Cruising down the Withlacoochee State Trail on a brisk Sunday morning and there is not another rider in sight. I've been riding now for 30 minutes and have yet to see another human being. There have been plenty of squirrels, lots of birds, even a small canine creature that might have been a coyote. It's safe to say that the state's longest paved trail is the best-kept secret in Florida. Locals know and love this bike path. But for this city slicker from the major metropolitan area of Greater Tampa Bay, this is a dream come true. Head here on a weekday, and it might seem as if you have all 46 miles to yourself.
The trail is ideal for triathletes and competitive cyclists looking for a long, hard training ride. But for families, especially those looking for a "nature" ride, the Withlacoochee State Trail is must-see as well. Safe and well maintained, yet wild and unpredictable, you will get the best of both worlds. You can thank railroad magnate Henry Plant for clearing the land that eventually became the trail. Work started in the late 1800s, and ownership changed several times over the years. In 1989, CSX sold the right-away from Citrus Springs to Owensboro Junction, 6 miles north of Dade City, to the State of Florida. The old railroad was one of the first corridors of its kind to be purchased by the Florida Rails to Trails Program and converted for recreational use.
This trail is generally flat, but a handful of hills keep it interesting. The 12-foot wide paved path runs 46 miles from the Owensboro Junction Trailhead, 6 miles north of Dade City, through Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, to the Withlacoochee River, just south of Dunnellon. It is ideal for walking, running, biking and inline skating. Don't worry about getting lost. It is a straight shot. And there are numerous places to stop and visit some local history, including the Inverness Depot, which was built in 1892. Also, be sure to leave time for some great side trips - hiking the Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest, paddling the Withlacoochee River Canoe Trail or checking out my favorite, Fort Cooper State Park.
It was in these very woods during the spring of 1836, that Maj. Mark Anthony Cooper and five companies of the 1st Georgia Battalion of Volunteers built an impromptu stockade to protect the wounded and dying as the rest of the army marched south on the Fort King Road to Tampa. For 16 days, Cooper and his men waited anxiously for reinforcements as Seminole warriors took potshots from the other side of the lake. Help finally arrived, and the men continued the fight in America's longest and costliest Indian war. The original structure is long gone, but the park rangers built a replica of the stockade that once protected the soldiers from Seminole bullets. But legend has it that the Seminole War Chief Osceola's ghost still walks these woods, trying in vain, night after night, to get into the fort.