By Carl Vinson
In early November, the CCC Vagabond riding group took an overnight camping-touring trip to Torreya State Park (see Linda Tinsley’s article on our site.) Since I also enjoy solo touring, I opted to extend the trip by tacking on a six-night tour of my own. After returning from Torreya on Sunday November 6, I launched the following morning for a jaunt down to Cedar Key, a landmark I had somehow missed despite nearly 50 years in Tallahassee.
The first day’s ride was 45 miles to Econfina River State Park from my home via the St. Marks trail and US 98. There is no camping at the small state park, but a private campground nearby offers cheap primitive tent sites as well as sites with electrical outlets. A 45-50 mile ride is my standard mileage target on tour. At a net speed of 10-12 miles an hour, this leaves time for lunch and sight-seeing. Laying out a tour involves finding desirable lodging or destinations within a day’s ride; sometimes a longer day in the saddle is needed to reach a target.
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Lafayette Blue Springs running into Suwannee River
Day two took me to Lafayette Blue Springs State Park near Mayo, a ride of 48 miles. The amazing feature here is twin clear spring pools with a run that flows 30 yards into the Suwannee River over a little “waterfall” of limestone during low water. I was the only campground occupant besides the campground host couple. As the sun set, I enjoyed a quick pasta and envelope-chicken meal cooked on my small camp stove. Carbs like pasta and rice are staples for touring and make an easy one-pot meal. With the exertion you will need a much higher calorie intake, especially carbs.
The third day it was on to the quaint fishing village of Steinhatchee, an easy 40 miles down the road. Most of this leg was on back roads with reduced traffic. I always favor those when laying out my routes. Lucky for me, I had the keys to a friend’s river cottage. Many rentals are available and reasonably priced there. That night I enjoyed an excellent seafood meal at Roy’s. Of course Steinhatchee is a seafood lover’s paradise.
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Chapel near Steinhatchee
Without having to pack up a tent, I set out early on the fourth day for a long ride into Cedar Key. This ride was a little over 80 miles, admittedly a little long for a day of loaded touring. This leg took me (via back roads and a bit of US 27) to Cross City for the start point of the Nature Coast Bike Trail. This is a really nice 32-mile rails-to-trails facility similar to St. Marks Trail. It makes a Suwannee River crossing on a scenic old railroad trestle near Fanning Springs, then forks to either Trenton or Chiefland. By the way, Fanning Springs has a state park so it would have made a good stopping point for camping if I had the time. At Chiefland, I headed south to Cedar Key on County Rd 345 and Florida 24, which was the longest stretch I had without bike lanes. Still, traffic was nearly non-existent on a fall weekday.
Cedar Key was a welcome sight after a day of mostly headwinds. There are two campgrounds and a few motels on the island. Again, cottage rentals are available but I did not price them. Arriving late, I had enough daylight to run downtown and see the quaint old-Florida houses and buildings. Cedar Key has a thriving clam aquaculture trade and is among the most picturesque Florida fishing villages. There is a thriving nightlife with bars and good seafood houses, but I was too tired to try these.
Pitching my one-man tent takes all of 5 minutes. This is one piece of gear most may not have unless they backpack. I got mine on EBay for $55, though fancier/pricier stuff is available. After a night in the tent and a low-cost “diner breakfast” at the Sunset Isle campground cafe I headed downtown to enjoy a morning in the art and gift shops. Cedar Key has long enjoyed a thriving artist community. Don’t miss the stained glass of the Methodist Church.
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Campsite at Cedar Key
I headed for Branford to camp along the Santa Fe River, leaving Cedar Key a little later than planned for the 62 mile trek. Generally I am able to estimate travel times and stick to a schedule, but vacations should have some flexibility. I backtracked to Chiefland and Fanning Springs, then took the Trenton fork of the Nature Coast Trail. I enjoyed the cattle country vistas, but had to hustle along at 16 mph with darkness approaching. Diverting onto county back roads, I hit Ellie Ray’s Campground (a large Good Sam facility) late and pitched my tent with the help of my bike’s headlight. Supper in my tent was not real healthful – a bagel, Vienna sausage, cheese crackers and pop tarts. You don’t have to cook to stay well-fueled and an occasional “convenience store” meal won’t kill anyone. For good or for bad, convenience stores provide a reliable source of calories out in the boonies.
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“Old Florida” home in Cedar Key
That night, Fall arrived and the temperature dipped to 31, but I stayed cozy. Allowing for warm camping gear does not have to overload a touring cyclist. Layering of clothing is the key. Again, camping gear doesn’t have to be expensive to be portable. The sleeping bag that works for me in most Florida weather is simply two $3 Wal-Mart fleece throws stitched together. For cold conditions, I have a small down quilt that packs to half the size of a loaf of bread. Just don’t forget a knit hat. After a huge mug of coffee offered by the campground host, I packed and headed toward Mayo on my way to Perry 55 miles away.
There I stayed in a motel, nixing a planned camping night in favor of a TV to watch the FSU-Miami football game. That way I also was able to hit my favorite greasy spoon, Pouncey’s, for some down-home cooking. On the final leg back, I opted to simply eat up the 60 miles to Tally via US 27. Though it’s a very familiar track to most of us, this road is much more scenic by bike than by car, so I saw it with new eyes. And the entire route has bike lanes.
So the total nine-day ramble for me, including the Torreya part, was 504 miles. This may sound like a lot but I am sure this is well within the reach of all regular cyclists. The gear doesn’t have to cost a fortune and just about any mountain bike or road bike can do. Making up a route is fun and whether you like camping or opt for motels and maybe a cottage rental or two. I highly recommend this Forgotten Coast jaunt. If this wrinkle of cycling sounds like fun to you, check out the Vagabonds riding group.