If I have learned any life lessons from visiting Florida over the last few years, it is that prejudgment is a terrible character flaw to have. Sure, Florida feels like a never-ending conveyer belt of strip malls and drivers that don’t understand the rules of the left lane. There is virtually no public land that does not charge some admission for access. The Gulf is infected with red algae that are killing sea life and lets not even get started on the lines at Whole Foods.
Not unlike new friendships, it takes a little while for the true nature of a place to start to reveal itself to you. For a lifelong Pittsburgher, it’s easy to be seduced by Florida in December. The foreign feeling of the warm sun in the winter is plenty for most to say ‘yup, Florida is great!’ For a lot of us though just the promise of warm sunshine is not enough to keep us interested long-term. I won’t lie as I sit here looking out into the grey Pittsburgh winter I’m not sure I even convinced myself with that previous statement, so let me try and elaborate.
As a mountain biker and a cyclist, I naturally want to ride most days, and I want to ride somewhere good. The roads near Naples, FL is hardly appealing, undying traffic, seniors with cell phones have all been enough for me never to take a bike along. As for mountain biking, the endeavor of driving 4.5 hours to Santos for a day on the trails seemed a little daunting even for someone who enjoys a good road trip, and I do.
Just before my most recent visit to the grapefruit state, Karl our Quality Control guy asked if I was taking a bike. I responded with the usual answer of “no, there isn’t really anywhere close by to ride.” To my surprise, Karl returned with “Alafia is not that far from Naples.” A quick Google maps calculation and I thought well maybe this is a possibility.
A few days later I was walking into AJ’s Bikes, located in Valrico, FL to meet up with Nick Bischof and local mountain bike ambassador Lucy to get set up on a bike and head out to the trails. It was two days after Christmas, and the shop was bustling with customers. Outside the sun was shining and it was 80 degrees, a perfect day for hitting some new trails with the locals.
Alafia River State Park is a short drive from Aj’s; it was at the trailhead that we met up with locals Joe Cox and friend Dax. I looked around at everyone’s bikes and thought all these setups seemed to have a lot of travel for a virtually flat state. Nick reassured that the trails of Alafia were a unique landscape. The trails having been built on an old phosphate mine had more elevation gain than most locations in Florida.
As we pedaled off towards the canopy of the woods, the sandy trail snaked through an open field and then dropped into a couple of rooty corners that felt like home minus the sand. It wasn’t long before we were at a junction and the crew was excited to show off some of the double black diamond trails in the park. After a slight warm up on a little jump track, we headed off for a loop that featured Gravitron, Gatorback, and Moonscape. It wasn’t long before the use of long travel trail bikes justified themselves. Ahead of me both Lucy and Joe were calling out trail beta as we approached features. A drop followed by a hard punch to the right and then another drop to a tabletop jump. It was clear that the group spent a lot of time on these trails, navigating the front wheel over obstacles in just the right location to set up for smooth exit and feature on the trail. I did my best to follow their lead throughout the day often stopping to look over blind approaches to drops to get my nerve and navigations in order.
A few trails later and I began to appreciate the steepness and technicality. The rooty and rocky chutes and drops rivaled most of the trails that I have encountered this year. As the day progressed the trails of Alafia kept offering up a healthy amount of technical and challenging terrain. Any notion of there not being “real” mountain biking in Florida vanished.
On top of the rowdy double black diamond routes, there is also more than enough beginner and intermediate track. Alafia is an excellent network for riders to learn and progress on. There is a handful of jumps that riders can spend hours on riding over and over again that do not break up the flow of riding traffic on the trails. Towards the end of the day, we ran into a small crew of teenagers doing just that. On one of the newest features in the park, a large man-made double berm sets you nicely for a sizable dirt jump. One after another the young crew sent to the air, whips, backflips, and tabletops. It’s always rad to see the future of the sport taking a more relaxed approach to the sport, spending time having fun two wheels rather than chasing race series around the country.
In addition to having some top-notch trails, Alafia has some excellent amenities centrally located to the trailhead. Perhaps most importantly is a water fountain to keep you hydrated in the heat of the south, as well as a bike shop that provides rentals and the ever-critical post-ride beers. There is camping in the park as well.
If you find yourself in the St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay area and you are itching for a great day on the mountain bike definitely plan on a day at Alafia River State Park. Be sure to swing through AJs Bikes for all your rental and supply needs and stay up to date on all thing Alafia via their Instagram page. If you are looking to get a better idea of what the trails are like at Alafia, you can check out Joe Cox’s aka Mr. Tonka MTB‘s YouTube channel.