This blog has been updated from its original 2014 version. Special acknowledgment: Ken Bryan, RTC's Florida State Director and Senior Strategist for External Relations
NOTE: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy urges all individuals seeking trail experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic to practice social distancing at all times and follow the guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments. For more information and resources on how to #RecreateResponsibly outside, go to railstotrails.org/COVID-19.
Florida. The very name conjures up lush natural areas rich in wildlife, sandy beaches and seashells, and vibrant cities bursting with attractions. The Sunshine State’s plethora of pathways—including nearly 60 rail-trails—connect travelers to this diverse array of beautiful landscapes and unique communities. Even better, with some of the flattest geography in the United States, these top trails are suitable for just about everyone.
Forming an arc from St. Petersburg north past Tarpon Springs and inland to East Lake, the nearly 50-mile Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail allows travelers to experience the charms of Florida’s western shore, with Gulf Coast views and an enjoyable mix of urban waterfront and quaint downtowns. Pedal to nearby Honeymoon Island State Park for a delightful dip in the water and a nature walk through pine flatwoods. Excitingly, this Hall of Fame rail-trail also plays a role in two developing trail systems: a 75-mile loop connecting Pinellas County by trail; and the Coast-to-Coast Connector Trail, a 250-mile route across the state.
One of the longest rail-trails in the state, the Withlacoochee State Trail connects a string of small communities in west-central Florida along a 46-mile route largely paralleling the Withlacoochee River. Florida is known for its wildlife, and trail-goers will almost certainly see some here. Deer, alligators, tortoises, wild turkeys and many other animals inhabit the landscapes that the paved pathway rolls through, including sand hills, wetlands, cypress forests and groves of longleaf pine. History buffs can also enjoy a peek into the past with railroad whistle markers, the Lake Henderson Trestle and a restored 1925 caboose.
Counties: Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Pasco
Located west of Jacksonville’s urban core, the Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail-Trail traverses some of northeast Florida’s prettiest landscapes, including wetlands, pine flatwoods and hardwood uplands. The rail-trail crosses the McGrits and Brandy Branch creeks as it extends 14.5 miles west to the small town of Baldwin. The shady corridor offers a haven for many types of birds—including hawks, wood storks and belted kingfishers—and other wildlife. Midway along the trail, the Camp Milton Historic Preserve, the site of one of Florida’s most significant Civil War fortifications, offers a place to learn about local history and stroll the grounds, with a nature path and boardwalk.
Dotted with Spanish moss-draped oaks, skirting a handful of small lakes and winding through the charming town of Winter Garden, the West Orange Trail is a must-see Florida biking destination. This diverse pathway connects small communities and suburban neighborhoods northwest of Orlando, yet offers ample opportunities for viewing wildlife along the way. The route stretches 22 miles from Oakland to Apopka and is anchored on its southern end by Killarney Station, a modern take on an old-time train depot.
In Florida’s rural center, the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail provides a scenic trip through bottomland forest, cattle ranchland and the Green Swamp, a massive protected expanse teeming with wildlife. The experience on the 29-mile paved pathway can easily be combined with other outdoor activities that abound around it, including horseback riding on the paralleling equestrian track, hunting in the Green Swamp and paddling in the adjacent Withlacoochee, Hillsborough and Peace rivers.
Counties: Lake, Polk, Sumter
Heading south from the bustling university town of Gainesville along the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Park Trail, travelers will soon reach the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, where wild horses and bison roam. A 50-foot-high observation tower in the park provides panoramic views. Approaching the trail’s eastern end in the former railroad town of Hawthorne, the 16.5-mile route flanks the Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area—part of the Great Florida Birding Trail—where recreational opportunities abound, including hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding and canoeing.
The Tallahassee–St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail follows the route of the state’s first and longest-operating railroad, created in the mid-1800s to transport cotton from plantations to awaiting ships at Port Leon, near the Gulf of Mexico. Today, the rail-trail offers 21 miles of adventure along a variety of urban and more remote environments, passing side trails and state parks along the way. Longleaf pines and forests of oak, wax myrtle and yaupon holly shade the route. At the trail’s southern terminus is the city of St. Marks, which boasts waterfront restaurants and views of cruising boats on the St. Marks River.
Counties: Leon, Wakulla
The Legacy Trail, perched on Florida’s west coast, has a splendid opening: the Historic Venice Train Depot, a Mediterranean Revival-style building dating back to 1927 and once considered the finest station on the Seaboard Air Line Railroad. Next to the depot stands a bronze statue of circus star Gunther Gebel-Williams—heralded as “The Greatest Wild Animal Trainer of All Time”—a nod to the tracks’ usage by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. From here, the 10.7-mile rail-trail that now traces the line heads to the southern outskirts of Sarasota. Like much of the state, nature is close at hand along the route; watch for the trail’s many interpretive signs to identify and learn more about the regional flora and fauna, as well as signs about the area’s history.
Tucked into the Florida Panhandle, the Timpoochee Trail traces the Gulf of Mexico shoreline and Scenic Highway 30-A, connecting a handful of coastal communities and beaches between Duane Allen and Rosemary Beach. Views of the sea, sandy dunes and marsh lakes, plus easy access to three state parks—Topsail Hill Preserve, Grayton Beach and Deer Lake—make this 19-mile route a stunner.
Although a small gap remains in its planned 52-mile route, the East Central Regional Rail Trail already provides 47 miles of paved pathway for exploring Florida’s east coast. Trail-goers can seamlessly ride from Titusville—the Brevard County seat—north to Edgewater in neighboring Volusia County, and at the midway point, they can go from Maytown west to Farmton. Farther west, a disconnected segment links Osteen and Enterprise on the northern shore of Lake Monroe, and provides a connection to the Spring to Spring Trail. The pleasant route offers passage through lush corridors of tall trees, bridges over picturesque wetlands and easy access to city centers.
Counties: Brevard, Volusia
Nestled in Miami Beach, one of the country’s most popular destinations, the 4-mile Atlantic Greenway offers a great place for people-watching and taking in views of the Atlantic Ocean. Despite its short length, the palm-tree-lined pathway serves as a major connector, linking parks, beaches, hotels, and shopping and dining areas. The route also holds a place in two much larger trail systems: the Miami LOOP, a developing 225-mile trail network throughout Miami-Dade County, and the East Coast Greenway, extending from Florida to Maine.
This 225-mile Miami LOOP is a world-class trail network project in Miami-Dade County that will take the region to new levels of transportation, health, and economic and environmental resiliency.