Words and photos by Ryan Thibault
For years I’ve viewed Florida as a necessary evil. My wife and I are obliged to make the pilgrimage annually. Around Thanksgiving we fight our way through airport security, board a flight and land in humid weather 50 degrees warmer than home. Traveling from the airport to the in-law’s house we navigate eastern Florida’s socioeconomic checkerboard of ghetto and posh neighborhoods, freeways and strip malls.
Last year I was prepared. Weeks in advance I concocted a plan to steal a day of reprieve from the holiday madness by borrowing a family car, renting any bike I could get my hands on and arranging a rendezvous with whatever local bikers would have me.
“Wait what?” My mother-in-law asked with suspicion in her voice. “You’re going to drive three hours across the state and meet up with some guys you met on the internet… to ride a bike? And then drive three hours home?”
With some basic internet sleuthing I stumbled upon a surprising amount of MTB chatter in the Sunshine State. Apparently there were trails near Miami. Palm Beach had a trash heap that had been turned into a park with a couple miles of multi-use trails. And the jackpot: the South West Association of Mountain bike Pedalers. Yep, SWAMP, as they are known, appeared legit’ and their trails included an IMBA epic rating!
Swamp’s most notable trail networks, Alafia (Al-la-fi-ah) River State Park and Balm Boyette Scrub Preserve are located just outside Tampa near the city of Brandon. Both networks looked promising and had trailheads within a 15-minute drive of each other.
I fired off a single email to the SWAMP site’s general inquiries address and received an immediate positive response. Wes, SWAMP’s “honaray Grand Pooh-Bah” as he’s titled on the site, informed me there was indeed riding brethren ready and willing to show an interloper around. He also offered up some quality beta in his emails:
“Alafia (Al-la-fi-ah) is rated easy to difficult. Ride North Creek as a warmup, then on to Bridges, Roller Coaster (might try optional harder lines), then Moonscape, then finally Gatorback. As you work up the difficulty ladder, stop if it gets uncomfortable. These are not typical Florida trails, be careful, have fun, let us (SWAMP) know what you think.”
“Boyette is rated easy to hard. When entering the network ride Loch Ness, Randy’s Trail (a connector), Golf Cart, Canyons, N. Abyss, S Abyss, Pandemonium, Sidewinder, SWAMP Thing, and Ridgeline (with harder options). Skip the East Meadow and Quadrants as they are entry level singletrack. Most technical are North & South Abyss, Pandemonium (stay right), and Ridgeline. Some say Ridgeline is the best trail in the State.”
Holy solid info from a guy I had never met. And “Best trail in the State” sounded very promising!
On the eve of my mission a man with a friendly voice named Frank called me to confirm. At 10:00 the next morning we were a go.
ALAFIA RIVER STATE PARK
To my astonishment the Alafia River State Park parking lot was occupied by nearly 100 cars. I coasted through the lot and people greeted me with smiles. This was far from the Florida I was accustomed to.
My surrogate crew was waiting patiently by the trail head. After some brief intros I could tell that Frank, Robert, Tom, Rico, Kevin and I were of the same ilk.
Without further ceremony we headed out at a solid clip. To my astonishment the packed sand trails flowed out before us over undulating terrain. The single track swept side to side, parting a carpet of bright green ferns under a low-slung canopy of scrub oak. Punchy climbs were punctuated with quick drops in elevation. On occasion the trails bordered lagoons that were filled with neon green algae that smelled like animal cages at a zoo.
Both trail networks are situated on the site of defunct phosphate mines. Mother nature has reclaimed most of the terrain and the local riders have put a massive amount of man hours into sculpting sinuous ribbons of cupped earth through the rare topography.
I expected to see monkeys swinging from vines at any moment but no non-human simians were spotted. That said, a local did recount a story about bailing over her handlebars to find she had crash-landed a few feet from the beady eyes of a gator peering from the soup. After that I couldn’t help but wince as we rolled over large bumpy roots that crossed the trail. Ooof! Gator tail?
The trails were amazing and we covered ground quickly. After a solid 10-mile rally all but my new friend Tom had to split. We bid the rest of the group farewell and decided we’d jump in our cars and head over to sample the Balm Boyette trails.
After a brief stop at a rural quickie mart for a stellar Cuban Sandwich (a Florida must do) and a Coke we rallied over to the more discrete Balm Boyette parking lot.
Here’s where things got interesting. I’ll admit, I was bagged. And Tom is a retired fireman so he was fit and ready to show a young blood the definition of riding Florida style.
We cruised in the long double track for about ten minutes before hitting single track. Boyette’s trails felt much the same as Alafia but were interspersed with short stints on double track. There seemed to be far fewer people as well. Boyette was equally as flowy…until we hit Ridgeline!
The Ridgeline trail at Balm Boyette (seen in these photos) is definitely one of the best in the state.
Ahhh sweet Ridgeline! This trail is a mountain biker’s fantasy. We rolled up and down, pumping the massive rollers through spacious trees and an ocean of fern waves. The trail looked like a ribbon of sand laid over the undulating ridge lines before us. And before every would-be steep climb there was a perfectly sculpted plummet off the ridge to set one up with enough speed to coast to the top, only to descend again.
“Best trail in the State” echoed in my ears. No doubt Wes, no doubt!
I’m telling you, whether you are from VT or So. Cal, this is a singletrack masterpiece worthy of your bucket list.
On the ride home I had ample time to ruminate on the day’s spoils. Great trails. Fantastic people. All in Florida! It dawned on me in that moment that I was already looking forward to my next family visit.
• Check out the brothers over at SWAMP here: http://www.swampclub.org/: On the site you can find all the info you need including trail maps.
• The local shop is AJ’s in Brandon. They rent decent upper-end Giant bikes. http://ajsbikesandboards.com/: Ride ‘em like you stole ‘em.
• When in Florida, check out Cigar City Brewery, located in Tampa; They have a shit-load of beers but be sure to try the Jai Alai IPA… a damn tasty brew.
Big thanks to Wes, Frank, Tom, the crew for adopting me for the day. And big ups to SWAMP for making Florida riding world class.