Spanning 10.1 miles from the Withlacoochee State Trail to downtown Brooksville, the Good Neighbor Trail is the newest entrant in the connectors created for the state-spanning Coast to Coast Trail under development. In September, just a few weeks before it officially opened, we had the opportunity to ride this brand new trail on our way to the annual Florida Outdoor Writers Conference in Spring Hill.
Since the trail was new to us, we went looking for a map, and couldn’t find one. That made us decide to ride it from Brooksville out to the Withlacoochee State Trail, since we did know the location of its terminus: the 1885 Train Depot Museum on Russell Street. Since it was still summer, we started our ride early. A big sign behind the depot confirmed we’d found the right spot.
The first portion of the trail was through some older neighborhoods with historic homes. After crossing US 98 within sight of the Coney Island Drive Inn, a hot dog stand that dates back to the 1960s, we entered a long tunnel of trees. The trail paralleled some local roads in a few places, crossing them twice.
There was an odd section where both sides of the trail had a six-foot-high chain link fence covered in black filter screen. We were riding with woods on both sides of the trail, but with this barrier between us and the trees.
The trail had a few sharp turns and a number of rolling hills that were steeper than we would have expected along a rail-trail. As we were climbing up one, Sandy noticed how nice and level the road beside the trail had been. That got us wondering. Did they build the road on the old rail bed?
Reaching the newest section of the trail, we came to a large ROAD CLOSED sign. Since we already confirmed with our local contacts that we could ride the trail before the grand opening, we skirted around the sign and enjoyed the new smooth new pavement. We entered Withlacoochee State Forest.
Seeing fresh orange dirt along the berms on both sides of the path we were greeted by a few gopher tortoises emerging from their burrows. They watched us zip by, as did a cyclist going in the other direction.
Just before we reached the intersection with the Withlacoochee State Trail, we noticed the orange blazes of the Florida Trail as it crossed this new bike path. At the trail intersection, we met a group of older fellows, two on trikes, one on a recumbent, and the other on an upright bike like ours. They were shocked to see us ride up from behind the orange cones in the road.
“Where did you come from?” they asked. Explaining that we had ridden up from Brooksville, they decided to take a short side trip to see what it was like while we headed to the covered picnic table for a break, a drink, and a snack.
We weren’t far into our return trip before we ran into the cyclists who had headed down the Good Neighbor Trail. The one who had gone the farthest had met people working on the trail and had been turned around. In the distance, we could see a large truck in the center of the path spraying the green grass seed mixture that we had noticed earlier. We were starting to wonder if we were going to be able to make it back to Brooksville and our car.
Luckily, we met a couple of fellows in pickups driving up the trail. We explained that we were scouting the trail to write about it, and that our car was parked in Brooksville. The first worker waved us on and warned us to watch for other vehicles that might be on the path.
When the second pickup pulled up, we met Mr. Goodwin. He was the owner of the company building the Good Neighbor Trail. We had a nice discussion about how well the trail had progressed, and had a few of our questions answered. He hadn’t heard yet how the state planned to route the missing sections of the Coast to Coast Trail between Clermont, the Van Fleet Trail, and the Withlacoochee State Trail. He confirmed that the corridor between the chain-link fence was to delineate private property, but that the black filter screen would be coming down after the spraying was done.
He told us that the green concoction that they were spraying along both side of the trail was more that just a fertilizer and grass mix. It also included a mix of wildflower seeds. With the rains that we’ve having, it shouldn’t be long before this section of trail should be lined with colorful flowers. A paved, car-free bike path, through the forest, with wildflowers along the edges. Who wouldn’t enjoy a ride like that!
We retraced our route through Brooksville and returned to the train depot. As we rode up, we noticed that the OPEN flag was flying. Once our the bikes were back on the car, we went inside to learn more about the history of Brooksville. Beyond the railroad artifacts and the model railroad inside the building, we learned what brought the railroad to the region: timber.
Oddly, the last formal duel in America happened at this depot in 1906 when an angry lumber dealer challenged the train conductor whose train was late. Both men shot each other on this train platform and died. So before road rage, there was railroad rage.
Most of the towns that grew around the lumber industry are long gone. That’s why the Good Neighbor Trail was able to happen. The route it follows was a narrow gauge railroad corridor built for the Southern Railroad in 1885.
Since this was a small museum, I never expected to see a large 1923 American LaFrance fire truck parked inside the museum on the railroad platform. It was used by the local fire department from 1925 until the 1960s. In 1987, the Hernando High School shop class restored it.
We circled around the corner and headed for the Coney Island Drive Inn, where they still pay tribute to one of their earliest customers, Elvis Presley. It is very much an old-fashioned hot dog stand, with indoor picnic tables, antique signs, and even a Ms. Pac-Man video game. After a full dose of local history and 20.2 miles of riding behind us, it was time to eat.