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Van Fleet and TECO Rail Trails
Polk County, in the heart of central Florida, has within its boundaries 120 trails covering more than 375 miles. This article will focus on 2 paved rail-trails in the region that are suitable for cycling, walking, or skating. The longest of these is the 29-mile-long General James A. Van Fleet National Recreational Trail that runs from Polk City on the south northward to Mabel in Sumter County. The north trailhead can be accessed from Hwy. 50. Gen. Van Fleet was born in New Jersey, but moved to Florida as an infant. He served in the U.S. Army during WWI, WWII and the Korean War. He died in Polk City at the age of 100.
The Van Fleet Trail is billed as Florida’s most rural trail. It runs through the Green Swamp area, where 4 of Florida’s rivers originate. The landscapes you pass through include river swamp, bottomland forest, pine flatwoods, former citrus lands, and cattle ranches. Wildlife you may encounter include white-tail deer, alligators, raccoons, opossums, snakes, and turtles. You are likely to see gopher tortoises and a variety of birds, butterflies, and wildflowers. You may also pass cattle escaped from nearby ranches and grazing trailside, although this is less likely.
There are 4 trail access points located at Polk City, Green Pond Road, Bay Lake, and Mabel. Parking, restrooms, and picnic shelters are located at or near all trailheads. (The restroom in Polk City is about ½ mile north of the trailhead.) Small shelters with benches can be found along the trail. It is open from 8a.m. until sunset every day. The winter months are the best time for traversing this trail, as it can be uncomfortably hot and buggy during the summer season.
Connecting with the Van Fleet trail from its south trailhead in Polk City is the TECO trail. This is a 6.6-mile-long paved trail that ends at Denton Avenue in Auburndale. The trail runs parallel to Berkley Road through a residential area. Near its southern terminus, you will pass through Lake Myrtle Sports Complex Park, where you can find restrooms and picnic tables. There is also a small playground beside the trail. Keep an eye out for bald eagles and ospreys that nest nearby. You may also spot Sandhill cranes. If you are into geocaching, both the TECO and Van Fleet trails are caching treasure troves.
If you find yourself in Auburndale on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday and are hungry for barbeque, stop at Peeble’s on Old Dixie Highway. In business since 1947, this small, popular eatery is open just 3 days a week in season and closed from 4 July through Labor Day.
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