This bike trail is a Central Florida treasure
The Van Fleet 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 state 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.
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.
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 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.
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 bike trail, we also saw a baby gopher tortoise (cutest guy ever; about the size of a computer mouse) and a noisy red shouldered hawk.
Logistics of riding the Van Fleet 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 bike 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.
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, the Van Fleet Trail 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.)
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.
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.Does the Van Fleet State Trail permit electric bikes? Yes, as long as “you’re not going too fast,” according to a ranger for the park.
Comments from folks on TripAdvisor
What’s near the Van Fleet 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.
Notes from the editor:
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.