40 mile ride preps for anxiety, turkey day feast
By Ron Cunningham, GLOB Correspondent
EDITOR's NOTE: Ron Cunningham is a Gainesville cyclist, journalist, and the Executive Director of Bike Florida. The Cycler chronicler is in search of interesting, chain-link connected stories and today he talks about how we spent his 2013 Turkey day.
Thanksgiving dawned crisp and clear . . . downright freezing actually. But the morning was warming up fast, and dinner with friends was still hours away. So Jill and I did what any sensible empty nesters would do on a Thanksgiving Day without kids: We hit the road for a nearly 40-mile cycle trek that loops to Micanopy and back. Just the thing to work up an appetite. The loop is a convenient and scenic route that begins and ends in downtown Gainesville (click here for a 30-mile version). We cycled from our home in Forest Ridge to downtown, then on to the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail to the settlement of Rochelle. The route strikes west on little-traveled County Road 234 to the town that seems perpetually lost in time. The final leg back to Hogtown follows U.S. 441, bisecting Paynes Prairie along the way.
It's a great ride that can be done in just a few hours, more or less. Of course, that depends on how many stops you choose to make along the way, and there are lots of distractions and attractions if you are in no particular hurry. As it happens, this is the best time of the year to take meandering rides of discovery through the countryside.
About those distractions: There are enough diversions along the way to turn this into an all-day expedition, so better stock up on Gatorade, water, and energy bars.
It's just a few miles from our home to downtown. Usually I like to stop at Starbucks for a cup of tea (alas, it was closed on Thanksgiving) before striking out for the trail. Downtown Gainesville grows more interesting by the week. And more artsy: Check out the quirky sculptures in the Sun Center's Atrium and Plaza, the frenetic rooster at the entrance to Starbucks, and the stag in repose near the Artisans Guild Gallery on SE 2nd Place.
If you haven't seen the colorful paintings depicting landmarks of the Civil Rights Era at the RTS terminal, on SE 3rd Street or the newly restored train station across the street on Depot Avenue, you'll pass right by both on your way to the Downtown-Gainesville Hawthorne Trail connector. Both are worth a look-see.
The Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail is always a joy to ride, and you'll see the best parts of the trail on this half-dozen mile section of the loop, including the restored waterworks at Boulware Springs and two scenic overlooks of Paynes Prairie for photo op purposes. Again, if you are in no particular hurry, lock up your bike and take the winding boardwalk stroll out onto Alachua Sink, where the gators (the reptiles, not the football players) live and play and sometimes even growl.
About five miles down the trail you'll arrive at the crossing at Prairie Creek (a popular fishing hole for the cane pole set) and yet another boardwalk that will take you out into the marshy, cypress knee-studded banks of that dark waterway. It is wonderful to see so much water again after years of drought all but made Prairie Creek vanish.
It's only about seven miles from the trail exit, at CR 234, to Micanopy, but it is an exceedingly interesting ride. Within a mile or so, to the right, is a dirt road leading to Prairie Creek Lodge, a former hunting lodge acquired and restored by Alachua Conservation Trust, and the scene of many ACT-sponsored seminars and events. The property is also host to Alachua County's first "green" cemetery.
A bit further on you will cross a small bridge that spans Camps Canal. It's worth stopping for a look; I have gotten some great photos there of egrets and herons swooping low over the creek's surface. Just down the road from the bridge, on the left, is Oak Ridge Cemetery, the second-oldest burial ground in Alachua County, and the final resting place of Madison Stark Perry, fourth governor of Florida.
County Road 234 is a joy to ride. At some places great canopies of Spanish Moss-draped oaks span the narrow two-lane byway. And I'm continually distracted by scenes of rolling, sun-splashed pastures and fields unfolding on both sides of the road.
By the time you get to the juncture of CR 234 and U.S. 441 you will be at about the halfway point of your ride. If you are hungry, I recommend Pearl Country Store and Barbeque (on the corner to your right) or Blue Highway Pizza (just to your left). Or you can continue another quarter of a mile to Micanopy proper and try the Old Florida Cafe or Coffee N Cream, right next door to each other.
Whatever you decide, do take a little time to stroll the shops and galleries of graceful old Micanopy, not to mention the Micanopy Historical Society Museum and the Herlong Mansion Historic Inn and Gardens.
The eight-mile ride back to Gainesville on U.S. 441 is the least enjoyable leg of the trip due to the traffic. But the highway has a well marked bike lane separated from the road by rumble strip to noisily catch the attention of distracted drivers, so it is not an unsafe ride. Four potential stops make the ride worthwhile.
First, spend a couple of bucks (and extend your route a couple of miles) and visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and ride out to the visitor's center and observation tower on the edge of the Prairie, or take a Gatorade break on the shores of Lake Wauburg.
If you are a University of Florida student or employee you can stop and visit UF's Lake Wauburg Recreation Area. And a bit further on up U.S. 441, just before you get to the Prairie itself, you will find to a trailhead on the right side of the road that leads you on a short hike to a nice scenic overlook on the southern rim.
And of course, midway across the "Ecopassage" you'll come to yet another popular boardwalk that juts out into Paynes Prairie. See if you can spot any of the birds listed on the "Usual Suspects" display at the observation deck's terminus - including bald eagles.
From there it's only about a five mile run back to downtown Gainesville, passing by Biven's Arm Nature Park on the way. Before heading home, treat yourself to a coffee...or maybe even a beer...for a journey well traveled.