Through the Green Swamp
Stretching 30 miles from Polk City in Polk County to Mabel in Sumter County, the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail traverse through Central Florida’s premier watersheds, the Green Swamp. Headwaters for three major rivers, the Peace, Hillsborough and the Withlachoochee, the Green Swamp is an important area for the regions water supply. The Van Fleet is Rails-to-Trails, and is one of the straightest I have seen, with only one curve in its entire length.
There are four trailheads to access the Trail, spaced approximately 10 miles apart. The southern most at Polk City, followed by the Green Pond Trailhead, then Bay Lake, and finally, the northernmost, at Mabel. The Rails-to-Trails map shows restrooms at the Polk City trailhead, but I was unable to find them, nor water. There is a fine facility at Green Pond, and another at the northern trailhead, Mabel, but nothing at Bay Lake but a cut grass parking lot and a covered bench.
We rode this trail from South to North. The trail is reaching a maintenance cycle, meaning that things are starting to appear a little worn. There are some small cracks and dips in the pavement, and the shelters are showing the wear and tear of three tropical cyclones in 2004. The bridges on the southern half have posted notices advising riders to dismount and walk across, as repair is underway.
Wildlife viewing is unsurpassed. All along the trail, as Pepper and I pedaled slowly north, we spied the natives at work and play. I was especially heartened to see an abundance of gopher tortoises. These long-lived, slow-moving vegetarians dig extensive burrows in the sandy Florida soil, and has a broad impact in the native ecosystem. If you can save the Florida “gopher”, then you can probably save the ecosystem.
Of course, you can’t have a swamp without alligators. One of Florida’s top predators, it can loose it’s fear of humans if fed by them. Do not annoy or tease these creatures. We saw several as we rode over some of the bridges. I was glad to have the elevation on them.
Wild turkeys made a showing, mostly hens, but I did see a few males (Tom’s). They scampered back into the brush before I could get a photo. Good survival sense. On the last section of the trail, Pepper and I saw a large bird crossing the sky ahead of us. Figuring it for a Red-Shouldered Hawk, I looked up into the treetops as we rode past the spot, and saw it in flight again for just a second. It wasn’t a hawk. Too big! I pulled over and stopped. A few moments of patience was rewarded with the rush of wings and appearance of a mating pair of Barred Owls. A large pair. The wingspan was 5 feet at least on the larger one.
Pepper and I spent three days on this trail, and loved the wildlife. What we didn’t like was the closure of the restroom on Green Pond due to vandalism. I just can’t get my head around why anyone would want to tear up a bathroom. But it was reopened quickly and was available the next weekend when we traveled the middle section. There is a Ranger that patrols the trail, we saw him several times during our ride. A summer thunderstorm traveled over the northern section the evening before we rode it, and while we did see some small debris on the trail, we also saw large debris (i.e. downed trees) pulled off to the side. There was some traffic in every section of the trail, and everyone we met, either just in passing or for a short chat at a rest area was polite and cheerful. I guess a bad day on this trail isn’t that bad.
(UPDATE by soflakettwiesel)
At the Polk City trailhead, restrooms are located about 1/8 SE at the playground. Riding past the paved parking spots you will see the white building. Water fountain located at the East side, right at the start of the trail.