I didn’t have high hopes for cycling through Florida. I was fearing an over dose of glitz ‘n’ titz, snowbirds, serial killers and flat, boring roads through trashy towns. Just fast forward to New Orleans I thought. Florida isn`t the `real south` anyway.
Does Florida Have Southern Charm?
From the coastal town of St Augustine to the tip of the panhandle our daily mileage dwindled as we were lavished with the warmth and friendliness of the locals and not so locals. The cliché of southern hospitality was proving true. People wanted to chat, find out our story and help us in any way they could. We were given coffees on cold mornings, slices of pecan pie, bags of home grown citrus fruit, were offered places to sleep, invited over for dinner, provided with maps and endless route advice, were given free bike mechanic help, and had someone pick up our tab for lunch. Meanwhile the dogs were given bags of dog food and treats by random admirers. Wow! We were spoiled rotten by Florida.
Flat, boring & over developed?
With the exception of some lumps and bumps, Florida is pretty well flat, but I was pleased to find it still has some breathing space. When we pedaled across Florida in winter it was in the midst of a long, dry spell. The brown grass, palms and pines gave it the feel of a dry jungle. The mosquitoes, snakes and ‘gators were hibernating, while other wildlife continued to roam. We spotted loads of vultures, raccoons, armadillos, deer, bird life, and were happy to spot some manatees (who swim upstream for the warmer water of hot spring fed rivers). We were also surprised to see a black bear which ran across the road in front of us only a few hundred metres from the Gulf of Mexico. We were so impressed by Florida we would consider coming back to hike The Florida Trail, which crosses Florida from the Everglades to the panhandle.
“You’re Kinda Tresspassin” – Pitching a Tent in Florida
Florida has a great network of State Parks. They typically offer relaxed camping in a natural setting, with access to water, electricity, toilets and showers. We found a few bargain campgrounds for $10, but unfortunately campgrounds become outrageous in the more travelled coastal areas – often between $20 and $30 just to pitch a tent for the night!
Wild camping in Florida can be a little tricky, especially on the coast and on narrow peninsulas where the police are looking to keep vagrants out of sight of the tourist dollar. ‘No Trespassing’ signs are everywhere. Nevertheless we wild camped – from groves of trees behind libraries, to wild corners behind churches, to patches of forest in the countryside. Whenever we asked for help people were accommodating and let us pitch on their land.
One night we made a detour through some hunting woods and became lost in the network of sandy roads (not ideal during hunting season). When we woke up and asked for directions a hunter told us “I don’t mean to get nasty, but you’re kinda tresspassin,” but then proceeded to give us directions and best wishes.
Food, Glorious Food
There is a gluttony of fast food chains everywhere in Florida. The more interesting places are the quirky pubs, cafes and roadside stalls you often find in small towns. For the first time we tasted some grits (a corny cream of wheat style breakfast side), gumbo (a spicy stew with okra), hush puppies (deep fried corn-bread), raw oysters and a delicious mullet dip (a local fish). Sadly we never got around to tasting a deep fried Oreo…
By the way, don’t bother with bread. We were told the local water is too sulphurous for bread to taste good. The ‘artisan breads’ looked and tasted like wonder white darkened with molasses. The French would be horrified.
The unusually cold weather in Florida during December and January had the locals and the snowbirds grumbling. They thought that winter was a crazy time of year to ride a bike across Florida. For us it made quite a pleasant change from snowfall in Canada, although we experienced many freezing nights where our tent poles were frosted together. Often we rode in our warmest clothes during the morning until the weather warmed up. Some days we enjoyed riding in shorts and t-shirts all day long.
For December temperature averages throughout Florida click here…
Picking a Route
Overall we were very impressed with Florida’s road network and the amount of roads with a generous shoulder to cycle on.
We started off on the Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier Route which connects St Augustine, Gainesville, Tallahassee, Defuniak Springs and Pensacola via peaceful, bicycle friendly roads wherever possible. However after passing through Gainesville we detoured away from the route to visit the beautiful Manatee Springs State Park, where we enjoyed some of Florida’s many rail trails.
From there we followed people’s recommendations to stay on the coast all the way to Alabama. We soon developed a love hate relationship with Highway 98. It offered some beautiful coastal scenery in places and allowed lovely detours onto the lavish 30A and more laid back Santa Rosa Island. Then it put you through miserable and dangerous sections in places like Panama City and Fort Walton Beach where we weaved around on footpaths to avoid being run over.
Our route below is in red. Click on the map markers for more detailed route info, recommendations and warnings…