Van Fleet bike trail: Central Florida’s 29 miles of beauty & solitude

This bike trail is a Central Florida treasure

The Van Fleet State Trail runs 29 miles through some of the most rural and undeveloped land you’ll  find in Florida.

What’s even more amazing – it’s a half hour from Disney World.

This paved bike trail goes through the Green Swamp, a vast watery wilderness west of Orlando. Four important Florida rivers originate in this swamp – the Peace, the Withlacoochee, the Ocklawaha and the Hillsborough.

The highlights of our ride on the Van Fleet Trail were the three bridges over the Withlacoochee River, which are between miles 10 and 12. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The highlights of our ride on the Van Fleet Trail were the three bridges over the Withlacoochee River, which are between miles 10 and 12. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Fortunately for bicyclists, a railroad was built through the swamp in the 1920s and in the 1980s, that ribbon of land was paved to create one of the straightest, flattest, easiest-to-ride bike trails you’ll ever find. Because the trail passes through such a rural area, there are only a handful of minor roads that cross it in 29 miles, which means you leave cars and traffic behind.

My husband and I had ridden the Van Fleet Trail several years ago, starting from the north end. While we loved the smooth, well-maintained trail, the scenery got a little boring.

This time, we did our research and read that the most scenic section with good wildlife viewing was the center section, between Green Pond Trailhead and Bay Lake Trailhead.

The Van Fleet Trail is one of the straightest, flattest, easiest-to-ride bike trails you’ll ever find. (Photo: David Blasco)
The Van Fleet Trail is one of the straightest, flattest, easiest-to-ride bike trails you’ll ever find. (Photo: David Blasco)

We’re glad we came back; we thought this section of the Van Fleet Trail was terrific.  In fact, the Van Fleet State Trail should be considered a Central Florida treasure.

In the 10 miles of the trail we pedaled, we crossed one so-called street , and it was a dirt road. There were no sounds other than birds and, remarkably, the growl of a territorial alligator.


This section is Mile 10 to 20, with zero being on the south end at Polk City.

The seeds of a Florida native red maple tree decorated one of the bridges on the Van Fleet State Trail on our February ride. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The seeds of a Florida native red maple tree decorated one of the bridges on the Van Fleet State Trail on our February ride. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The highlights of our ride were the three bridges over the Withlacoochee River, which are between miles 10 and 12.

Each bridge gives you an opening into a spectacular cypress swamp bristling with air plants and bromeliads. Each offers a slightly different view. The river at one bridge is green with lily pads and vegetation. Another has knobby cypress knees protruding from the tea colored water. Each one is worth a stop to examine the natural beauty.

At one, when we looked closely, we saw a log with six turtles on it. While admiring the turtles, we heard the loud growl of an alligator we had previously not seen.

At one bridge along the Van Fleet bike trail, we saw a log with six turtles on it. (Photo: David Blasco)
At one bridge along the Van Fleet bike trail, we saw a log with six turtles on it. (Photo: David Blasco)

Another worthwhile stop is around Mile 16, where there is a small wooden sign that announces “wildlife viewing.“ Indeed, the sign is well placed: As we stopped our bike at the sign, a snowy egret was keeping an alligator company as a raccoon crossed the trail in front of us – twice.

Along the trail, we also saw a baby gopher tortoise (cutest guy ever; about the size of a computer mouse) and a noisy red shouldered hawk.

Along the trail there are regular rest stops, including this little screened hut. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Along the trail there are regular rest stops, including this little screened hut. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Logistics of riding the Van Fleet State Trail

We started at the Green Pond Trailhead at Mile 10. Like the other trailheads, it has parking, picnic tables, maps, bathrooms and water.  On a Monday morning in January, we were surprised that the Green Pond Trailhead had two dozen cars in the parking lot. Ten miles north, at the Bay Lake Trailhead, there was only one car.

On our ride, we passed dozens of bicyclists on the trail including a good number of retirees, several on recumbent tricycles, but also speedy pedalers in bright Lycra gear.


Along the trail there are regular rest stops: Benches, some with roofs over them that would be handy during a quick shower, and in one spot, a  little screen room off the path reached via a short boardwalk.

We loved the Eagle Scout project that provided periodic biker Rx boxes equipped with bicycle pumps and tools.

This section of the trail had trees on both sides of the trail, which would provide some shade in the morning and afternoon. The trail is extremely well-marked.

On the Van Fleet State Trail, this sign is well placed: Pausing here, we saw a snowy egret, an alligator and a raccoon. (Photo: David Blasco)
On the Van Fleet State Trail, this sign is well placed: Pausing here, we saw a snowy egret, an alligator and a raccoon. (Photo: David Blasco)

Who would enjoy the Van Fleet Trail

The total lack of cars and quality surface means this trail is good for a variety of types or bicyclists

A perfect bike trip for casual recreation cyclists would be the 20-mile round-trip we did, or a 12-mile round-trip going north from Green Pond , stopping at the three bridges and turning around at the beautiful wildlife viewing area at Mile 16.

Because there is no traffic, Van Fleet would make an ideal family bike outing. Families with younger children could have a great bike experience pedaling 3 miles up the road to the three bridges and turning around for a 6-mile trip.

Of course, bicyclists in good shape can ride and ride and ride as fast they’d like the whole 29 miles and back.

History buffs should be on the lookout for four known historic markers still in place showing the mileage from Richmond, Va., the railroad hub in the 1920s. (On the section we pedaled, we saw the concrete post painted with the number 795.)


We loved the Eagle Scout project that provided periodic biker Rx boxes equipped with bicycle pumps and tools along the Van Fleet Trail. (Photo: David Blasco)
We loved the Eagle Scout project that provided periodic biker Rx boxes equipped with bicycle pumps and tools along the Van Fleet Trail. (Photo: David Blasco)

Finding the Van Fleet Trailheads

If you use “Van Fleet trail” and the correct name of the trailhead, you can find the trailheads via Google maps.

Mabel Trailhead
7981 County Road 772
Webster, FL 33597
From Clermont, take SR 50 west to the trailhead approximately 5 miles past the intersection with CR 565/Bay Lake Road.

Bay Lake Trailhead
7500 Bay Lake Road
Groveland, FL 34736
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
4903 Green Pond Road
Polk City, FL 33868
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 I-4 East to Exit 38  for SR 33. Follow SR 33 through Polk City and north to the intersection with Green Pond Road. Turn left (heading west) and continue until you reach the trailhead.

Polk City Trailhead
7683 Berkley Road
Polk City, FL 33868
From Lakeland, take Interstate 4 East to 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 General James A. Van Fleet State Trail.

Comments from folks on TripAdvisor

We loved this sign along the Van Fleet Trail, but the resident gator must have been hiding. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
We loved this sign along the Van Fleet Trail, but the resident gator must have been hiding. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

What’s near the Van Fleet State Trail

The top place to suggest would be Lake Louisa State Park, which is about 25 minutes away. Lake Louisa has outstanding two-bedroom cabins, a campground, miles of low-traffic paved roads enjoyed by bicyclists and excellent hiking trails (many of which are also good for mountain bikers).


Also nearby is a historic town literally built around a bike trail. The West Orange Trail runs down the middle of main street in Winter Garden. Here’s more about visiting Winter Garden and staying in the Historic Edgewater Hotel, which caters to bicyclists.

These Florida Rambler stories cover other excellent places to hike, bike, camp, kayak and explore near the Van Fleet Rail.

Kayaking Blackwater Creek and Lake Norris: Florida Rambler

Smooth riding on the Seminole Wekiva Trail: Florida Rambler

Wekiva Falls: Fab spring and gateway to scenic river: Florida Rambler

Cool Camping Near Orlando: Kelly Park/Rock Spring: Florida Rambler

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9 Comments

  1. Pingback: Florida kayaking trail: Withlacoochee River is one of the prettiest | Florida Rambler

  2. Avatar

    I enjoyed the writeup. I agree with some of the comments on the trail extension south to Auburndale. The gates are annoying and, if a cyclist is approaching from the other direction, there isn’t room for both to pass safely. Additionally, the morning I rode the TECO-Auburndale extension, there were soccer games in progress and the locals sit on the trail to watch the games.

  3. Avatar

    Great info and photos. I live in Sarasota and will try and bike this trail soon. I record all my excursions on my mini DV camcorder mounted on the handlebars. That way I can relive my riding adventures long after they’re over. All the best.

  4. Avatar
    Jim Mahaney

    I rode the Van Fleet trail from north to south and back on March 3. Enjoyed it very much. Take water as you can only get it at the end trail heads and one in the middle. I rode a couple miles south on the extender trail also. Would have ridden until it ended but I didn’t know how far it went and had a friend who turned around early and was going to be waiting back at the car. This trail is flat and straight like they say but I spent all the time watching for wildlife and didn’t really think about the straightness. Lots of shade which was nice on a warm day.

  5. Avatar
    lyle van fleet

    looks to be a very good ride/walk any time of the year

  6. Avatar

    This trail now extends southward past Polk City toward Auburndale, FL. Does this section have a different name?

    • Bob Rountree

      George, We’re checking this out. They are building and extending the trails so quickly in Central Florida, it’s hard to keep up. Thanks for the alert.

    • Bonnie Gross

      George: We spoke with Mike McCartey, the trail manager for Van Fleet State Trail, and he confirmed that at the end of 2010, the trail was extended southward by nearby cities. Polk City built a three-quarter-mile stretch and then Auburndale continued it. The trail now extends another six miles south.

      This stretch, however, goes near houses, has traffic noise and cyclists have to squeeze through a few gates designed to prevent vehicles from using the trail. The advantage of the trail extension is that it brings folks from Auburndale onto the Van Fleet; those attracted to the rural solitude of the Van Fleet aren’t likely to find the extension all that appealing.

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