Following a linear railroad line between Bartow and Lakeland, the Fort Fraser Trail is named for a frontier fort built in November 1837.
It was constructed by the United States Army as part of a military road between Fort Brooke (now Tampa) and the Kissimmee River, under the command of General Zachary Taylor.
While the fort is long gone, and the railroad line faded during recent memory, this region continues to be in constant flux.
On our first visit here more than a decade ago, we walked by orange groves and cattle. Now there are hospitals and car dealerships, hotels and industrial parks.
The linear route adjoining US 98 remains the same as when it opened, but it now has a very useful connection into a back gate of Circle B Bar Reserve.
Future connectivity around Lake Hancock is planned, as well as towards downtown Lakeland through Holloway Park.
Interpretive markers along the route on topics ranging from farming and ranching to add to the interest of the journey, as do inspirational nature quotes on signs and power poles.
Watch for the mileposts, too. A good countdown of mileage is provided from both ends.
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Southern terminus: Bartow
Northern terminus: Lakeland
Length: 7.7 miles linear
Restrooms: Flush toilets at the centrally located Highland City trailhead
Land manager: Polk County
Open dawn to dusk. Surface is asphalt. Leashed pets welcome.
Benches and picnic shelters are provided as rest stops at regular intervals. Water is only available at the Highland City trailhead.
There are many road crossings along this bike path and we definitely had issues with motorists not seeing us at crosswalks and lights. Families may want to stick to the Polk State College to Circle B Bar segment.
Hike or Bike
While we started our ride from the Bartow Trailhead along a connector trail around a pond, to our surprise we came to a T intersection.
A quick trip south confirmed the trail has a fancy entrance portal and signage there where the side path along US 98 / SR 60 meets the old railroad route.
A tiny segment of the trail also runs south of SR 60 into Bartow, but we didn’t see the point in crossing that busy highway to access it.
Starting from there or from the trailhead is the exact same mileage, meeting mile 0.1 where the side trail comes in from the trailhead.
A half mile corridor between US 98 and Old Bartow Eagle Lake Rd is wrapped in forest and nicely canopied. The trail crosses a bridge over a stream.
When we emerged at Old Bartow Eagle Lake Rd it wasn’t obvious where we should go but we could see the trail line-of-sight along the railroad right-of-way in the distance.
It wasn’t until we ran into curbs and no crosswalk we discovered that riding straight across the road was the wrong choice.
You must turn left and go to the traffic light to cross to the northwest side of the intersection.
This was the first of several spots that led us to think this isn’t a good trail to take the family on, given the many interactions it has with traffic.
Slipping behind a series of businesses, the trail makes a curve where it crosses a one-lane access road to a neighborhood.
This is where you see a railroad crossing sign. The trail curves north under the shade of oaks, turning to parallel US 98.
Canopied in a forested greenway between US 98 and Osprey Blvd, the trail emerges into the open in front of a hospital, Bartow Regional Medical Center.
There is a gazebo here that employees use for smoking breaks. North of it, use caution as you cross the split hospital entrance drive at 0.9 mile.
After another nicely wooded stretch, it’s a jolt to pop out in front of a huge car dealership. Crossing the road that adjoins it is tricky, since there are four 90-degree turns involved.
At 1.9 miles, you must use the crosswalk to cross this four-lane highway, then return to the rail-trail corridor by making two 90-degree turns from the crosswalk.
It might be best to walk the bike. But traffic turning onto and off of Ernest Smith Blvd didn’t seem too aware of us cyclists, even when we had the light. So it helped to move fast.
Along tributaries that filter into Lake Hancock, the next section of trail was very pleasant.
Blocked from the highway by a fence, it weaved back and forth through a stretch of woods, coming to the edge of a cattle ranch.
A long straight stretch under the power lines follows. There is one minor road crossing in this lightly populated area near the lake, as well as a driveway into a gated farm.
North of it is the historic marker for where Fort Fraser once stood nearby.
By 4.1 miles, CR 540 A, Boy Scout Ranch Rd, has a crosswalk where the trail crosses it just east of the traffic light at US 98. It’s a dead-end road so it isn’t all that busy.
Within another quarter mile, you cross a road leading into an industrial park, which the trail then parallels.
Hancock Ave crosses the trail at 4.7 miles. There isn’t a traffic light for it on US 98, so motorists here turning off US 98 southbound didn’t seem to notice they were crossing a bike path.
By this point, the trail starts feeling like you’re in a city, surrounded by a grid of homes and churches.
After 5 miles, you reach the Highland City trailhead, which the county considers the primary trailhead for the trail.
It has shaded picnic tables, restrooms, and water as well as a decent-sized parking area.
A quarter mile later, the trail passes its former trailhead at CR 540 and crosses this busy road at a crosswalk adjoining a McDonalds with a front patio area.
Crossing Wallace Rd, which leads into another industrial park, it continues to parallel US 98 like a side path, with no shade.
Follow a crosswalk across a big split entrance at 6 miles for Lake Hancock Rd.
Weirdly, the big entrance ends within sight with a smaller road going off it. We suspect a future subdivision here.
Ride along the edge of Oak Hill Cemetery and cross over its entrance road. At 6.6 miles, just north of the cemetery, is a marked side path into Circle B Bar Reserve.
We took a look down it on our return trip, but found it also makes a good turn-around point if you’re coming north from Bartow.
This 0.6 mile linear paved trail leads to a back gate into the preserve. Once you’re in this Polk County Natural Area, you can loop around it on a network of unpaved levee trails.
Those trails are a bit rough and grassy in places, so a hybrid or mountain bike would be best if you plan to venture beyond the pavement.
Just north of this turnoff, the trail crosses the Peace River, or so it says at a prominent sign at the bridge. Stop and read all the signage here.
If you’ve ever been to Charlotte Harbor, you will look down, shake your head, and marvel at how a tiny trickle like this becomes a mighty river at Punta Gorda, 105 miles south.
This is actually Banana Creek, part of the Peace River watershed. It’s a feeder stream into Lake Hancock, which the Peace River rises from, flowing southward from its south shore.
The lake in turn is also fed by Saddle Creek and other waterways that trickle out of swamp forests along the southern rim of the Green Swamp.
The trail continues along the edge of the campus of Polk State College. Cross the campus entrance road before passing in front of a Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
Immediately north of the sheriff station, the trail reaches at its northerly trailhead after 7.3 miles. This isn’t the end of the Fort Fraser Trail, however.
Just like at the southern end, the Fort Fraser Trail keeps following US 98 until it reaches busy SR 540, Winter Lake Rd, another 0.4 mile north. That’s where the pavement ends.
We rode up to where it ended but saw no way to continue north under the Polk Parkway. There is a side path east on SR 540 but it ends pretty quickly.
There isn’t much point in putting on the extra mileage beyond the trailhead, except for the sake of miles. Connectivity is planned in the future.
So the north end of the Fort Fraser Trail simply ends at SR 540, 7.7 miles north of US 98 in Bartow, without any fanfare.
A round-trip between the Bartow and Lakeland trailheads is 14.6 miles. If you take the side trip to the back gate of Circle B Bar, it makes for a 15.8 mile ride.
There are three trailheads along the route, plus the connector trail coming in from Circle B Bar Reserve. Local residents can also access both ends via side paths in their communities.
The Bartow trailhead is immediately north of a Tractor Supply , a block north along Wilson Ave from US 98/SR 60 in Bartow.
It’s a broad dirt parking area with an adjacent pond. Don’t be surprised if ducks waddle up from it to see what you’re doing.
The Highland City trailhead fronts US 98 but is accessed by 4th St SE, which runs between Hancock Ave and ends at Central Ave.
It has a large paved parking area, flush toilets, several covered picnic benches, and a water fountain with blissfully cold water. A kiosk with map shows the trail route.
The northernmost trailhead, the Polk State College trailhead, is on the college campus. Turn into the college entrance off US 98 and make the first left onto the road leading to the sheriff’s office.
The trailhead parking area is the second entrance on the left. Under the shade of some oaks, there are benches and picnic tables, including a covered picnic shelter.
Circle B Bar Reserve
A paved side trail leads 0.6 mile from the Fort Fraser Trail into the back gate of Circle B Bar Reserve.
As long as you have a bike capable of going off road, it’s worth riding into the preserve to do the Longleaf Pine Trail connector and the near loop, the Eagle Trail.
See our photos from the Fort Fraser Trail
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
With day hiking and cross country trails, Holloway Park & Nature Preserve is a slice of nature inside the city limits of Lakeland, just off the Polk Parkway.
On more than 3 miles of trails, Lakeland Highlands Scrub offers a close-up look at the Lakeland Ridge, an ancient island when Florida was beneath the seas: parts of this 551-acre preserve are at 230 feet elevation.
Connecting Auburndale with Polk City and the Van Fleet Trail, this linear bike path is a greenway through a growing community along the Polk Parkway east of Lakeland