Ah, the great outdoors.
It is a place where you can just get away for a while from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
One such place is the Withlacoochee State Trail.
In its former life, the trail was once a rail line, dating back to the late 1800s and railroad entrepreneur Henry Plant. The rail line would complete Plant's west coast rail route.
Eventually the rail line became the Atlantic Coast Line in 1902 and then the Seaboard Coast Line in 1967. By 1980, CSX Transportation had taken over the rail line. But in 1989, CSX Transportation sold the right-of-way between Gulf Junction, near Citrus Springs, and Owensboro Junction, just north of Dade City, to the state of Florida. In total, about 46 miles of rail line were sold.
The line then emerged as a biking and walking trail, known as the Withlacoochee State Trail, managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Recreation and Parks.
Dennis Reiland, president of Rails to Trails of The Withlacoochee Inc., a nonprofit citizens' support organization for the Withlacoochee State Trail, along with his wife and secretary of the organization, Linda, explained all that the trail has to offer.
"The linear park is open to many different types of users, including bicyclists, inline skaters, runners, walkers, birders, pet walkers and horseback riders," said Reiland. "The trail is a great place to refresh the mind. It's like being a kid again and experiencing the freedom of just going."
The trail also has many birding and wildlife viewing opportunities, along with a variety of beautiful natural habitats, from upland mixed forests to sand hill and wetland areas.
"We love bicycling or walking on the Withlacoochee State Trail because of the countryside feel, being in nature, seeing birds and animals, being surrounded by shaded areas and tall trees, seeing snippets of ponds and lakes, and all the friendly people," Reiland said. "The variety of landscapes on the trail is amazing. There is the sand hill region on the north end of the trail. The ponds and lakes and live oak trees in the middle part of the trail and the more open areas of fields and pastures at the southern end of the trail.
"There is an area south of Floral City that is home to one of the largest concentrations of swallow-tail kite hawk colonies in the area and we can see them gliding over the trail frequently. Many birders use the trail for spotting birds and we love seeing the many gopher tortoises."
And if you love Florida history and the railroad, this trail will have a special meaning to you. Visitors on the trail will find quaint and historic cement mileage and whistle markers as they pass through small towns, ranches, the Lake Henderson Trestle and the Inverness Depot built in 1892.
The Withlacoochee State Trail travels through Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties. It starts just south of Dunnellon; then travels southward to Citrus Springs, the city of Hernando, Inverness, Floral City and Ridge Manor; and then ends near Trilby, about 6 miles north of Dade City.
"The Withlacoochee State Trail is a trail that doesn't have a lot of intersections, which allows the biker to go long distances without slowing down," Reiland said. "The towns are spaced about 4-7 miles from each other, which allow the rider access to many services such as restaurants, the post office, convenience stores and the library. We love having access to community events and services and to be able to do errands on our bicycles and not have to use our vehicles."
With 46 miles of 12-feet wide paved trails, the Withlacoochee State Trail is the longest paved rail trail in Florida. It is mostly flat, so most visitors find it easy to ride and walk, regardless of skill level.
"It's surprising how many people nearby say, 'I didn't know this was here!'?" said Reiland.
The trail can be accessed at six different main trailheads:
Gulf Junction Trailhead, located just south of Dunnellon. Turn west on Martinelli Boulevard off of U.S. 41, then south at Magenta Drive.
South Citrus Springs Trailhead, located off U.S. 41. Turn west at West Citrus Springs Boulevard in Citrus Springs.
Inverness Trailhead, located off U.S. 41 at 315 N. Apopka Ave. in Inverness.
Ridge Manor Trailhead, located off of U.S. 98/State Road 50. Turn north on Croom Rital Road.
Trilby Trailhead, located about 1 mile west of U.S. 98 on Trilby Road. (County Road 575) in Trilby.
Owensboro Junction Trailhead, located just south of the Trilby Trailhead, approximately 1 mile south of the U.S. 98/U.S. 301 junction on U.S. 98.
The Withlacoochee State Trail is dog-friendly and horse-friendly. All dogs must be leashed with a maximum of a 6-foot, hand-held leash while on the trail with their owners. An unpaved equestrian trail is provided beside portions of the paved trail for horse-lovers and includes a watering station for horses at the Ridge Manor Trailhead.
Bicycle helmets are required for children under age 16 and recommended for anyone riding bicycles on the trail.
"Some of the things you need to ride the trail are a reliable bicycle, a water bottle, some cash for emergencies or treats along the way, a bicycle tube repair kit and a cellphone with emergency numbers," said Reiland.
Some people enjoy bicycling the trail in a group. It is not only safe and fun, but also a way to make new friendships. A group of bicyclists called "The Withlacoochee Riders" usually meet on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings to ride the trail.
"A breakfast or lunch, depending on the time of year, is usually involved, which creates a very social atmosphere," Reiland said.
Vehicle parking is available at each of the main trailheads. Restroom facilities are also available. There are no fees to access the trail.
Also, each year a Rails to Trails Bike Ride is hosted on the first Sunday of October. It is the largest one-day bike trail ride in the Southeast and attracts many visitors to the state trail annually. This year's 19th annual bike ride will be held on Oct. 6, starting at 7 a.m. The ride will begin at the Inverness Trailhead, located at 315 N. Apopka Ave. in Inverness.
For a map of the trail and more information, visit www.railstotrailson line.com or contact the Withlacoochee State Trail at (352) 726-2251 or www.floridastateparks .org/withlacoochee.
Hernando Today correspondent Heather Francis can be reached at email@example.com.