Hotter'n Heck Hogtown to the Heights Ride

Four friends rode 50 miles in the Florida heat to spend two nights in vintage, 1930s cabins at Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park.

Bicycle Adventurers: My husband Andrew, Jamie and Jennifer, and me, Ally.

When: June 2016 ... when it’s really, really hot, humid, and uncomfortable here in Florida!

Accommodations: Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State ParkWe stayed in two air-conditioned and nicely equipped historic cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and 40s. We considered tent camping for about 10 seconds, but, come on, it’s June in Florida, and we’re not stupid! 

Distance: We rode 50 miles each way, with one 15-mile round trip into Keystone Heights for pizza and beer for 115 miles, total, in three days.

Bonus tip for this adventure: 

  • The Florida National Scenic Trail passes through Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park.
  • There are 15 or so geocaches in Gold Head Branch.
  • We saw two species of lizards, a fence lizard and a six-lined racerunner, that are not found in Gainesville, as well as some wildflowers, including sand milkweed, that I had not encountered before this trip. (Jamie and Jennifer are field biologists.)
  • Most important tip for anyone considering riding in North Florida in June: it’s HOT and chiggers, ticks, and yellow flies in Florida in June are REAL.

Day One

We rendezvoused at a local Gainesville bakery, Vine Bread & Pasta, for pastries and coffee before heading out. Check-in time for the cabins was not until 4:00 p.m., so we started our ride at 10:00 a.m. Unfortunately, it was already 83 degrees by then.

The first segment of our ride included part of the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail. We saw two otters and a gopher tortoise on the trail. We stopped at Chiappini’s in Melrose for cold drinks and friendly chit-chat at around mile 25. From there, we rode quiet rural back roads from Melrose to the Palatka-Lake Butler State Trail. Our lunch stop was Laredo’s Mexican restaurant in Keystone Heights.

After lunch, we made a quick grocery stop at Hitchcock’s Supermarket, got takeout subs from Subway for dinner, then rode the last seven miles or so of gentle climbing up to the sandy pine hills of Gold Head Branch State Park. After check-in and a shower and cold beer, we walked to Big Lake Johnson, which, oddly, has less water than Little Lake Johnson. I think walking along the damp vegetation along the shore of the lake must have been where I picked up some souvenirs of our ride: 20 or so red, itchy chigger bites. Thank goodness for hydrocortisone cream and Benadryl.

Day Two

After breakfast, we hiked along the sandy path around Little Lake Johnson, then picked up the Ravine Trail. We saw fence lizards, six-lined racerunners. Plus, we hunted for geocaches, but failed to find the first one. (We chalked it up to the recent controlled burn carried out in the park that likely melted the plastic container). We did find the second geocache, locked by a bike cable to a sturdy log. We left a tiny heart-shaped piece of confetti to commemorate our visit.

Our hike then led us down into the dark, cool ravine where Gold Head Branch Creek flows. After splashing cold, clear water from the creek on our faces, we climbed the concrete stairs back out of the ravine, then walked along the park road to explore Sheeler Lake with its crystal-clear water and sandy bottom. I imagined what Florida must have been like when it was full of pristine, unpolluted lakes just like this!

Later that evening, we rode our bikes seven miles to Keystone Heights for dinner, avoiding the fast food places to enjoy a sit-down meal at Brooklyn Boys Pizza — very good food, great service, and an impressive craft beer selection. The leftover pizza and garlic knots were boxed up and brought back to camp to be eaten for breakfast before our ride back to Gainesville.

Day Three

After feasting on strong coffee and cold pizza (mmmm!), we finished packing and headed down the three mile park road toward the route home. We took a slightly different route back to Gainesville, passing through Windsor, FL, home of the annual Windsor Zucchini Festival during which a Duke of Zuke and Zuqueenie are crowned. On our homeward journey, we stopped to pet a friendly Great Pyrenees who watches over Price Road, spotted a swallowtail kite and a flock of sandhill cranes overhead, and watched a red-shouldered hawk swoop down to attack some unknown prey inside a hollowed-out tree on the last six miles of our ride on the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail. Once “in town,” we stopped for a celebratory brunch at The Top in downtown Gainesville before heading home.

Your favorite local bike shop? Bikes & More, 2133 NW 6th ST, Gainesville, FL 32609, 352.373.6574

Bike overnight tips and tricks?

  • A favorite part of bike overnights is simply meeting people I encounter on the way.
  • After a few tours, you learn to expect the unexpected, like suddenly being offered a rocking chair on a shady porch and a cup full of ice at exactly the moment you are so tired and overheated that you can’t ride another inch. Or, the most amazing sunset over the Gulf dunes after riding for hours in a rainstorm and pitching your tent in a gale. 
  • My must-have gear on a tour includes my Swiss Army knife, a buff for sun protection, and my super-comfy down travel pillow.
  • A roll of quarters might seem heavy when you’re packing, but comes in handy when you need to do laundry at a laundromat in the middle of nowhere.

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