Winter Family Bike Camping in a North Florida National Forest
Seeing all those awesome pictures of people camping and enjoying summer bikepacking can be hard on us Florida folks. Summer camping in the pine flat forests of the Sunshine state typically means yellow flies, no-see-ums, mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, extreme weather, unbearable heat and stifling humidity. But where we lack in comfortable summer camping we make up for in winter weather perfect for bike overnights.
Where: public lands south of Tallahassee, Florida – ancestral homelands of the Apalachee and Seminole
When: late February
Bicycle Adventurers: members of all ages and riding levels from Joyride Bicycle Collective, a Tallahassee based cycling advocacy group
Accommodations: free dispersed camping in the Apalachicola National Forest
Distance: Between 4 mile and 20 miles over two days (folks were able to drive to the trail head and meet us for a shorter ride)
THE NIGHT BEFORE
Camping is just not the same without a good bonfire. Since the woods we were camping in recently had a prescribed burn which meant little to nothing would be available for scavenging, I used my FreeRadical Leap to bike out plenty of firewood the night before. Firewood regulations can vary widely depending on where you’re camping. Some places only allow firewood collecting, while others prohibit it, while others still ban bringing wood from elsewhere to burn. So always be sure to look into the regulations where you plan to camp since outside wood can carry flora or fauna harmful to the local eco-system.
I started my ride from my front yard, 3 miles north of downtown, where I planned to meet the group. I planned this camp-out intending that my family would join me but a sick kiddo meant my partner and daughter had to miss out this time. My morning ride brought me along familiar city streets, quiet neighborhood back-roads, sharrow roads, protected bike lanes and buffered bike lanes. I love using that bike infrastructure where I can!
Signs of spring were already popping up all around Cascades Park with the blooming Japanese Magnolia’s and knock-out roses. I was able to enjoy the sights, smells and sounds as I sipped on a latte from a nearby cafe and waited for the rest of my adventuring friends to join me. (That tall white building in the back is the Florida State Capitol building).
From downtown we took the Capital Cascades Trail along FAMU Way, which turned into the paved St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail. There were a handful of small neighborhood road crossings and one major intersection crossing along the trail, all of which our riders of all ages handled like real pros.
Once at the Munson Hills Trailhead at the edge of the Apalachicola National Forest (6.5-ish miles from our downtown meet-up point), we stopped for snacks and to stretch while we waited for the rest of our crew to arrive by bike or car.
We only had 1 more mile on the paved trail to go before we could hop onto the red clay single track that would take us to our campsite. Where we turned to ride on the trail was also our potable water source, which a few of us rode back to later in the afternoon to gather more water.
Once in the woods, we biked for about another mile along the single track and forest roads to reach the wetland where we planned to spend the night. The recent burn made avoiding trampling the under brush easy!
The evening fire was delightful and the perfect night cap. After lights (and fires) out, the chorus of frogs in the nearby wetland and the whisper of the wind blowing through the long leaf pines lulled me into a deep and contented sleep.
A fast and furious weather front with rain and lightening was moving in at around 9am that morning so camp breakfast was pretty quick. We had all been watching the weather the week prior and up to the night before so we were prepared to head out before it swept in. Some folks had partners meet them at the trail head to drive back into town, others biked to their cars parked at the trail head parking lot and a few waited out the storm under the trail head shelter to enjoy a ride in the beautiful post-storm weather.
All in all, this trip was sweet, simple and incredibly rewarding. It was just the kind of nature fest I needed to re-energize myself for the work week ahead. I love that we were able to access this beautiful remoteness without a huge time investment. I also appreciate that many of us were able to access it by riding from our own homes while others modified the ride to meet their individual family needs, like meeting us at the trail head. A large part of this ride was on a protected, dedicated bike path which feels like such an amazing thing to say as a Tallahassee citizen. We have a dedicated bike path that will take you straight to public lands! I also love how many kiddos joined us on this ride. What an incredible, empowering experience at such a young age, to propel yourself into the wild yonder, build a fire, get sooty, and roast a marshmallow or two with friends.
I’ll leave y’all with the quote from Bike Overnights that inspired me to plan this trip and is the reason I already have another family bike camp penciled in for the spring:
Don’t Wait. Life is Not a Dress Rehearsal. That’s a useful reminder from a friend of mine. I can’t tell you the number of people who tell me they are going to try a bike trip, but never do. The reasons are legion, from lack of gear to lack of time. But now you know: bike travel is as simple as hopping on a bike, any bike, and riding a few miles to a nearby campground or lodge. Don’t let excuses get in your way. Commit right now to taking a bike trip in the next couple of months. Set a date and destination, and invite friends or family. Once you try your first bike overnight, you’ll wonder why you never tried one before!