Alligators are about as common in Florida as white-tailed deer in Maryland. But no matter how many times I visit, I’m always thrilled to see one. On my trip to Florida this past March, I saw more—many more—than I ever had before.
I spotted one while bicycling on Jekyll Island in Georgia with Sue. In Florida we saw two more from a lakeside boardwalk in Inverness, one swimming by just below us. I counted five as I bicycled around Chain of Lakes Park in Titusville; three I could have walked up to and touched, had I been so foolish. I saw several—a couple quite large—while cycling through Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore. But I lost count of how many I saw while cycling with friends Tad and Lea along the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail in central Florida.
The Van Fleet Trail extends about 29 miles, from Mabel south to Polk City, through a large blank spot in the map west to southwest of Orlando. Smoothly paved and well maintained, it is one of the longest and most secluded rail trails in the state. Only two rural roads cross it, dividing the trail neatly into thirds.
If you could roll a bowling ball straight and far enough from the northern trailhead, it wouldn’t veer off into the grass until it reached the trail’s one and only bend almost two dozen miles away. We joked that we could see oncoming cyclists rising up from the horizon, helmet-first, like the masts of tall ships at sea.
Unlike many rail trails, straight here doesn’t mean boring. After heading south from the parking area at Mabel, we immediately entered a cypress swamp. This northern third of the trail is nicely shaded. To the left you can see fields and farms; to the right, trees with knees poking above dark waters. We passed the relics of an old settlement: two rusted vehicles and the remains of a house. We saw lots of gopher tortoises, large burrowing critters who quickly ducked back into their holes beside the trail or lumbered off into the brush when we drew close. They moved pretty quickly for turtles.
The middle third of the trail, which runs through the Green Swamp, was more open and less shaded. It looked surprisingly less like a swamp than the northern section. Alerted by other cyclists, we soon began spotting alligators resting in the waters and wooded areas beside the trail, and especially below the three bridges the trail crosses over.
At one place, we came across a large alligator and, close by, nine baby alligators, no more than 18 inches long. I had only seen one baby alligator in the wild, years ago, swimming in the Everglades. So to see nine in one spot was quite a thrill.
Unlike their mother, basking nearby in the sun, they crawled around, snapped at tempting snacks hidden in the grasses, and provoked a nearby turtle into sudden escape. They were fun to watch. I even saw one or two seize something and twist into what looked to me like the start of an “alligator roll”—the deadly maneuver by which alligators drown their prey.
Farther along, below one of the bridges, we came across another gator gathering, a mother and babies, a couple of juveniles (3 feet or so long) and a couple of other larger ones nearby. I repeatedly (they kept moving around) counted 13 babies spread through the water and grasses, ranging in size from perhaps 18 inches to less than a foot. There may have been even more hidden from my view.
We turned around at the second road crossing, after cycling 19 miles. We didn’t bike down the southern-most third of the trail, the one with that single bend. We had ridden that section a few years ago, and I don’t recall it as being especially interesting.
Other than restrooms at the parking areas, shaded benches, and some bicycle repair stations, there are no other amenities along the trail. Bring plenty of water and some snacks. On many stretches, there is no shelter from the sun. Park rangers do patrol the trail in cars, and cyclists watch out for each other, but it is always a good idea to be prepared with a basic tire repair kit and a pump.
A final word of caution: Some of the parking areas are quite remote, and vehicles have been broken into there. So avoid leaving anything valuable or tempting in your car.
See the TrailLink entry on the Van Fleet Trail for more information and interesting comments from visitors.
Bonus Feature! More Florida Wildlife Photos
David Romanowski, 2018