Have you been searching for new safe and scenic routes to head out on? A short trip south may be in order. Thanks to the extensive bike routes and scenic Rails-To-Trails paths that run through them, Lake and Sumter counties boast some of the best places to ride, and the cool winter weather is the perfect time of year to hop on your bike for exercise and fun. These five paved trails just might help you become the Lance Armstrong you always knew you could be.
1. LAKE MINNEOLA SCENIC TRAIL &
SOUTH LAKE TRAIL
(combined 9.5 miles)
One of Florida’s top Rails-to-Trails routes, the Lake Minneola Scenic Trail (5.5 miles) offers beautiful views of one of Florida’s prettiest lakes, but it also has the most hills. Be prepared with lots of water, a power snack, and maybe a tube of a topical analgesic like BioFreeze or Bengay.
The trail was built on the railroad bed of the old Seaboard Coastline Railroad, which mainly transported people and supplies for the turpentine industry in the 1930s and ’40s. You can even stop to poke around the old International Rail Station, complete with an old railway clock still intact. Although it’s awaiting restoration from the Lake Historical Society, the building is a glance at an era when trains were the mainstay of the economy for the Sunshine State.
The shelter on the Lake Minneola Scenic Trail is dedicated to Ed Harvey, who campaigned for bike trails before he was killed while riding his bicycle.
The public beach surrounding Lake Minneola offers restrooms, picnic areas, and public telephones. In addition, the trail meanders through a brick and cement promenade near downtown Clermont, a great photo op overlooking the lake.
The bike path also passes through the Ed Harvey Shelter, a rustic, covered structure perfect for a water break or waiting out a rain shower.
As you continue east, you won’t even realize that you’ve moved onto the new South Lake Trail, a four-mile stretch that joins the Lake Minneola Trail to the West Orange Trail. The South Lake Trail has its share of heart-pumping hills, including the one called Sugarloaf Hill. Although you will pass a few small orange groves, you will most likely notice all of the new houses along the trail. Residents and motorists are unbelievably courteous as the paved trail crosses street intersections. Nevertheless, be sure to obey all stop signs intended for bicyclists.
As you cross the Lake County line into Orange, you’ll find a well-stocked trailhead with full facilities and a bike shop at the beginning of the West Orange Trail. Biking enthusiasts think nothing of riding the entire 32 miles of continuous trails from Clermont to Apopka and back.
The South Lake Trail connects to the Lake Minneola Trail.
If you begin and end your ride in Clermont at the Western Trailhead, you can end your journey with a cool drink at several of downtown Clermont eateries and watch a spectacular sunset over Lake Minneola.
Western Trailhead: Located in downtown Clermont near Lake Minneola.
Minneola Trailhead: From Clermont, take CR 561 to Old Highway 50. Take a right (heading east) and follow until you see signs for the trail.
2. GENERAL JAMES A.
VAN FLEET STATE TRAIL
Someday, bicyclers will be able to ride directly across western Lake County from the Lake Minneola/Clermont Trail into the Van Fleet Trail. Tom Eicher, Lake County’s planner for Rails-to-Trails, says that the county is currently trying to obtain the right of way for the additional 14 miles that now separate the two trails. It will be a few years before the two trails are connected, but that is definitely part of the overall plan for the Central Florida Loop, which will eventually connect more than 200 miles of trails.
If you like to go fast, the Van Fleet Trail is the trail for you. You’ll never need to slow down because the trail has only one curve along the route that runs from the small community of Mabel in Sumter County through Lake County and into Polk City in Polk County. You may want to shift gears, however, and enjoy the scenery. The trail offers unparalleled views of wildlife between Green Pond Road and Bay Lake Road. Bicyclists also marvel at the abundance of butterflies along the route.
As Florida’s most rural bicycle trail, it’s not a route that bikers should ride alone.
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.
3. WEST ORANGE TRAIL
Although you currently can’t bike any farther west than the Western Trailhead in Clermont, you can certainly go a lot farther east—all the way to Apopka along the West Orange Trail.
If you are riding the South Lake Trail and want to keep going, the tree-canopied West Orange trail is convenient and fun. It’s also easy to access from Highway 50 at the Lake/Orange county line. This scenic trail has several well-equipped trailheads and stations with restroom facilities. It also goes through the heart of Winter Garden where businesses, including a bike shop, cater to cyclists passing through town.
Among the trail’s other highlights are a xeroscape/butterfly garden about a mile east of the Oakland Outpost, the Winter Garden Historical Museum, and great views of Lake Apopka.
County Line Trailhead: On the west side of the Florida Turnpike at State Road 50, look for County Line Trailhead on your right between Orange and Lake counties.
Winter Garden Station: Take SR 50 west to Ninth Street in Winter Garden. Take a right (heading north) until you reach CR 438 (Plant Street). Take a left, and head west until you reach the Winter Garden Station.
4. THE VILLAGES CR 466
VIA MORSE BOULEVARD
TO HWY. 466A
Many novice cyclists tout the trans-modal cart paths in The Villages as the best places to ride, especially along CR466. You can park behind the Sumter County Sheriff’s Annex and pick up the trans-modal path and travel through Lake Sumter Landing following along Morse Boulevard. Be prepared for a mighty hill as you approach Mallory Square Country Club. Of course, you can always begin the journey from the other direction on Buena Vista, and the mighty Mallory Hill will be a downhill ride instead.
If you’re not up to the full 15-mile journey, take a shortcut across Odell Circle over to Buena Vista and return to CR 466 for a 10-mile circle around Lake Sumter Landing.
Villages Bike Club Ride Director Bob Koch recommends a different path going all the way from Buena Vista Boulevard to Highway 44A—it’s a challenging, yet beautiful, 16-mile ride. The route takes you to the county park at Lake Deaton. As the ride director for The Villages Bicycle Club, Koch leads members and guests every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday starting March 1 from the El Santiago Club off Enrique Boulevard.
Directions: Park behind the Sumter County Annex to access the trans-modal path along CR 466.
5. TAV-LEE TRAIL
You’ve probably seen the Tav-Lee Trail along the northbound side of U.S. 441 without realizing it is part of the Rails-to-Trails system. The trail begins on U.S. 19 behind the Lake County Judicial Center in Tavares, where parking is available on weekends, and runs to Lake Boulevard near Lake Square Mall.
A trailhead has been built in Wooten Park in Tavares, and the second phase of the Tav-Lee project will extend the trail all the way into Leesburg, although no timetable has been set for completion.
Trail Access: Although no trailhead or station is currently available, you may park behind the Lake County Judicial Center on West Main Street on weekends to access the trail.
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