The Withlacoochee State Trail - say it with me now - "WITH-la-COO-chee". Once you get the hang of saying it, it's the kind of trail not easily forgotten.
This part of Florida could easily produce a pronunciation guide, with its many intriguing Native American names, more than a few ending in 'coochee' or 'hoochee'. Strewn with nearly as many bike trails as there are bodies of water, the town of Inverness has a distinct cycling culture and the area around it is the kind of place where you can happily get lost for the afternoon on smooth trails. Thank you to VisitCitrus for sponsoring our ride and introducing us to this incredible part of Florida.
The Withlacoochee State Trail is a 46-mile (74 km) stretch of former railroad track that follows much of the course of the Withlacoochee River. The track was converted to a paved recreational trail that's perfect for hiking, biking, and skating, and ideal for all levels of cycling and fitness skill.
In 1987, CSX Transportation decided to abandon the 47-mile railroad which the state of Florida then purchased for their "rails-to-trails" program in 1989. Click here to see an interactive map or download a printable map here.
Our introduction to the Trail began in the beautiful central Florida town of Inverness. Located in Citrus County on Florida's central gulf coast in an area known for its crystal blue natural springs and manatee population, Inverness sits about 20 miles inland near a chain of freshwater lakes known as the Tsala Apopka (Sal-a-POP-ka). This place is a cyclist's dream.
I wouldn't describe us as active cyclists who ride 100 miles on a weekend, but we always enjoy cycling when we travel. We own bicycles but their use is more for riding to the beach and sightseeing around our town. We started our Withlacoochee adventure at the Inverness Bicycle & Fitness shop in downtown Inverness where the owner Sherry hooked us up with a map and other good information, and helped fit us to bike rentals that best suited our needs. The restroom there comes in handy for changing into more comfy clothes and filling water bottles. The bike shop is just two blocks from the Withlacoochee trailhead at the Wallace Brooks Park. We opted to head south toward Floral City along the Tsala Apopka which borders the south leg of the trail.
The quiet trail offers some of the most stunning vistas of old Florida marsh, freshwater lakes, cypress swamps, and pasture extending for miles in every direction.
Currently the Withlacoochee is the longest paved rail-trail in the state and extends through three counties - Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco. Horseback riding is also available on a separate trail which parallels portions of the paved trail.
The North end of the trail is located in Citrus Springs near Dunnellon and extends 46 miles to the south ending in Trilby in Pasco County.
The Florida State Parks describes the Trail this way:
"Officially designated as part of the Florida Greenways and Trail System, this State Trail is also a National Recreation Trail® which offers rich opportunities for viewing wildlife and access to many other outstanding recreational opportunities. Among the recreational highlights nearby are the unpaved trails in the Croom area of the Withlacoochee State Forest, the Withlacoochee River (South) Canoe Trail and Fort Cooper State Park."
Late fall and early December is a good time to visit with autumn foliage showing russet colors, lush green pastures, and the crystal clear lakes of the Tsala Apopka to the east of the Trail.
Houses are tucked in here and there scattered along the shoreline, all with fantastic lake views. In places the trees seem to reach out to each other from both sides of the trail, forming a natural arch canopy. The ride was so peaceful and quiet enough to hear the birds serenade us as we passed.
There are no hills to speak of, just a few slight inclines which a quick gear-shift takes care of nicely. Here and there you'll find mileage markers along the trail indicating the distance from Richmond, VA once used by the train engineer - for example R800 means 800 miles to Richmond.
As with most old rail lines there are a minimum of crossings, and only one major four lane crossing between Inverness and Floral City, which at the time of our ride wasn't busy. Even so, a gentleman stopped and waved us across.
Along the way we passed distance cyclists flying along the trail, recumbent tricycles, people walking, and others like us leisurely enjoying the scenery on a warm sunny afternoon.
At one point I was so curious about the recumbant tricycles I kept seeing, that I shouted to a woman as she passed us by "How do you like your bike?"
Three minutes later she wheeled back around. "Now, what did you say?"
She proudly showed us the tricycle she recently switched to after a crash on her two-wheel bicycle left her with a few broken bones. Her new tricycle has saved her bad back, she explained, and her special cycling shoes snapped into the "lollipop" pedals so her feet never slip off.
Clearly, cycling and fitness produces some very friendly and relaxed residents, as a wave of the hand produced the same in return and always with a smile.
We stopped in at the Ferris Fruit Company, one of the oldest fruit stands in Florida, located just off the trail. This was an easy 7-mile jaunt from our start in Inverness.
This makes an interesting stop - some great local history and fresh Florida oranges of all kinds. You'll also find grapefruit and pomelo and fresh juice and fruit samples too. If you've never had fresh orange juice or an orange straight from the orchard, you have to visit!
And did I mention the strawberries? I didn't realize strawberry season runs so long in Florida - from November through April. The entire store smelled of fresh berries!
A short distance beyond Ferris Groves we reached the town of Floral City with its small eateries, quaint shops, and some historical sites. It was getting late and we wanted to catch the setting sun on the lakes near Inverness, so we headed back up the trail.
If the outbound ride wasn't scenic enough, the return trip with the angle of the setting sun was pure peacefulness.
Our round-trip ride from Inverness to Floral City (roughly 17 miles) gave us just a short introduction to the Withlacoochee State Trail, and a ride of the Trail's entire length would offer a well-rounded visit to this scenic part of Florida for any activity level or budget.
Whether you're an avid cyclist or peddling enthusiast, if you haven't yet hit the Withlacoochee State Trail and the other trails around Inverness and Citrus County, start making plans. The trail is great for all skill levels and perfect cycling for families of all ages!
If You Go:
Bring water! Especially on very hot days although fountains are being built along the way.
For more information:
Rails to Trails of the Withlacoochee, Inc. - P.O. Box 807, Inverness, FL 34451, website of the non-profit Friends of the Withlacoochee State Trail
Citrus County Visitors Bureau - 915 N Suncoast Blvd, Crystal River, Florida 34429
Inverness Bicycle & Fitness - 130 N. Pine Ave, Inverness, FL 34450. (352) 637-2453. Owners, Sherry and Danny Bechtel.