My Top Five: The Best Mountain Bike Trails in 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.

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 my favorite Florida trail systems.

Santos, Ocala

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 2 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. Keeping the good press rolling, Singletracks recently published an article on some exciting new wooden features built by Ray Petro himself.

Photo: Lisa Crigar

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.

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 2 weeks (ouch!). Poor kid.

A rider taking advantage of the free air conditioning at the 'Vortex' jump park at Santos.

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.

Alafia River State Park/Balm Boyette Preserve, Tampa

These are technically two different trail systems which I lump into one because of their proximity and awesomeness. Alafia is another IMBA Epic (yes, Florida has two, believe it or not), and 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.

Kenneth D contemplates which line will be least likely to kill him, at Alafia. At the bottom of this sandy mess is a right hand turn before an alligator infested swamp. No pressure.

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.

Tom Brown/Cadillac, Tallahassee

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.

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

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.

San Felasco Hammock Preserve, Gainesville

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.

Riders on a very cold and windy January day at Tour de Felasco during a fifty mile ride.

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.

Markham Park, Sunrise

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.

Photo: mandaconda

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.

Rider at Markham part negotiating the techy bits. Photo: anonymous post on singletracks.com

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?

Related posts:

  1. The Florida mountain bike scene
  2. News: Rays Indoor Bike Park Founder Building Features at Santos in Florida
  3. Florida MTB Trail Challenges
  4. Victor Alber: Team Florida’s Mountain Bike Specialist
  5. The Bridges of Alafia River State Park, Florida

This entry was posted in MTB Trails and tagged , , , , by delphinide. Bookmark the permalink.

About delphinide

A late bloomer, I stumbled upon legit mountain biking endevours in my mid-20s after upgrading my purple Roadmaster to a shiny used yellow Cannondale Super V900 that was well suited for deterring rednecks in the Ozarks from thoughts of "deliverance". Now a bike obsessed, middle-aged, slacker who likes to make excuses, I've relocated to Colorado to ride bigger and fatter wheels and write about my whimsical shenanigans.

21 thoughts on “My Top Five: The Best Mountain Bike Trails in Florida

  1. I was wondering if someone could do some articles on California. Not everyone is able to go to Florida, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, etc..
    You seem to spend all the reviews on other places..

    • We do our best to get around but can’t be everywhere at once. :) Our last big CA coverage happened in 2012 with articles on Downieville, LA area trails, Aliso & Wood, and Big Bear so check those out if you missed them!

    • Here’s a recap of that MASSIVE road trip from 2012, with links to every single article that I wrote during my month in California: http://www.singletracks.com/blog/mtb-trails/the-great-western-road-trip-2012-recap/

      With the other states that we visited, there’s over 26 articles in that series, so hopefully that will give you plenty of reading & keep you entertained!!!

      I do hope to get back to California again soon… we shall see!

    • Interesting list . . . “Florida, Utah, Colorado, Arizona,”

      It’s strikes me like that skit on Sesame Street — you know “One of these things is not like the other.” While Florida may be a popular tourist destination (beaches, Disney, Golf), clearly, with regard to mountain biking, Florida is not held in the same esteem as the Southwest, which was the point of the article–bringing to light some of the alternative places which have good, if somewhat overlooked, riding possibilities.

      To me, riding California, which I love, is not unlike riding Colorado. SoCal has lots of mountainous, dusty trails like southwest Colorado and Downieville and Tahoe have big descents and million mile views like Colorado’s high country. With regard to Florida, it’s much like the Monty Python title “And Now for Something Completely Different.”

      Your point is well taken, which is why we’ve tried to go beyond Fruita and Moab. In addition to the aforementioned California epic article series, there have been excursions into Oregon, throughout the Southeast, CAMBA in Wisconsin and the UP in Michigan and another three-part series covering states equally unlikely as Florida (moreso if you consider they don’t even have the non-biking attractions like the beach and Disney): Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

      http://www.singletracks.com/blog/mtb-trails/turkey-time-tour-de-prairie-take-1-texas-panhandlin/

  2. Loyce Harpe Park (Carter Road) in Lakeland is truly a tough, fun, technical trail that should be in this list. I always find it humorous, and sad, that whenever someone mentions mountain biking in Florida they have to always through in the cliche line, “Yes, there is mountain biking in Florida”. Of course there is mountain biking in Florida. There is mountain biking in every state. Florida mountain bike racers routinely place high and podium in out-of-state mountain bike races (I was on a team of Florida MTBers that won the 12 hours of Tsali in NC one year). There are a great many MTB trails in all of Florida and South Florida is flush with some great trails. Get back down here and ride Virginia Key on Key Biscayne with South Beach as a backdrop and Amelia Earhart Park where the only limitation to your speed is your skill and nerve. You won’t find many MTB trails in the country like Markham Park or Amelia Earhart and the Ridgeline Trail in Balm Boyette is truly the best 2.5 miles of trail in the Southeast.

  3. I too find it funny when I have to ‘explain’ there are great trails in Florida…and my new Colorado riding buddies still do not believe me…which prompted me to write a little about it. Thanks for the comment.

    As I mentioned this is not a comprehensive list, and out of the 140ish trails in FL, I only rode a fraction of them. Some, like Santos, I rode dozens of times. Two of them I regret not riding are two you mentioned: Carter Road and Amelia. I’ve heard great things about them, but weather prevented me from riding them every time I got near them. Post some pictures! I’d love to see them.

  4. Dear Delphinide,

    Thank you very much for sharing your own positive review with a wider audience of readers and riders. Florida cyclists certainly know how good they have it. I’ve ridden all of these except for Markham Park, which was built after I moved away from South Florida years ago.

    I live in Gainesville and I am glad that you included San Felasco on your list, as this certainly deserves the praise. It is a natural system of bike trails where you can see a lot of wildlife. Not to detract from your vote for San Felasco, but I’d like to comment on some of the things you wrote in that section:

    “Located in central Florida…”
    *North Central Florida.

    “25-30 miles of trails”
    *Yep, 30+ miles!

    *Much of the single track isn’t smooth, but rather bumpy at high speed due to root exposure. (Well, I do ride a SS hard tail 26er. )

    *The Tour is extremely popular. Registration opens Oct. 01. Record sellout was this year at 1 hour. We just had our 12th Tour this past weekend.

    *There really aren’t many hikers and equestrians most of the time.

    ” Football-crazed Gainesville”
    *For some, but not all of its residents. I love the University, but I don’t watch any football. I ride.

    No offense to Moe’s or their fans, but that’s the last place I would eat after a ride.

    “Unfortunately, this park and trail system has been threatened by budget cuts in the past few years, so ride it while you can.”

    *Not true, any more than other State Parks and recreational areas have experienced a similar threat in recent years. With the activity level of the CSO, the success of the Tour and other events, and the community support for these trails and cycling in general, this would be a hard threat to see become reality.

    Lastly, and somewhat sadly, Haile’s Trails was recently closed (it was only open 2 race weekends a year anyway) to bikes for the foreseeable future.

    • Thanks for the awesome reply! A couple of counter-points:

      -we only have one Moe’s in all of CO, so I do miss the post-ride Moe’s little Moo. there is not much else in alachua…and I didn’t go by G-ville to get home. More than anything I miss Dragonfly Sushi…man, do I wish we could find sushi like that here. mmmmm

      -in 2009 (I think) there were tons of emails and petitions going around because San Felasco was on the chopping block, along with 3 other parks, and cyclists all across ‘north central’ FL :) fought it tooth and nail. I keep hearing from some riders that it is threatened, so sorry if that is not completely accurate

      -very sad to hear about Haile’s. I rode it 2-3 times during the open race events, and while not the best trail in the world, it was a fun little loop to ride.

      -I was only able to register for the Tour once…every other time it sold out too fast, just like Blood, Sweat, and Gears

      -Go Gators! After living in the area for 8 years and hitting almost every home game during that time, Gainesville is another word for football in my dictionary. :)

      Have fun riding in FL…I can’t wait to go back again some day.

      • I didn’t mean to bash Moe’s. Many people love it. I even did at first. I am also a picky eater. Of note, though, there is now a Mi Apa Latin Cafe right next to the Moe’s!

        Your point is well-taken and is accurate; our trails are in constant threat of closure. We have a very active cycling community in Gainesville, but we cannot save every trail. Haile’s Trails is a perfect example. “Ride it while you can.”

        I hope you get in next time you register for the Tour. Maybe remind them about your Top 5 article before you do.

        Go Gators! Wow. You were a dedicated fan. I did go to home games when I was a freshman. I saw Emmett Smith play in his senior year.

        Come back any time. The trails will be waiting for you.

  5. I detest Florida on so many levels that Im not even going to crack that tome. I have sworn never to set foot in that wretched state again for as long as I live.

    That said, its cold and wet here, i need a break, Sedona is too far away and expensive. I might just break my vow, and flush myself down to the sunshine state for a couple days of bike riding in the sand.

    What’s your favorite sandy lube?

    • I used a wax based dry lube when I lived there. Try White Lightning. You won’t find much sand at San Felasco and Santos, though. Give FL another chance…you won’t regret it. Have fun!

  6. great list, those that ive ridden from this list are excellent parks. we definitely have some great riding here. one of the most underrated parks in the country imo is Virginia Key in Miami; its short (~6-7 miles) so maybe it doesnt get the credit it deserves. Def check that out if/when ur down, its right by downtown and a great, different type of ride. Lots of technical riding, some jumps, and a ton of man-made features, stairs, etc thrown in to challenge ur skillset.

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