SunRail, built for commuters, is about to flaunt its leisure side.
August 1, four cyclists with their bikes will ride the rails from downtown Orlando to DeBary where, under a commemorative arch, they will launch the First Florida Train to Trail Tour.
For seven days, they’ll cycle Florida’s 260-mile-long St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop before riding SunRail back to Orlando. No car needed.
Their first morning will start on 15 miles of showcase trail on the way to Osteen and continue altogether 55 miles to Titusville. That first section, called the East Central Regional Rail Trail, is also a commuter route to DeBary Station for cyclists from Deltona.
“The tour marks a coming of age for Florida,” says Herb Hiller of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, the tour’s organizer. “We have trains and we also have improving ways to get to and from them without cars.”
Yet the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop (SJR2C) remains far from complete as paved off-road trail.
From DeBary Station, Loop access runs 2,000 feet north up Shell Road to the trail across a signalized intersection at US 17-92. The rest of the way, SJR2C is so far only some 30 percent paved and off-road, though almost all the rest is in construction, funded for construction, or in planning and design.
The August tour will include daily rides of between 20 and 57 miles. After Titusville, the four cyclists will overnight in New Smyrna Beach, Palm Coast, St. Augustine (two nights), Crescent City and DeLand.
Although the tour is meant to highlight the Loop as a week-long getaway, others will choose to spend fewer or more days riding it. That 15-mile paved portion and back or even a part of it can make a good day ride, or coupled with leisurely stops at Green Springs, DeBary Hall and Gemini Springs become a mini vacation with overnights at hotels in Deltona or DeBary.
But altogether, says Hiller, “the ride is a moving course in Florida history, from Spain to Space, steeped in the Civil Rights era, tracking vast ag lands, urban sprawl to new urbanism, from deeply rural to high living. Anyone could include layover days, like the four will along the coast in St. Augustine or as well alongside the St. Johns in Palatka, or close by in Crescent City or DeLand.”
The four will cross Ponce Inlet by water taxi and schedule a breakfast in Armstrong in far southwest St. Johns County. Armstrong with some 300 people sits directly along another part of the Loop called the Palatka to St. Augustine State Trail. Both will be regular options, though the water taxi runs only Friday to Sunday and breakfast in Armstrong will require 24-hour notice (call 904-806-3939).
Armstrong is a long under-served farming community that has focused its economic future in part on income from cyclists who travel the trail. Bike Florida already operates two boutique tours (about 20 riders each) a year through the community, but has also brought as many as 600 at a time. The hamlet also sits along the four-state Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and has become a model for community growth elsewhere in the corridor’s four-state overlap with the route of the East Coast Greenway between Maine and Florida. SJR2C in its entirety is the Greenway’s longest loop section.
The Greenway connection means that over time, southbound long-distance cyclists will be able to avoid car traffic on their way to Orlando by riding the last leg of their journey on SunRail. Or when the Coast-to-Coast Connector trail gets built out – expected by the turn of the decade – continue with or without SunRail to St. Petersburg.
Chief tour sponsors include VISIT FLORIDA, the Florida Hospital system, East Coast Greenway Alliance, DeLand Area Chamber of Commerce, Orange Cycle, Cobb Cole, West Volusia Tourism Advertising Authority and the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council.
The touring cyclists who set off August 1 are Mighk and Carol Wilson of Orlando, and Laura Hallam and Robert Seidler of Sopchoppy. Carol Wilson and Hallam are former executive directors of the Florida Bicycle Association; Mighk Wilson is a planner with MetroPlan Orlando and president of the newly-formed American Bicycling Education Association, and Seidler a filmmaker who has chronicled the rise of bicycling and trails around America.
Stay tuned to CommuteOrlando.com during the Tour for daily updates and the CommuteOrlando Facebook page for snapshots from the road.