Five2Ride: The Best Mountain Bike Trails in Florida

f2r_florida

While the rest of the United States has been blanketed in snow, rendering all but the fortunate owners of fat bikes left to dream of summer singletrack, Florida has refused to participate in the month of January. As usual. While winter is generally a terrible time to consider going to the beach and frolicking in the surf, it is an excellent time to head south to explore some of the excellent trails that Florida has to offer.

Yes… mountain biking in Florida. It exists.

Peresite70 hucking a ladder drop in the Vortex at Santos.
Peresite70 hucking a ladder drop in the Vortex at Santos.

In my former Navy life, I was stationed in Florida for about 8 years, and in that time I explored every inch of singletrack I could get my tires on all across the deep south. There are undoubtedly some unforgettable trails in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, but many people are shocked when I tell them how much awesome riding there is in the Sunshine State.

Sure, you obviously don’t have long climbs and alpine vistas, but what you do have are tight, twisty, technical trails carved very creatively into rock quarries and through rolling forests and sandy hammocks. There are swamps. There are man-made features. And there are alligators–big ones. All of this makes for a very interesting place to ride, and an excellent detour from a family holiday if you are itching to get on a bike. Here is a brief overview of five of the best trail systems in Florida.

Santos, Ocala

Photo: Lisa Crigar
Photo: Lisa Crigar

Even though I now live and ride in central Colorado, I’ll be honest: I still miss this trail and wish I could ride it every week. We used to drive about two hours every Saturday to ride this trail, because it was just that good (and, obviously, our options were limited).

Designated as the first IMBA Bronze ride center (formerly just an “Epic”), Santos is part of the Cross Florida Greenway system and is meticulously maintained by the Ocala Mountain Bike Association, or OMBA.

Trail “difficulty” ratings are designated by colors: green (easy), blue (intermediate), and red (advanced). We mostly rode the red trails with some blue ones mixed in to add mileage, and it is actually possible to do 50-70 miles or more in this trail system if you connect things correctly! The red trails were carefully benchcut into the dirt/rock quarry, and some require a lot of body english to maneuver around.

photo: jbond352
photo: jbond352

There are a lot of log and wooden features here, and a lot of jumps. Big ones. Aside from a respectable dirt jump park called the Vortex nestled in the heart of the red trail system, there are BC-style drops, the highest one being around 25 feet. You read that right, 25 freakin’ feet… in Florida. A few years ago, I once saw a demo of riders going off of all of the jumps, including this beastly one, and one rider landed really bad/hard and was in the ICU for two weeks (ouch!). Poor kid.

OMBA puts on a Fat Tire Festival every spring that is a lot of fun to attend, with beer, prizes, food, night rides, and a 50-mile supported day extravaganza. There is camping right at the trailhead for a nominal fee, and several bike shops that rent high-end bikes. Santos bike shop is my personal favorite, and they really know their stuff, but the closest place to get post-ride libations is Greenway, which also employs very friendly, knowledgeable staff.

“There’s a reason it’s the #1 trail in Florida–it’s absolutely fantastic! Came up with a couple friends that had never ridden here, and they also agree it’s a great trail system. And that’s after we weren’t able to do it all after one of them fell and snapped their carbon handlebar. Your best bet is to attack the Vortex head on with fresh legs, and make your way towards the trails near the trailhead after. Stay well hydrated, the trails this last weekend were hot. Whether in the sun or shade, the humidity was a killer.” -jblanco1984

Alafia River State Park/Balm Boyette Preserve, Tampa

Photo: Jeff Barber
Photo: Jeff Barber

These are technically two different trail systems which I lump into one because of their proximity and awesomeness. I always enjoyed riding this as part of the Alafia Fat Tire Festival in the fall, organized by the SWAMP club.

Less than an hour from Tampa, you can pick up a bike from AJ’s and be on your way. I personally like to ride Balm Boyette first, carefully selecting the more technical of the 25 miles of trail that comprise this Preserve. Trails such as Ridgeline and Pandemonium consist of jaw-dropping, short, steep, undulating hills and roller coaster-style drops.

Alafia is 100% amazing, with difficult, steep climbs, and jagged rocks awaiting any rider who doesn’t quite muscle to the top or lean over enough on swooping downhills. Moonscape and Roller Coaster are must do’s if you like the techy bits, and Gatorback is a full-on double diamond trail with an actual 8 foot alligator at the bottom of a steep, scary roller. I’ve seen him there every time, waiting for me to screw up.

There are usually great trail maps at the visitors center showing the 20-some miles of trails, and there’s paid camping in Alafia State River State Park, but this system is close enough to board in Brandon or Tampa if you want comfy over close-by. Local food can be hard to find, so bring your own.

“Fun, swoopy, and flowy trails. Great place to ride in the winter and always plenty of other riders here. Really unique trail system that makes excellent use of the terrain.” -Jeff Barber

Tom Brown/Cadillac, Tallahassee

Wall ride on Wally World. Trail: Tom Brown. Photo: Peresite70.
Wall ride on Wally World. Trail: Tom Brown. Photo: Peresite70.

Much farther north, nearer to the Redneck Riviera in the panhandle of Florida, sits a gem. Also technically two distinct trail systems, Tom Brown and Cadillac comprise a network of carefully-mapped trails in an inner city Tallahassee park that will blow your mind.

Overall less technical than the previous two trails I’ve mentioned, this trail system is just nice, flowy singletrack with a few (serious) technical features thrown in for good measure. Aside from a great jump park and pump track, there are also man made features to aid in skills progression, from narrow log bridges to short, steep drops. There are a lot of roots and twisty climbs, and unlike south Florida, trees that do not have mean, prickly things on them.

The park itself also has a BMX track, playground, tennis courts, soccer fields, a lake, and several other features that may keep your family occupied while you go for a quick lap or two. Tallahassee has every lodging option you can think of, and several good bike shops that rent bikes. Having broken just about every part on my old Titus every time I took a bike trip somewhere, I can personally recommend Higher Ground bike shop as an LBS in this area. The trail system is maintained by COTparks, who made this excellent video.

“Had a super sick, fun time on everything that I rode here, from Wally World, the Cadillac, to the pumptrack!!! Videos and pictures do not do this place any justice… Tom Brown has great flow and is super fun… So if you’re planning to make a trip here, you won’t be disappointed!!” -Peresite70

San Felasco Hammock Preserve, Gainesville

Photo: Marfin
Photo: Marfin

Do you ever long to ride a nice stretch of trail in the woods with long ,gentle climbs interrupted by quick, twisty downhills? San Felasco is that kind of trail. Located in central Florida near the small town of Alachua, this state park has about 25-30 miles of trail, mostly smooth, easy singletrack in an unusually hilly section of Florida.

Tung Nut Loop and Conquistador are easily my favorite sections, but this is a great place to go and crank out some scenic miles. It is a perfect trail for the beginner to intermediate rider. It is also home to the coveted “Tour de Felasco,” an all-day 50-mile event that sells out in hours, if not minutes, each January, with special trails only available during this event.

As you can see by the trail map, San Felasco is a series of interconnecting loops that allow riders to choose a wide variety of distances/routes before heading back to the car. There are quite a few hikers and equestrians, but the latter use different trails. There is no camping on site, but there is a bike wash and primitive restrooms. Accommodations can easily be found in football-crazed Gainesville, which is about 10 miles away. Local riders usually hit up Moe’s for good post-ride eats. Unfortunately, this park and trail system has been threatened by budget cuts in the past few years, so ride it while you can.

“Trails can be ridden by everyone above a beginner. Do not let the black or double black diamond designations scare you. Not much technical stuff, and all climbs and descents are gentle, stretched out rides. Plenty of trail markers and “You are here” stylized maps. May not know where you are exactly, but you are never lost. Can probably put in 25-30 miles if you ride each trail in its entirety. Santos and Alafia will get all the raves but these trails should be ridden if you are in the area.” -hproctor

Markham Park, Sunrise

Photo: johnc123
Photo: johnc123

Hands-down one of the most interesting trails in south Florida, this 11+ mile trail system is neatly tucked into a small park in Sunrise, about 30 miles north of Miami. Riders must unfortunately watch an ‘educational’ video in addition to signing a waiver before entering the gate to the trail system, but once you are in, you’ll experience technical mountain biking you’d never thought possible in a land known for bikinis, ropa de viejo, CSI, and mojitos.

Club Mud helps maintain the trails and features, and their advocacy has helped keep everyone but mountain bikers off this trail (yeah!). There are a lot of wood features, jumps, drops, and tight areas that make you feel like you are riding crazy trails in the middle of a jungle. Surprisingly, the singletrack is solid, despite being surrounded by sand everywhere. Camping is not permitted in this park, but hey, it’s Miami metro, so you have a few options. I am not aware of anyone that rents bikes, but that does not mean there aren’t any.

“Hands-down the best overall trails in South Florida. There are a lot of intermediate and advanced trails here that mid-level and pro riders can shred on, but also a nice adaptive trail system for those that aren’t as confident/skilled. One of the best features of this trail system is the community support. A small group of dedicated locals are continually working on the trails; not just maintenance, actual rebuilding and reshaping of trails and trail features.” -hecpara

Conclusion

A few years ago I made a video about the trails in Florida that highlights all of the trails I have mentioned. I think it was my first attempt at making a GoPro-style video, and it is a little cheesy, but I think it may give you a good idea of what some of the trails and features look like that I’ve written about:

This is by no means a complete list of the awesome places to ride in Florida, so if you have time, I’d also recommend checking out these honorable mentions: Graham Swamp, Haile’s Trail, Redbug, and Kathryn Abby Hannah Park.

Your Turn: Have you mountain biked in Florida? If so, what’s your favorite trail system?

Last updated by Greg Heil on 01/21/16 at 8:18am.

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