Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Southern Carve

"Some big gators on that trail, watch out."

"We'll keep an eye out!"

From what we'd read, alligators are pretty sluggish in the wintertime. Of course, high 50s may not feel like winter for a Yinzer like me, but for gators along the South Carolina coast just north of Savannah, that's winter.

As the man promised, we saw several alligators along the trail, although none that I'd consider exceptionally big. This was the very first ride of our trip, a little hour cruise after driving all day, and seeing so many alligators on the ride seemed like it would set the tone for the rest of the trip. 

But, as it turned out, those were the only alligators we saw the whole time. Instead, we saw manatees, a wild hog, and a hippopotamus. Yeth. A hippo. More on that later.

We spent the night in a hotel just south of Savannah, and drove the last couple hours into Florida the next morning. First up on our itinerary was a three-day bikepacking loop in the Ocala National Forest, which would be Zach's first bikepacking trip.

We parked at a dam in the northern part of the national forest and set out on the road. Almost immediately after turning onto a dirt (mostly sand I guess) forest road, we were greeted by the exact thing Zach vowed not to cross: sections of submerged road and swamp.

To be honest, it wasn't really that bad. The water was never really more than knee-high, and there weren't any alligators in sight. It took awhile to convince him, but Zach eventually waded through.

The water and sand combined for some pretty awesome views as we were walking through the water. Luckily, though, that was the only wet section for the day, and the rest of the ride was dry. We stopped at a gas station for some snacks and food to eat at camp, and we got our first real taste of Florida. The gas station was fine, I guess, but it definitely seemed like Florida. Dirt-bike riding, cigarette smoking Florida. We were glad to get back to the forest roads.

Rather than a tent, I decided to bring my bivy. It's easier to set up, smaller, and it's sort of fun. Normally. In Florida, the extremely high humidity coupled with large temperature swings means there's plenty of condensation inside the bivy when you wake up.

Other than the bivy, everything else about the campsite was immaculate. Our camp neighbors gave us a beer when we got there, and then Zach and I wandered around the campground to check things out.

A spring - a not-quite-hot spring - feeds into a large natural-ish pool converted into a swimming area. The whole place was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s. It's something you'd expect to find at a resort, not a public national forest campground. It was getting dark and we didn't have a change of clothes, so we didn't swim, but if we were car camping, I would've definitely taken a dip.

The next day started off by meandering our way to lunch. There was a good mix of forest roads, doubletrack trails, and a bit of pavement. Eventually, we made it to lunch, and what a lunch!

This was one of the rare occasions where it was a bit of a struggle to finish off all the food. The burger was huge, there were tons of fries and ordering an appetizer was probably ill-advised. Nonetheless, I finished it all and I didn't eat the rest of the day until some snacks at camp before bed.

We had learned that it was hunting season in Florida, which explained why the entire national forest was packed with pickup trucks, hunting dogs, and men giving us weird and unfriendly looks as we rode by. Ok, not everyone was unfriendly. But by and large the crowd of people in the forest wasn't the most friendly to cyclists.

That being said, one hunter did warn us of a black bear just up the road. Unfortunately, we didn't see the bear, but it was cool to know one was close. Now that I think about it, I'm not sure if the hunter who told us about the bear was trying to warn us, or if he was a hoping we'd get eaten. Hmm.

Shortly after the lunch stop, there was another water crossed, much to Zach's chagrin, but he made it through. Next up was a long stretch - 12 miles - of singletrack on the Paisley Trail. The trail was perfect for loaded bikes... smooth, relatively flat, and twisty fun. It was the most enjoyable riding of the whole bikepacking trip, and cool views the whole time only made it better. As an added bonus, the people we saw at the end of the trail on ATV's were really cool and friendly. I guess not all Florida people hate bikes.

That night, we stayed at a much less fancy campground, mostly populated by OHV riders. To make matters more interesting, the camp host told us about a resident black bear supposedly living in a storage shed in the campground. She said it was hibernating, but I don't think bears hibernate in Florida. Oh well, bear or not, technical glitches with the national forest website made it so we didn't have to pay for our campsite, so it was well worth the money.

The next morning, we rode to a diner for breakfast where we eavesdropped on some senior citizen conversations, and then we started making our way back up north toward our car. There was a lot of sandy doubletrack on the way, with more than a few hunters, so it was a very interesting ride.

As we got back toward our car, we decided to take a little jaunt on a singletrack trail that shall remain unnamed (behks not allowed) and followed that for a couple miles back to our car. It was a pretty fantastic ending. All in all, the route was a little over 150 miles of mostly sand and dirt roads, plus some singletrack. Despite waking up completely soaked in my bivy the second morning, it was a successful trip and Zach managed pretty well for his first bikepacking trip.

I find that I learn something every trip I do, and this time, my big takeaway is not to use a bivy when it's a humid, high-temperature fluctuation climate like Florida. No bueno. That was only a minor inconvenience though, and getting to explore a national forest by bike is always fun.

After the bikepacking trip, the plan was to do some day-rides on singletrack around the central Florida area. Up first was Alafia, a trail system to the east of Tampa Bay built on an old phosphate mine. Both Montana and Bob A. recommended the trail system, so we had to take a look.

Alafia certainly did not disappoint! The trails were super twisty, fairly technical for Florida, and offered some great swamp views. I even hit a pretty big jump (for a hardtail rider of my limited skill level). Zach and I ended up riding 20 miles at Alafia, which felt like a lot since the whole trail system is packed in to a pretty small area. For anyone going down to that area in Florida, I'd highly recommend giving these trails a go.

On our drive back up toward Ocala after riding Alafia, we stopped at a Florida wildlife park to try and see some manatees. Zach really wanted to, so we did some quick online research and found a place.

Turns out, the place was more of a zoo than a wildlife park, although maybe wildlife park means something different than I think. Either way, we got to see manatees (in the wild, mostly), along with a hippo, a cougar (the animal, not the old woman), a black bear, and plenty of other animals. I have mixed feelings about zoos, because on one hand, the animals don't seem super happy, which isn't great. That said,  having exotic animals in zoos allows people to feel a connection to those animals, and it probably helps with conservation efforts around the word. Either way, we had a good time checking out the various critters.

The next ride we planned was at the Santos trails, just south of Ocala. This trail system is pretty well known, and I think it's even an IMBA gold trail system, which is impressive. After riding them, I'd say they definitely live up to the hype. We did over 56 miles the first day with only a mile or two of repeat, and it was easily over 95% singletrack. That's pretty amazing for anywhere, let alone central Florida which I had mistakenly assumed was not a mountain bike mecca. 

The night before, we found a perfect (horse) campground right by the trails, so we literally started the ride from the campground. Plus, it was New Year's Eve, so it kept my three-year streak of being in a tent for New Years alive. It also meant that I heard every single firework that whole night, until at least 12:15 AM. Oh well. The fireworks woke me up to check my fantasy football championship, which I lost by 2 points. Dang, there goes $500. Oh well. Oh, and what is a horse campground, you ask? I'm not really sure. All I know is that there were three or four horses tied up a couple sites away from us.

The trails themselves were much more XC-style than Ocala. From the campground to the Santos trails (I thought of it all as Santos, but formally...) was an extremely fast, fun, and flowy trail that weaved around palm trees and Spanish moss. Once we got to the formal Santos trails, we found some more technical and rocky trails. One trail in particular, Vortex, is actually pretty rocky. I'd consider it a easy-moderate level trail compared to Appalachian trails, but for Florida, it was way rockier than I expected and it was rated a black diamond on Trailforks.

The next morning, we got up early to do one final ride in Santos before driving back up north. Once again, the Florida trails did not disappoint and we were able to find all the rockiest trails for a fun cruise.

After the ride, we set the navigation north and were on our way. It was an uneventful day of driving, which is good, and we stopped at a barbecue place in North Carolina for some dinner. Once again, the portion size was huge, and I wasn't even able to finish all my fries. That's saying something.

We found a hotel in Mt. Airy, NC, and got there right around 9 PM. The name "Mt. Airy" sounded familiar to me, and when I checked in and the clerk said the WiFi password was "Mayberry", I knew why. Andy Griffith was born in Mt. Airy, and it's considered to be the model town for Mayberry, the fictitious town in the 1960s comedy show "The Andy Griffith Show". I love Andy Griffith, and that show is one of my favorite shows of all time, so it was cool little story to stay in his birthplace.

At the hotel breakfast the next morning, a hotel worker asked us if we were on our "winter break". Immediately, an old Russian lady sitting near us having breakfast chimed in, "it's Christmas break, Christmas!" 

I just smiled and said, "yeah, we're on Christmas break".

After breakfast, we started the drive to Front Royal, VA, where we planned the last ride of the trip on the Massanutten mountain. The drive was very scenic, mostly on I-81, and we passed through Roanoke and Harrisonburg on our way.

We parked in the national forest just outside of Front Royal, and by coincidence, it was the same parking lot Will and I parked at a couple years ago for a bikepacking trip.

From the parking lot, the route went up. And up. And up. It was a hard climb. Very hard. With lots of rocks, lots of hiking, and lots of views. Despite being only 21 miles, we knew the route would be hard. Ian had warned me as much.

It was Signal Peak climb, and after over an hour of climbing (with a bunch of walking our bikes), we finally reached the top. After such a grueling climb, I was unsure if any descent would be worth it. But, within a minute of starting downhill, it was already more than worth it. The trail was fantastic, there's really no other way to put it. Rocky, scenic, and everything that I love about Appalachian riding. It was a long descent, too, but what goes down must go up, and we eventually got to the bottom of the second climb.

The second climb was Sherman Gap, which goes from Fort Valley Road all the way up to the ridgetop, where it meets with the Massanutten Ring. Sherman Gap started off rideable, but eventually it got too steep to ride. It ended up being about a 800 foot hike-a-bike, which is just as brutal as it sounds. I went into suffering mode and made a big push (literally pushing my bike) to the top.

Once at the top, the pristine ridge top riding once again made me forget about the climb. In fact, of any trail I've ridden anywhere, it would be hard to find a trail that's more fun than this one. The Massanutten Trail is a gem, with natural rock features everywhere, exposure, views, and, well, everything I could want.

We took the Massanutten Trail for a couple miles until we reached Buzzard Rock trail, a primarily-hiking trail that traverses a narrow rocky ridgetop. The trail started off mostly rideable, and despite having some pretty intense rock sections, I was able to clean most everything. That changed, however, once we got to the actual "Buzzard Rocks" viewing area. The trail became impossible to ride, and it turns into an awkward scramble through rocks with our bikes. The views, though... wow. It was all worth it and more. If we weren't running low on daylight, I would've loved to sit there for even longer to take it all in.

After the crazy section of rocks, the trail got more rideable, and we took it back down to pavement, which we followed back to our car. Wow. I've never ridden a harder 21 miles in my life, and I've also never ridden more technical trails than that. I can't wait to go back again.

From the parking, it was under four hours to get home, so after a quick Chipotle dinner, we drove the rest of the way back to Sewickley, another eventful and largely traffic-free drive. I love that drive on 522 north of Winchester, so the only bummer was that it was dark and I couldn't see anything. Oh well.

We got home a little after 10 PM, after 8 days on the road. It was a great trip. Plenty of sun, warmth, and new trails. Florida is a pretty nice place for a winter trip, and since there's so much green, it still feels a bit like summer. For now, it's back to the cold and grey of Pennsylvania, and student teaching.

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