Abandoned railroad is linear park, bike trail
Pinellas County is a cyclist’s paradise. It is possible to travel the entire length of this varied and interesting county from downtown St. Petersburg in the south to Tarpon Springs in the north without ever leaving a designated bike trail.
If you’re OK with traveling a mile or two here or there along a four-lane road with no bike lane, it’s possible to go from the sparkling beaches in Fort Desoto Park at southern tip of the county to the Greek sponge docks in Tarpon Springs mostly on designated bike lanes and trails.
The Pinellas Trail, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2010, makes the ride easy and fun.
Once a CSX rail line, the Trail is now a smoothly paved linear park that extends 38.2 miles from end to end. You don’t have to ride all 38 miles to enjoy the trail. You can park and jump on at almost any point.
My husband Jack and I tried two different 15-plus miles sections of the trail and found it perfectly delightful.
Central portion of the trail
Our first trip started at Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg, where you can park and join the trail behind JC Penney. We headed north from there, over a bicycles-only bridge above the Long Bayou at the north of Boca Ciega Bay, by far the best overpass view on the entire trail.
From there, we encountered miles of meandering trail through people’s back yards, punctuated by overpasses over several major roads, each with its own heart-pumping incline, followed by a thrilling coast down.
The trail is otherwise flat and smooth, and although I’ve seen comments on message boards complaining about broken glass on the trail, Jack remarked that this was the most glass-free bike road he’d ever been on. This section of the trail, from Tyrone Square to downtown Clearwater, is well protected from wind, making it an easy, shady ride in both directions.
That day, we stopped for lunch in Clearwater. There are several lunch options along Cleveland Street downtown, including a pizza joint, Jimmy John’s and Nature’s Food Patch Market and Café, where you can get a variety of organic and natural foods.
A side trip down the hill to the waterfront is worth the uphill return for the view of Clearwater Marina. Don’t be surprised, as I was, by the number of people, men and women alike, dressed in white shirts and black slacks. Clearwater is home to the international headquarters of the Church of Scientology. They dress alike.
Biking north from Clearwater to Tarpon Springs
Our second trip on the Pinellas Trail picked up where we’d left off. We parked in a free lot on Turner Street in Clearwater, right on the trail, and headed north again toward Dunedin and Tarpon Springs.
By far the most picturesque portion of the trail is in and around Dunedin, which has made the trail a part of its downtown center. The old Dunedin rail station still stands, now housing the city’s historical museum. It’s worth a stop here for an ice cream, lunch, a smoothie or a chat with the locals who are glad to pass the time.
You could also stop just before you get to downtown to check out Grant Field, where the Toronto Blue Jays have their spring training. North of downtown Dunedin, you past J.C. Weaver Park, a great stop for kids, where the playground features objects from nature to climb upon. This section is shady and green, passing Hammock Park and the Dunedin golf course, before the vista opens and you climb an overpass bridge to a breathtaking view of the Intracoastal Waterway.
It’s rolling hills and wide-open trail from there to Tarpon Springs. This portion of the trail is a little more challenging because there’s no wind break and some of it is uphill. A nice stop is at Well Springs Park, where you can get another great view of the waterfront.
The prevailing wind in this part of the state is generally northeasterly, which means you’ll be riding into the wind when you are headed north. That’s not a problem on much of the trail, where trees, fences and buildings protect you, but some section are wide open and the wind can make an otherwise easy ride a challenge. Make sure you take this into account, so that your trip back to your starting point won’t be more than you bargained for.
We encountered a southerly headwind heading back to Clearwater from Tarpon Springs, which made the 17-mile return trip feel much longer!
When you arrive in Tarpon Springs, follow the signs down Pinellas Avenue to the historic Sponge Docks, a tourist mecca, where you’ll find reliably excellent Greek food at several restaurants. A number of kitschy shops sell sea shells, Greek imports and touristy things. If you’re inclined, you can lock your bike and head out on a dolphin watch cruise from there.
The Pinellas Trail continues in the other direction, around the eastern part of Tarpon Springs, ending in John Chesnut Park along the bank of Lake Tarpon.
The opposite end of the Pinellas Trail, from the Tyrone Square Mall south and east to downtown St. Petersburg, is decidedly more urban. The cross-county section along Seventh Avenue South, past Gibbs High School to Tropicana Field, home of the Rays, is the least-nice part of trail, but perfectly safe by day. It leads to the vibrant downtown, where you can quaff your thirst at one of several brew pubs, eat almost any kind of food you desire, listen to a variety of live music, browse the many art and secondhand shops along Central Avenue, visit the Dali Museum or just lounge by the waterfront in the shade of Straub Park, watching the sunset.
The entire Pinellas Trail is a county park, so it is closed from sunset to sunrise every day. It is patrolled by park rangers, Pinellas County Sheriff deputies, various city police and a legion of trail volunteers and neighborhood watch volunteers. People do get tickets for riding or walking the trail when it is dark.
A dozen bicycle shops rent and repair bikes along the Pinellas Trail. These are marked on the trail maps that you can find on the county’s web site.
For maps and info about the Pinellas Trail:
Photos from Pinellas Trail, presented by Pinellas County:
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