West Orange to Silver Lake

Day 5: Florida Coast-to-Coast bike tour

Start: West Orange (commando camp)

Finish: Crooked River Campground [Silver Lake Rd, Brooksville, FL 34602]

Strava track (West Orange to Clermont): https://www.strava.com/activities/6817683752

Strava track (Clermont to Withlacoochee “the gap”): https://www.strava.com/activities/6817687095

RideWithGPS route: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/38695785

Day 5 in the saddle, after primitive camping with no running water, I was feeling very grimy and sore. And today we were going to ride “the gap”. To get to the next campgrounds with amenities in Withlacoochee State Forest and avoid the rumored nightmare of riding on SR 50 (Cortez Blvd), we had to somehow get through/around the no man’s land of Richloam WMA. The Florida C2C has “plans” for continuous paved multi-use trails here, but as of March 2022 a significant road gap still exists.

Our first move was to get someplace civilized and wait out the oncoming storm. A “bomb cyclone” was sweeping through the East coast, bringing thunderstorms (or even snow, in some places) and plummeting temperatures. We followed the route into Clermont, chatting with a few friendly runners along the way. They explained the town had cancelled a triathlon that day, but athletes still showed up to enjoy part of the course before the rain came. We found our way to town and into the Montrose Street Market. Just as the skies opened up, we got cozy with coffee and breakfast sandwiches while we watched the show outside. After 3-4 hours (the coffee shop was very tolerant of our loitering), the storm subsided enough that we walked around the block to Clermont Brewing Company for lunch and a beer, which fueled our resolve to face “the gap”.

The C2C Facebook group provided great suggestions for safe detours, but the best option adds about 20 miles to the trip. So of course we got creative and decided to try something else. Instead of heading to the recommended northern detour, we got through Groveland and navigated roads to the south of SR 50 hoping they’d lead west. Paved roads turned to sand (I dubbed it “Florida gravel”), which for the most part was packed solidly enough to ride. There were a couple of exceptions, where we had to clip out and walk over some loose patches.

Admiring the farmland, being entertained by frisky calves running along the fenceline in mock “stampedes,” and thinking we were making progress, the road suddenly came to and end at a gate. Someone in a pickup truck (presumably the land owner) approached the gate from the other side. Wanting to avoid a potential confrontation, we backtracked to where we’d left the pavement. Unfortunately, our only other option was to cross SR 50 and take the northern detour after all. Go ahead and say I told ya so, but we were enjoying our southern explorations until they turned out not to be fruitful.

After crossing SR 50 and heading north on CR 469 toward Center Hill, conditions got worse. The road is two lanes, and RideWithGPS heatmaps showed that the locals use it pretty often. But there is no shoulder, and we were passed by numerous cars and oversized pickup trucks. One idiot driver deliberately passed too close and “coal-rolled” us (stepped on the gas to produce black exhaust). We’re used to riding country roads, but this was the worst kind, and it was starting to feel dangerous and inhospitable.

As we turned west after Center Hill, we took a couple opportunities to leave the main road, which provided some relief. We pulled over in Bushnell to eat more ice cream. Sadly, the shop didn’t want to refill our bottles, saying they didn’t trust the water quality.

As our day had gotten much longer than planned, we wanted to get off the busy roads before dark and were pressed for time. Peter let me paceline behind him the rest of the way into Nobleton (again with the relentless headwinds, ugh). The glare of the setting sun meant we were far less visible to vehicles approaching us from behind, and yet another shoulderless road added the challenge of annoying rumble strips as we hugged the white line. Crossing the bridge and turning left to the Withlacoochee Trail, we finally got a break from a long and very stressful day of riding.

That last few miles we coasted down the trail in the dark. I could see stars through the opening in the tree canopy. Arriving where Silver Lake Rd leads to several campgrounds, we realized there’s no official connection to the bike trail. We found a dirt path that led around the end of the guardrail and up to the road, but it wasn’t until the next day we saw a sign (it’s called the “Snowbird path” or something like that). From the trail, this path is very hard to see in the dark. Really, considering the popularity of these campgrounds and their convenience to the C2C, how hard would it be to create a paved and signed connection there??

Earlier I had phoned in and reserved the last available campsite at Silver Lake. After groping around to find it (we were really grouchy and unfocused by this point), site #19 turned out to be smack up against the freeway and noisy with car traffic. Next door the RV campers and their yappy little dog watched us pull in, take one glance, and get on the phone immediately to plead for a better option.

Central reservations for the Silver Lake campgrounds could only tell us that there was one site left at Crooked River, further down the road. We agreed to check it out without officially changing our reservation (which would’ve cost double, since it was too late to cancel). The site at Crooked River was right next to the bath house, and more importantly it was peaceful, which suited us just fine.

In truth, there were plenty of vacant spots, and we could have chosen one of many. Two years into a pandemic, it seems everyone has gravitated to outdoor activities, but many aren’t hardy enough to show up when the weather is less than ideal. That night the temps dropped to almost freezing, though we were well prepared with clothes and a down sleeping bag. These days the public campgrounds rarely have staff on site. They prefer to handle all scheduling by phone or online, which is awkward for bike tourists. To me there is a big problem with developed campgrounds that have no policy for walk-ins and no accommodation for C2C cyclists touring without a preplanned itinerary. All we need is a patch of ground and perhaps bathroom facilities, and my belief is no one should be turned away. Where exactly do they expect people to go while riding bikes in the dark, an extra 20 miles to a $300 room at the Hilton?!? (More on that later…..)

My recommendation to C2C cyclists is, show up at the campgrounds and don’t fret about reservations (though by all means pay them the fee, if you can actually connect with a human who will take it). Skip Silver Lake campground entirely, and proceed down the road to Crooked River or Cypress Glen, where it’s quieter and friendlier to tent campers. Take a hot shower, pitch your tent, and relax. It’ll be fine.

~ by GinaCico on March 20, 2022.

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