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Florida by bike: Ditch the rental car and explore on two wheels

The Legacy Trail has one 6-mile stretch that doesn’t cross a single road.
The Legacy Trail has one 6-mile stretch that doesn’t cross a single road.(Diane Bair for The Boston Globe)

Question: What’s more hair-raising than a ride on Universal Orlando’s Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit? Answer: Driving the streets of Florida during tourist season. Think traffic-clogged streets filled with clueless tourists who make random U-turns, and rental cars that aren’t equipped with a SunPass for toll payment. (Hello, $90 ticket!) It’s a major joy-suck in the Happiest Place on Earth.

Good news: It’s getting easier to reach the beaches and tourist hot spots of the car-centric Sunshine State via pedal power. Florida now has 75-plus bike paths, and there’s more car-free territory to come. Scheduled for completion in about five years, the Florida Coast to Coast Trail will link the Gulf of Mexico with the Atlantic, a 250-mile route. The paved, multi-use trail will run from St. Pete on the west, through central Florida, and east to Titusville at Canaveral National Seashore. More than 80 percent of the trail is now complete. Biking across Florida = #travelgoals? For maps, check out www.floridadep.gov.

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“Our vision is for all of Florida to be reachable by non-motorized transportation,” says Doug Alderson of Florida’s Office of Greenways and Trails, Division of Recreation and Parks. “The momentum is clearly building,” he says. “It is very rewarding to visit a trail and see the diverse people using them, from parents pushing strollers to people riding with briefcases to active retirees who have incorporated trail riding as part of their daily routine.” Not to mention tourists who loathe driving in Florida.

But to get around Florida by bike, you need a plan. According to cycling advocate “Mudfish” (yep, that’s what they call him) of www.bikeflorida.net, your best strategy is to map out trails and study the bike rental options and restaurants along the trails. “A growing number of small bike rental and tour operators offer pickup and drop-off services,” he says.

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Here’s a sampling of some of the best bike paths in the state. For information, and more bike trails, visit www.floridastateparks.org and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, www.railstotrails.org

Pinellas Trail

Pinellas is the most densely populated county in the state, thanks to coastal cities like Tarpon Springs, Dunedin, Clearwater, and St. Pete. Attracting locals and tourists alike is the 53-mile Pinellas Trail. This urban rail trail is no secret — it has 75,000 users each month — but boy, is it handy for getting around. It’ll get you to neighboring cities, and links to beaches, even islands. Ultimately, the Pinellas Trail will be the westernmost segment of the evolving Florida Coast to Coast Trail.

We’ve explored the length of this one, rolling through residential areas, the oak-lined hammocks of several parks, across rivers and creeks, and through fun little burgs like Dunedin and Tarpon Springs where you can get a bite to eat or hit a museum. (It isn’t all beauty spots — you’ll pass by some industrial and business zones, and navigate a few road crossings — but neither is a car trip.) Some hotels and resorts offer complimentary bikes for guests, but keep in mind that these are beach cruisers — basic bikes with baskets but no gears. If you choose to pedal to, say, Honeymoon Island, you’ll grind up and over the causeway bridge without benefit of 10 speeds. It’s doable, but it’s definitely a workout! (Want to make it easy on yourself? Rent an electric bike at Pedego Electric Bikes at 324 Scotland Road in Dunedin.) www.visitstpeteclearwater.com

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Legacy Trail

A handy portal to sugar-spun beaches, a leafy park, and an Italianate-designed Main Street, there’s a lot to like about the 11-mile Legacy Trail, an old railroad corridor that runs from south Sarasota to Venice in Sarasota County. Even the mayor of Venice is a fan. Mostly straight and flat, the trail has one section that goes for 6 miles without crossing a single road. A highlight: pretty, shaded Oscar Scherer State Park, a dandy spot to take a break from pedaling to paddle a kayak, or have a snack at a picnic table.

The path continues to Venice, connecting with the historic Venice Train Station and Venetian Waterway Park. In Venice, the Legacy Trail Overpass connects the Legacy Trail with the Venetian Trail in downtown Venice, home to an inviting Main Street lined with shops and restaurants with an Italianate look, a nod to its namesake. We used the trail to access Caspersen Beach, a popular spot for shelling and beachcombing for fossilized shark’s teeth. (These little black triangles are hard to find, but you can always pick them up at one of Venice’s gift shops.) Tip: Use Uber or Lyft to get to and from Sarasota International Airport, and you might get away with skipping the rental car altogether. www.visitsarasota.com

Sanibel Island Trail

This one isn’t a rail trail, but a network of shared-use pathways that links Sanibel Island’s beaches and attractions — a delightful way to navigate this 12-mile-long mash-up of sand and palms. Connected by causeway to Fort Myers, Sanibel Island is one of Florida’s most bike-friendly destinations. The wide, paved path is separated from Sanibel’s main streets by a grassy median and there are no death-defying street crossings, making this ideal for families. Alas, it can get busy during snowbird season, so you may find yourself ducking into spots along the way. (We suggest Bennett’s Fresh Roast, for a maple-bacon donut and coffee.) As you pedal, you’ll notice 22 panels along the bike path that feature the island’s historic landmarks, such as J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and the Sanibel Lighthouse, part of the new Sanibel Heritage Trail.

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Virtually everything on this shell-strewn island is reachable via the bike path, including beaches, a wildlife refuge, restaurants, shops, a shell museum, and a lighthouse. Bring your swimsuit and a towel so you can cool off with a dip in the ocean, and plan to hike along the (short) lighthouse trail. Many of Sanibel’s inns and resorts offer loaner bikes, typically basic models (upright handlebars, no gears) with helmets and bike locks. These will work just fine around here. If you need a rental, try Billy’s Rentals (www.billysrentals.com). Pick up a trail map at the Sanibel Island Visitors Center at 1159 Causeway Road in Sanibel. www.sanibeltrails.com

Shark Valley Trail

It’s alligators, not sharks, you may encounter along this 14.5-mile paved loop at the north entrance of Everglades National Park. Located off US Highway 41 (Tamiami Trail), west of Miami, this remote path is accessible to cyclists, hikers, and tram rides offered by a park concessionaire. Park your car and rent a bike at the Shark Valley Visitor Center, where the trail begins, and tour the heart of the “river of grass” that stretches 100 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico.

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Wildlife watcher alert: This freshwater ecosystem of sawgrass marsh and tree islands is a prime habitat for alligators (usually seen basking on the side of the trail), herons, egrets, deer, turtles, and snail kites. At the halfway point, there’s a 65-foot observation tower, a lovely vantage point from which to pause and reflect upon this unique landscape. Given the heat and lack of shade, this one is best undertaken in cool weather. www.nps.gov/ever

Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail

Visiting the University of Florida, or seeing a Gators game? Hop onto Gainesville’s 16-mile linear park, and you’ll time-travel to Olde Florida, a landscape of small towns, ranches, forests, and even wild horses. The paved trail runs from Gainesville’s Depot Park and winds through the intriguingly wild Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Park your bike and wander the park’s La Chua Trail, a prime spot for alligator watching (from the safety of a boardwalk). The 3-mile trail is also a wonderland of birdlife. Other inhabits include wild horses and bison. Scenic spots along the trail include the Sweetwater and Alachua Lake overlooks.

Off-trail but nearby, there’s tiny Micanopy (a.k.a., “The Town That Time Forgot”). On the National Registry of Historic Places, Micanopy is home to several antiques shops and restaurants. Or pull up a seat (and give your quads a rest) at First Magnitude Brewing Co. (www.fmbrewing.com), home of award-winning ale and, typically, a local food truck. The out-and-back trail ends in the small town of Hawthorne. On this wooded, winding trail, you’ll see parts of Florida that most tourists miss. www.visitgainesville.com


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.