Trail of the Month: July 2019
“These regional trails bring people to the area for longer periods of time... so it’s an economic boost to the area."
—Samantha Browne, bureau chief of Florida’s Office of Greenways and Trails
Two hours north of Disney World, Palatka serves as something of a Magic Kingdom for outdoor recreation with a handful of scenic, long-distance trails converging in this riverside town. Earlier this year, this burgeoning trail hub—tucked along the St. Johns River in Florida’s northeast corner—was officially designated as a Trail Town in the state’s new program recognizing “vibrant destinations where people come together.”
Rolling out of the city’s west side, the Palatka-to-Lake Butler State Trail offers a slice of quiet paradise, journeying more than 25 miles to Keystone Heights through well-canopied forests, pine flatwoods, picturesque countryside and stands of showy wild azalea (which the locals call “pinksters”). Travelers might see black bears, white-tailed deer, bobcats, turkeys, snakes and even one of Florida’s most famed inhabitants, alligators.
“The trail goes through some wet prairies, and there’s some real scenic beauty there,” said Florida State Parks trail manager Kevin Patton, whose favorite section lies between Grandin and Putnam Hall. “You can see for 2 or 3 miles, and there’s not a tree. It’s grass prairie that’s flooded periodically, and it’s some of the best natural environment that the trail goes through.”
Farther northwest, another few miles of trail are open in the city of Lake Butler; though it’s disconnected from the rest, design work is underway to close the 15-mile gap. When these two paved sections are connected, they’ll form a 47-mile trail through this former rail corridor. Over the years, as new sections have opened, Patton has seen trail usage go up.
“Even my cowboy brother goes out there in his boots and rides his bike on the trail, which I never thought in a million years he’d do,” Patton chuckled. “He’s 70 years old and takes his grandkids out there.”
Long Trails Go the Distance
Once a major port for steamboats coming down the St. Johns, and later a busy railroad stop, Palatka continues to embrace its history as a transportation nexus, but for a new era: trail systems. In addition to the developing 47-mile route, another rail-trail heads eastward from Palatka and will eventually take travelers to St. Augustine on Florida’s eastern coastline. Combined with an additional 25-mile planned extension of the state trail from its Lake Butler end to Lake City, this would make for more than 100 seamless miles of easy riding when all the pieces fall into place.
The growing trail movement here and the tourism opportunities it brings offer a rebirth for Palatka, which has been largely abandoned by the old industries that once made it thrive.
“These regional trails bring people to the area for longer periods of time,” said Samantha Browne, bureau chief of Florida’s Office of Greenways and Trails. “They come and ride a portion of the trail, they stay overnight, they eat, then they ride the next section, so it’s an economic boost to the area.”
As the owner of Palatka’s Bartram Inn, this is something that Linda Crider knows well. An active member of Florida’s bicycling community since the 1970s—including being the founder of Bike Florida—Crider started her business here several years ago after falling in love with the city’s charms and the seemingly boundless opportunities for outdoor activity. She organizes adventure tours for her guests and offers loaner bikes so they can take a spin on one of the area’s many trails.
“There’s this restaurant up in Hastings where we just completed a section on the Palatka-to-St.-Augustine Trail just a few months ago. They said they’ve now got people coming every single day off the trail, and sometimes, at lunchtime, they’re just slammed,” said Crider, noting how local businesses are being buoyed by trail development.
Crider recalls the Hastings trail ribbon cutting vividly: “You drive through there, and you usually don’t see more than a handful of people, but there must have been 250 people at that event. I thought, ‘Wow, this is just our little town—people are going to find us!’”
Big (Bike) Wheel Keep on Turnin’
Browne remembers the original rail corridor, acquired back in the 1990s, and the initial opposition to the Palatka-to-Lake Butler State Trail project, though that’s changing with each new ribbon cutting.
“This is a very rural trail, so we heard people saying, ‘No one’s ever going to use it.’ But—nope!—they do,” assured Browne. “And the momentum is growing. I’ve been here for 25 years, and there are trail advocates from back then that are still involved to this day. They know that these things take time, and they’ve stuck with it.”
One of those early supporters was Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s (RTC’s) own Ken Bryan who, at the time, worked for the parks and recreation department of Clay County, one of four counties connected by the present-day rail-trail. Through the project, Bryan became familiar with RTC, which was involved in the acquisition of the rail corridor, and today he heads up RTC’s regional office in Florida.
Just this year, a nonprofit volunteer group, the Putnam Blueways and Trails Citizen Support Organization (PBTCSO), was awarded one of RTC’s Doppelt Grants for the continued maintenance of Putnam County trails, including the decades-old rail-trail.
“This Doppelt Grant was really important because right now, in Florida, the rural counties are struggling with how to afford the maintenance on these trail systems,” said Kraig McLane, the grants manager for PBTCSO.
Involved with the trail project since the beginning, McLane is excited about the trail’s bright future and ticks off two more connections that will one day be possible: “This will connect to the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop, a 260-mile trail that’s under development, and from Palatka, you’ll be able to head down to Titusville and catch the Coast to Coast Trail which will go to St. Petersburg, so you can eventually get to both of Florida’s coasts!”
Crider echoed the sentiment, “It’s all happening really fast, whereas before it was just one trail at a time. Now ‘rail-to-trails’ is a household word, people know what that means.”