We were lost. The sawgrass and trees closed in around us as we trudged along the bank of a small river looking for the crossing Straining to find any sign of a trail, all I could see was knee high grass, palmettos and mud. The flagging tape and bent grass we had followed had disappeared and we were left wandering through the woods. I didn’t want to miss the marked crossing, as unknown creatures awaited us in the uncharted depths of the river ahead. The promise of chest-deep water and a history of confirmed gator-free crossings beckoned us onward. If only we could find the marked crossing.
Most people have a picture in their mind of the landscape of central Florida. Mine used to involve cow pastures and billboards running along a sun baked highway corridor where you weave between grandparents going exactly the speed limit and souped up muscle cars approaching the land speed record. Some who have never ventured further than the outskirts of Orlando might picture the Orlando airport, with its massive terminals and skyway trains: the air conditioned world of restaurants, hotels and malls, manicured golf courses and the center of the suburban family universe known as Disney World.
But there’s a hidden backyard to Mickey’s little village. It is raw and real. It is the central Florida of the Huracan 300.
The Huracan 300 is a route developed by local legend Karlos Rodriguez that once a year welcomes an unofficial grand depart in early February. Ridden in either direction, it offers an unparalleled view of the untamed beauty of central Florida.
It was February 2019 and I was on the red eye from Boston to Sarasota to meet up with my high school buddy Dave to ride the Huracan. To be fair, I had ridden some of the route before, having twice enjoyed the piney singletrack of Santos near Ocala, FL. Both days at Santos were among my favorites ever on a mountain bike and so I was excited about what was to come. Excited- and to be honest- a little nervous.
I had been following from afar the stories from those who participated in that year’s grand depart- which had taken place just a week earlier. It was filled with stories of endless knee deep mud. Others described sections of soul draining loose sand. But the section that remained fixated in my mind was a water crossing that involved wading through chest deep swamp water in gator country. Dave and I just referred to this as “the crossing”.
Dave also had reason to be nervous. You see, this was his first ever bikepacking trip. Although Dave, an Ironman finisher, was no stranger to long days in the saddle, he had never taken his bike camping. Most folks just do a short overnighter to start their bikepacking career. Not Dave. He was all-in for a five day trek across central Florida.
While the actual route for that year was well over 300 miles, I had whittled down the planned route for Dave and myself to about 250 miles. I had also substituted in some paved bike trails, both south of Lake Apopka and also on the western edge of the route to give us enough time to ride the whole thing in less than five days at a fast, but not -“ride through the night and sleep on sidewalks” -pace. We chose to ride it clockwise, as this gave us the option to “bail out” in one of the towns on the western edge of the route. Plus if we ended up being ahead of schedule we could jump off the rail trail to enjoy some of the singletrack in the area. The Eastern edge had no alternate routes and no quick exits.
We couldn’t have picked a better week for our attempt. The forecast showed clear skies for five days in a row. There was to be no rain- unless you counted the bombs raining down on the Navy bombing range in Ocala National Forest. An email the day before I left led to some last minute scrambling to reroute around the range so as to avoid an aerial bombardment.
After arriving in Sarasota, Dave and I drove up to the Shangri La Campground along the Santos section of the route. We had arranged with the campground to park his truck there and we set out in the early afternoon sun having taken longer than expected to get our gear together and assemble my bike. The first section of the Santos route had recently seen a fire, and we weaved through the charcoal scarred trunks of old pines. The familiar rhythm of Santos lulled us into a flow state as we meandered eastward through the soft pine covered forests.
By late afternoon we reached the parking lot on the eastern edge and rolled onto our first pavement of the day. Quiet but shoulderless suburban streets gave way to a busy highway with a large breakdown lane. The air was cool and a steady wind pushed at us as we rolled along the pavement northeast toward the national forest. After rolling into a large conservation area, the sun dipped low on the horizon, and so we hopped off trail to find a quiet spot to camp for the night. With the light disappearing we setup our bivys and cooked dinner to the sounds of hooting owls and yipping coyotes. My choice of shelter, the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy, was a last second decision. I had originally planned to use my hammock, but with no rain in the forecast, and cold nights, I opted for a bivy. I had talked Dave into doing the same, and so we retired to our matching bivys to snore the night away.
The next morning dawned glorious and cool. I had slept fairly soundly, disturbed only once in a while by mosquitos buzzing outside the mesh covering of the bivy. While I had donned a baseball cap to keep the mesh off my face, Dave had not. The poor guy now had a dozen or so welts where the mosquitos had tagged him during the night. Who knew my lucky Red Sox hat could also prevent malaria?
It was a cool but sunny start. We zipped through a misty swamp in the early morning light where we came across a comfort station attached to the park’s trails. Refreshed, we tackled another long section of pavement on a shoulderless road until reaching a sandy byway into the Ocala National Forest.
Straight lines across our maps manifested as impossibly straight sandy roads rolling to the horizon before us. Although labeled a forest, the landscape was dominated by leftover waste scrub from what had likely been a massive tree harvest in the not too distant past. The road was sandy, but there had been enough recent rain that the sand was still fairly compact, and so we rolled along quickly.
With the Navy bombing range looming not far ahead we overtook a pickup truck rolling along slowly hugging the left side of the road. It wasn’t until I could hear barking beagles in the distance and noticed the large antenna on the back that I realized he was following his dogs chasing something through the waste scrub. The driver didn’t even acknowledge us as we pressed ahead, wondering whether a bear or other creature being pursued by dogs might emerge from scrub.
The sun was beating down hard all morning, and it was a relief to see our path depart from the sandy road and toward an oasis of trees. Perhaps there would be cover. Dave was suffering, and I encouraged him onward with promises of glorious singletrack. What I failed to tell Dave, however, was that I had heard some comments about how the start of the next section was a total trainwreck.
Unconsolidated sand sucked at our tires immediately upon leaving the forest road. Large mounds of sand crisscrossed by felled trees blocked our path as my GPS compelled us to charge straight through the barricade. Dave was not impressed.
But the bushwhack was short lived and the trail quickly improved into a smooth flowy singletrack. It was a good time to recharge, and so we stopped for lunch under some small pines, admiring the surrounding landscape as I cooked up some Ramen.
What followed were some of the most memorable miles of the trip. Riding along the edges of dried out seasonal marshes, we dove deep into a central Florida wilderness.. Tall grasses on all sides hemmed us in as we pushed forward on a small ribbon of trail. We spotted wildlife including turtles and herons before emerging on the far side of the marsh in a state park area.
A hand water pump refreshed our water supply and we were back on sandy doubletrack headed south. Eventually we re-emerged into civilization and upon a small store. Judging from the collection of couches and televisions attached to the store it was clear that it doubled as a gathering spot for the locals. We grabbed ice cold cokes, and spread out on the pavement to take stock of our situation. It had been a hot day, and we both sucked down bottles of gatorade along with the cokes. After some salty chips, we felt refreshed enough to roll onward.
Next up was a powerline section which I had added to cut off a trip to the famed Alexander Springs. Unfortunately this was one of the sacrifices made to fit the trip into our time constraints, and one of the places I would visit if I were to do the trip again.
My “shortcut” was a true powerline hell of punchy climbs through sugar sand. Even my Sherpa with its 27.5 x 3.0 tires struggled, while Dave's 29” x 2.3 inch tires sank like anchors. More than forty miles into our day, our tired legs struggled to keep us afloat as a merciless late afternoon sun beat down on us from above.
At the end of the shortcut we connected with the Florida National Scenic Trail. We were finally back in the trees on a thin line of packed sandy singletrack and we were exhausted. Despite our condition the last eight miles to the Clearwater Recreation Area campground were absolute bliss. The playful singletrack weaved through a mature pine forest over and around gentle rolling hills. We flew through the forest under a high canopy of pine with scattered palmettos.
We arrived at the campground crusty and exhausted, and secured a spot for the night. I hardly remember eating dinner before we both retreated into our bivys and slept soundly until dawn.
The next morning arrived misty and cool, but the morning sun quickly blazed through the mist to reveal a crystal clear blue sky. Setting out from the campground, our first hour was a hard packed sandy road. Stretched out and warmed up, we met up with the Florida Trail again, which would be our route for most of the day. Skirting through a local park, we found our first jungletrack section along the side of a quiet road. Punchy, rooty and tightly wound, these trails seemingly lasted forever. They were unlike anything else we saw on the route. But eventually we emerged from the thicket to cross a large wasteland area, where almost all of the trees had been harvested- leaving little cover from the midday sun. Out of the cover of the forest the sun was again relentless in sucking the life from our legs. By noon we reached a large mobile home park, where we raided the store for microwave burgers and sugary ice cold beverages. As we reconnected with the trail we came up on an older gentleman, William, who was a veteran of the Huracan. He was finishing his circuit and only had a half day of riding left. We rolled together on forested chunky singletrack into Rock Springs Preserve and toward “the crossing”. We were moving at about the same pace so we stuck together- strength in numbers and all.
We finally rolled down to the river and the doubletrack seemingly ended. Following matted grass we moved off trail toward where our GPS showed the crossing. But as we moved into the woods we lost the trail. After a few minutes of backtracking and searching, we thought we spotted the trail on the far side of the river. The uncertainty of whether we were at the right crossing only added to our apprehension. And so we did what any reasonable person would do. We sent the old guy out into the river first
Only about twenty yards across, there was dense tree cover all around, with grasses poking out along the edge of the river. We could see the water flowing along, and on the far side, a wide path of dirt leading away from the water’s edge suggesting a boat launch. Sure enough, as our new friend waded out into the river, a group of kayakers arrived to push out into the river.
Carefully picking his way across, William navigated to the far side, depositing the bags he had ferried across, and headed back to retrieve his bike.
I waded out into the river and found crystal clear flowing water- so clear I could see grass along the bottom moving in the current. Each of us made the two crossings to first carry our bags and then our bikes. As we reconnected our bags a wave of relief rolled over us and we started to feel downright silly for having worried so much. There were no gators. No endless muddy abyss. No problem.
On the far side, doubletrack winnowed to singletrack until we found ourselves on a repeat of the previous day’s glorious finish. We weaved through the Wekiwa Springs singletrack, and it was just as wonderful as what we had found near Alexander Springs the day before. Again a packed sandy singletrack meandered on mellow hills and berms through pine and palm forests. Short punchy climbs led to long meandering descents. It was downright heavenly.
As we emerged from the forest and into the parking area for the state park, William was greeted by a friend who had started with him (and then scratched on route) to celebrate his finish. The friend welcomed us with some much appreciated trail magic (two ice cold gatorades), and we relived the stories of their previous days’ adventures.
As the sun was starting to get low in the sky we decided to get a hotel for the night in Apopka. After striking out on our first two tries, we finally found a budget option on the southern edge of town. Rolling along the strip mall lined busy roads of the city was a stark contrast to our previous two days of forested bliss. Both were fixtures of central Florida, and yet they seemed worlds apart.
Arriving at our motel, we jumped in the pool, soaking in the cool water and letting the salt, sweat and toil of the previous days wash away. After chowing on pizza, we carefully laid our gear out to dry and drifted off into sleep.
Our fourth day dawned on a cloudless sky, and this time, not even a mist provided cover from the early morning sun. The weather was glorious, but it was quickly getting warm. As another sacrifice for time’s sake, we took the Orange Trail through Winter Garden, instead of following the traditional Huracan route along the shores of Lake Apopka. We planned to reach the Withalahoochie and Green Swamp Preserve later that day where we would find a spot to camp for the night. From Willam’s account, we knew Green Swamp was a nightmare of miles-long marches through knee deep swamp water and mud. Beyond that awaited Croom.
Knowing that we didn’t want to get stuck in the swamp at night, we set a blistering pace along the paved trail, and by mid-day we were almost beyond Winter Garden.
As noon approached we climbed a long road section with little cover, and we both became overheated and exhausted. And so we decided to stop for lunch at a Panera with a shady outside patio. We had both been pushing too hard and now the heat was getting to us. Dave and I both reluctantly picked at our lunches and filled our bellies with drink, but for both of us, our bodies were not having it. Wanting to be flexible, and having learned on previous trips that food can usually change your outlook on life, I told Dave to give it some time. But as a first, and then second hour came and went, we were both still suffering through trying to keep our lunches down. It became apparent we weren’t going anywhere. Night was creeping closer and it looked certain we would be stuck bivy camping in the swamp. I reminded myself that this was Dave’s first bikepack. He had valiantly made it through three days and nights, but a traverse of a muddy swamp at night, with no clear campsite was likely a bridge too far. I suggested we pull the plug. The fact that there was a luxury hotel mere yards from our lunch spot didn’t help with our motivation to push onward either. And so it was decided we would stop for the night.
With a tight schedule to keep, our delay made it a certainty we would not complete the loop. And so we worked on an alternate plan as we shared drinks and stories with the locals at the nearby Macaroni grill that night.
The next morning we rented a car which we drove to a rental place at the far eastern end of Santos. From there we reversed the start of our route, again getting to ride some of my favorite singletrack. Dave had to rush back for an event the next day, and so on his way back south, I had him drop me in Brookeville, where I rented a car, and I headed over to nearby Croom.
When I arrived at Croom I happened upon the ranger and asked her where I might camp for the night. She pointed me in the direction of the primitive campsites and added, “Oh there will be about 500 people here in the morning.” As chance would have it, the next day was the local mountain biking group’s yearly get together at Croom. I set up my bivy among the pines, and enjoyed my last night in the central Florida wilds. A few deer woke me at some point during the night blowing hard through their nose in frustration that I was likely in their bedding spot, and some smaller animal ambled through the low brush around my camp.
When I rolled out of my bivy the next morning I rolled right into the Brooksville Mafia’s yearly get together. There were marked routes, food, beer and even a commemorative glass. I opted to ride a thirty five mile route and surrounded by other bikers I darted into the woods for another day of biking. The trails were in fantastic shape. Similar to Wekiwa and Alexander Springs, I found myself whipping along packed sandy singletrack ove pine covered rolling hills. As it was a group ride, I didn’t need to fiddle with my GPS or wonder if I was headed the right way- I just followed the signs and other riders through the woods.
At the end of the ride, I grabbed some food and a couple beers with the local riders and discussed the local biking scene and my impressions from the previous few days with a couple of the other riders.
With home beckoning, I drove back to Sarasota and caught my flight back to mid-winter Boston the next morning.
In the end I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t finished even our abbreviated Huracan route. But my disappointment was blunted by the fact I now had good reason to come back.
The Huracan’t was in the books, but the Huracan still awaits.
So you may be asking, "Hey this is a site about bikepacking in the Northeast, why are you posting about Florida?" This is a great escape for those of us in the Northeast looking for fair weather bikepacking in February and March.
Here's the shortened version of the route that I came up with using the 2019 Map.
MY GEAR LIST
Large Ziplock Bags
Feed Bag (Granola, Dehydrated Milk, Coffee, Sugar, Soup Mix, Cheese)
Extra Stans Notubes Fluid
Rear Flashing Light
Lafuma 30F Sleeping Bag
Wool Socks x 2
Wool Underwear x 2
Long Sleeve Baselayer
1 x Water Bottle filled with Electrolyte Mix
Snacks (Almonds, Gels, Waffles, Cliff Bars, Chocolate)
Watch Charger Cord
Phone Charger Cord
Outdoor Research Helium Bivy
Sea to Summit Comfort Light Sleeping Pad