’ve burned up the calories already, right?
Oak-lined Floral City also has a bike rental shop called Hampton’s Edge Trailside Bicycles, and a number of small shops and eateries to extend your visit. Like the gallery’s circa 1860 home, many occupy historic buildings. Visit the Floral City Heritage Hall & Museum to learn more about the town’s phosphate boom-era history.
To do the trail and its sites justice requires several days and many stops along the way. Its riverside and lakeside parks deserve pause to appreciate and photograph.
Inexpensive Central Motel sits along the trail between Inverness and Floral City (and offers secure bike storage) to accommodate bikers and hikers who wish to spend a few days. In Floral City, Moonrise Resort has comfortable, homey cabins and an RV park right on Lake Tsala Apopka, close to the trail.
The Withlacoochee State Trail traverses three counties — Pasco, Hernando, and Citrus. The latter, to the north, is working on its own network of trails that will connect the town of Hernando to Three Sisters Springs, an enchanting lagoon and manatee hangout in the coastal town of Crystal River. The county path will also connect to Plantation at Crystal River, one of the nicest places to stay in the area.
Other spur trails, such as the 2.5-miles Dunnellon Trail to the north, also extend the trail’s recreational scope to make this a true biker’s haven.
- Central Motel, 352-726-4515
- Chicken King, 352-344-0223
- Floral City Heritage Hall & Museum, 352-341-6427
- Florida Artists Gallery and Cafe, 352-344-9300
- Hampton’s Edge Trailside Bicycles, 352-419-4809
- Little Italy Deli, 352-726-5044
- Moonrise Resort, 352-726-2553
- Old Courthouse Heritage Museum, 352-341-6429
- Plantation on Crystal River, 800-632-6262
- Suncoast Bicycles, 352-637-5757
- Withlacoochee State Trail, 352-726-0315