The St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop is the longest mapped circular route in Florida. It covers 260 miles through greatly varied and everywhere-historic portions of the state. In its entirety, the Loop is part of the East Coast Greenway, connecting small towns and deeply rural sections, while along the way providing for swimming, woodland walks and everywhere for warm hospitality.
The route threads together national monuments, wildlife refuges, and state parks, with stops also at rural museums, at stately homes in the public trust, and at lighthouses.
Tours of the Loop start and finish in St. Augustine, the oldest continuous settlement of Europe in America. The city is so richly historic and easy to explore that many cyclists choose to arrive a day or two early and stay on a day or two after.
Daily rides average 40 miles.
For two days we follow the Atlantic Coast along the A1A Scenic and Historic Coastal Byway. Most of the way, and notably through Crescent Beach and Flagler Beach, residents care passionately about local character and work to keep the road two-lane with paved shoulders and largely undeveloped. The beach invites daytime swims and evening star-gazing. In Flagler Beach, we overnight at the historic Topaz Hotel after dinner at its poolside restaurant, Blue.
Our tour crosses from Ponce Inlet to New Smyrna Beach by water taxi to Flagler Avenue and our overnight stay at the Hampton Inn in the heart of the barrier island art district. New Smyrna is altogether a city of arts and history. In the 18th century this was the site of the most ambitious settlement by England in the New World. Its restored mainland downtown today shows its heyday look of almost 100 years ago. Dinner is hosted beachfront at The Breakers.
We take most of our next day off. Riders may want to visit the Canaveral National Seashore, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge or Smyrna Dunes Park. We will provide maps and cue sheets. Mid-afternoon, our support vehicles will ferry us to one of inland Florida’s most beautiful small towns and the site of Stetson University. DeLand Town centers the River of Lakes Scenic Highway and is home to both the Florida Bicycle Association and the East Coast Greenway Alliance in Florida.
Getaway morning from DeLand, we cycle less than an hour to breakfast at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Pancake House at DeLeon Springs State Park. The setting combines memories of Florida’s riverboat era and today’s inland recreational pleasures. A large pool surrounds the spring. On cold mornings, the spring waters will nonetheless be comfortable for swimming and for manatees that gather in the spring run.
Rural Florida holds sway as we ride on to Crescent City, a quiet town on its big namesake lake, and then to Welaka, again on the St. Johns. We lodge atop the river bluff at the Welaka Inn, a collection of popular cabins with its own restaurant esteemed for catfish and crab.
After breakfast, we visit the one-of-a-kind Welaka Maritime Museum and the steamboat works of museum founder, the late Rand Speas, before cycling to the river town of Palatka.
Prosperous during the late 19th century before fire and neglect brought it low, Palatka remains a county seat of only 12,000. It's a classic American small city, busy with carpenters restoring historic houses and others selling home-baked cakes, backyard crafts, and regional antiques. We make time to tour Ravine State Gardens, dine on the river, and again overnight waterside, this time at the Quality Inn & Suites.
Next morning, sections of the new Palatka-St. Augustine State Trail carry us through more of un-visited Old Florida. We ride through farmlands that in November show endless rows of cabbages and potatoes, cauliflower, peppers and squash. We stop at the Old Florida Antique Museum in Hastings with its collections of yesteryear farming tools and a caboose restored on a section of track. Where the trail crosses Armstrong Road, we’re hosted for late breakfast (alternately for a rest stop) in litte Armstrong, a hamlet of a few hundred that’s 100 years old. The community is a far outpost of the Congressionally-designated Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor that extends northward from here along the coast to Wilmington, North Carolina.
It’s altogether a 40+-mile morning back to St. Augustine with memories of a rarely experienced Sunshine State.