A Florida trail where it’s just you & the Green Swamp
~POLK CITY — Until I went there, the only thing I knew about the Green Swamp was that during a drought a decade ago, this large wilderness in Central Florida caught fire and burned for weeks. It sounded like an unpleasant, forbidding place.
It turns out, though, some rank it right after the Everglades for areas of environmental importance to Florida. It’s a large tract where the limestone is raised a bit, thus storing groundwater that forms four major rivers — Hillsborough, Withlacoochee, Ocklawaha and Peace rivers.
It’s also a good place to get really far away from urban Florida and pedal your bicycle in peace and near isolation.
The Gen James A. Van Fleet State Trail is a 29-mile bike trail into the Green Swamp — the most rural bicycle trail in the state. Because it’s a former railroad line, the path is straight and flat. You won’t see many people. You will see cattle ranches, lush forests and wetlands, wild flowers, birds and butterflies. The middle stretch goes through the heart of the Green Swamp Conservation Area and offers the best wildlife viewing.
On our visit, we pedaled a few miles and then turned around and came back to where we had parked the car. We saw not another person or cyclist that day.
Those who’ve ridden the trail give it mixed reviews. If you like hills and curves, you’ll find it boring. Admittedly, there are more scenic trails out there.
This blogger from outdoortravels.com – – found it a bit tedious, but he delighted in the wildlife:
What the GJVFT lacks in geographical excitement, it more than makes up for it in nature, solitude and unobstructed miles. In fact, there was a point where I spotted so many gopher tortoises, that I thought there was a small reptilian parade. I also spotted armadillos, snakes, box turtles and even a deer on my ride. This is remote Florida at it’s non-motorized finest.
Mudfish, a writer on bikeflorida.net, has this recommendation, which I plan to take on my next visit:
I recommend parking at the Green Pond Trailhead and riding north about 5 miles. Within this section, you cross 3 bridges spanning the start of the Withlacoochee River. Riding 5 miles south of Green Pond takes you to the ONLY bend in the trail. Aside from the tiny hamlet of Poyner (1 mile south of Green Pond Road), this 10 mile section is mostly tree-lined, offering plenty of shade during the mornings and afternoons/eves. I also recommend parking at the Mabel Trailhead (Rt. 50) and riding south to Bay Lake Rd (9 mi.). This is a another tree-lined section of the trail, entirely within the Withlacoochee State Forest.
You can get on the path at five trailheads:
- Mabel Trailhead
From Clermont, take SR 50 west to the trailhead approximately 5 miles past the intersection with CR 565/Bay Lake Road.
- Bay Lake Trailhead
From Clermont, take SR 50 west to CR 565/Bay Lake Road. Turn left (heading south) and follow the road until you reach the trailhead on the left at the intersection with the trail.
- Green Pond Road Trailhead
From Clermont, take SR 50 west to SR 33. Turn left (heading south) and follow SR 33 until you reach Green Pond Road. Take a right (heading west) and continue until you reach the trailhead.
- From Lakeland, take Interstate 4 East to Exit 20 (new Exit 38) for SR 33. Follow SR 33 through Polk City and north to the intersection with Green Pond Rd. Turn left (heading west) and continue until you reach the trailhead.
- Polk City Trailhead
From Lakeland, take Interstate 4 East to Exit 20 (new Exit 38) for SR 33. Follow SR 33 into Polk City and look for trailhead at intersection with CR 665.
Here’s the state park website for the Van Fleet Trail.
Comments from folks on TripAdvisor
- Paddling: Highly recommended paddling on the Withlachoochee River.
- Cabins and hiking: Lake Louisa State Park
- Evocative historic site: Dade Battlefield Historic Site
- This rail-trail is not so remote and quite scenic: Withlacoochee State Trail