Trail of the Month: March 2021
“It’s a very diverse trail that goes through beautifully wooded areas and crosses river prairie, but also has its urban elements and a mixture of rural and suburban experiences.”
—Pat Northey, former Volusia County council member
The Sunshine State’s Spring to Spring Trail doesn’t hide any tricks up its sleeve; as its name implies, travelers will see several natural springs along this scenic, nearly complete 26-mile route winding through the old-growth forests and tree-draped lakesides of Central Florida. About 25 miles north of Orlando, the paved pathway offers an alluring exploration of the state’s tropical wonderland and connects a handful of small to mid-sized communities, including DeBary, recently named the Bike Friendly Community of the Year by the Florida Bicycle Association for its role as a regional and statewide trail hub.
“It’s a very diverse trail that goes through beautifully wooded areas and crosses river prairie, but also has its urban elements and a mixture of rural and suburban experiences,” said Pat Northey, affectionately known as the ‘Queen of Trails’ among locals for her tenacious championing of the projects as a longtime Volusia County council member.
When Northey retired from the county council in 2014, one of the earliest sections of the Spring to Spring Trail, spanning 5 kilometers along Lake Monroe, was named in her honor. This southern end of the trail features two of the trail’s namesake springs. The unusual opal-colored sulfur waters of Green Springs were once thought to have medicinal properties by people of the Mayaca and Seminoles tribes who lived in the region. Within Green Springs Park, the Spring to Spring Trail meets the nearly 50-mile East Central Regional Rail Trail, which extends to Edgewater and Titusville along Florida’s east coast. West of the park, the twin pools of Gemini Springs ripple with clear, fresh water.
A gap of about 3 miles through DeBary currently separates the southern leg of the trail from the middle piece that traverses Blue Springs State Park, where the warm spring waters attract manatees during their winter refuge (November to March). These chubby “sea cows” can be seen in the hundreds here after conservation efforts increased their numbers from around a dozen in the 1970s. This segment of the trail continues up to picturesque Lake Beresford. After another short gap, trail goers can hit the northern leg of the trail and experience the final spring, De Leon Springs, housed within a 625-acre state park. A popular draw here is the Old Spanish Sugar Mill and Griddle House, a replica of the 1830s mill, where restaurant guests use batter made from stone-ground flour to cook their own pancakes at their table.
A Trail Springs Forward
“I tell people that it was a 25-year overnight success story,” Northey chuckled. “It took a long time to build, and now we’re working on just a couple locations where the link isn’t off-road yet. The Spring to Spring Trail triggered the whole county’s trail program; it started with 1 mile, and now it’s wrapped up in the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop, a 260-mile trail system connecting five counties.”
As the final two pieces of the Spring to Spring Trail are poised to fall into place, communities along the route are gearing up for the potential increase in visitor traffic (post-pandemic, of course).
“Deltona is moving more toward ecotourism,” noted Maggie Ardito, president of the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop Alliance. “There’s going to be an Eco-Village Trailhead right on Lake Monroe in the next couple years.”
The new facility, which Ardito thinks will especially draw in international tourists, is planned to support a wide range of recreational activities with a lodge and camping sites, a café, a bicycle shop, and canoe and kayak rentals.
“We’re building a high-powered outdoor economy with our trail system that the people who live here can enjoy, and it also brings in tourists,” enthused Northey. “Florida is a tourist state, and we’ve got Micky Mouse just south of us. We can grab the tourists for a day, have them come up by SunRail, which is our commuter rail line, and hop on the trail.”
Currently about half complete, the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop—which will be the longest multiuse trail in the Southeast—will spin out north and south from the Spring to Spring Trail and then run east to, and along, the Atlantic coastline. The expansive trail network will link dozens of distinctive Florida attractions and landscapes, including the Canaveral National Seashore, Kennedy Space Center, and several state parks and national wildlife refuges. The Spring to Spring Trail is also a vital link in the Florida Coast to Coast Trail, which is crossing the state (and more than 80% finished) from Titusville in the east to St. Petersburg on the west.
Support for these game-changing trail projects extends from the grassroots level all the way up to the highest branches of state government. In his March 1 proclamation celebrating Florida Bicycle Month, Gov. Ron DeSantis singled out the importance of trails for recreation, conservation, alternative transportation, healthy lifestyles, a vibrant economy and a high quality of life.
A Bright (Trail) Future for the Sunshine State
Accelerating this ambitious trail work are two uniquely Florida funding streams. Created in 2015, the Shared-Use Nonmotorized (SUN) Trail Program, implemented by the Florida Department of Transportation, generates approximately $25 million a year for high-priority trails, using revenue from tags on new vehicles. Both the Florida Coast to Coast Trail and the St. Johns River-To-Sea Loop are top priorities for the program and will receive this funding until they are completed. With its role within these larger trail systems, as well as a place in the developing East Coast Greenway—which will stretch 3,000 miles from Florida to Maine—the Spring to Spring Trail has benefited significantly from SUN Trail funding.
At the county level, Volusia’s Environmental, Cultural, Historical and Outdoor (ECHO) program seeks to improve the quality of life of residents by developing treasured facilities, such as parks, museums, environmental learning centers and trails, using money from individual property taxes. The citizen-led initiative, which has generated more than $95 million for 241 projects since it was first passed by voters in 2000, was up for referendum in 2020 and soundly supported.
“The ECHO program has been around for over 20 years now,” explained Tim Baylie, director of Volusia County Parks and Recreation. “There are a lot of assets that are very popular that were built with ECHO money. And, when you look at an individual property owner, it’s like $20 out of their tax bill, but—when you combine all that countywide—it’s a big number, around $5 million a year. We weren’t really sure—when we put this out on the ballot for folks to decide if they wanted to tax themselves again—how it was going to play out, but ECHO was approved by 72% of voters! Hands down, it was sweeping in terms of how much support we got for the program.”
In Volusia County, the widespread support for public money for trails was not always so clear cut.
“The trails program is the reason that ECHO passed—because people here love their trails,” said Northey. “And it’s so funny because, when we first we started these efforts, we had a lot of NIMBYs. We actually had one section of the trail that we had easement access to, and the people there were so upset that they filed criminal charges for trespassing against four county council members and three employees. But you ask them about it now, and boy, it’s become their trail! We had that along the trail in a lot of different places—people cursed us!—but then they ended up putting gates from their property to the back of trail so that they could just walk out their back door and get on their bike and ride.”
Currently, the trail’s missing southern piece through DeBary is under construction and anticipated to open by spring 2022. And the final gap, in the DeLand area, has funding for a feasibility study to identify its route alignment so it can move forward as well.
For devoted trail advocates like Pat Northey, this culmination of more than two decades of work is gratifying. “I have a 15-year-old granddaughter, and this is my legacy project for her and her generation. These trails are going to outlast me, and I want them to enjoy what we’ve done.”