The General James A. Van Fleet State Trail is named in honor of James Alward Van Fleet.
He was a decorated military commander who retired to Polk City and died here in 1992 at the age of 100.
Van Fleet oversaw troops during the Normandy Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge and was the commander of all U.S. ground forces in Korea between 1951 and 1953.
Following the former Seaboard Coast Line through Central Florida, the trail extends north from Polk City to a terminus within sight of SR 50 in the tiny community of Hazel.
The Van Fleet Trail draws Central Florida cyclists because of its unique surroundings. Despite growing urbanization to the east, west, and south, it has a distinctly different feel.
The old rail corridor which once served orange and vegetable growers passes through rural and wild landscapes in Polk, Lake, and Sumter Counties, with a limited number of road crossings.
It’s a very flat ride compared to others in the region, and almost as straight as an arrow, except for one major curve northbound where it turns away from paralleling CR 33 and heads into the Green Swamp.
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Southern terminus: Polk City
Northern terminus: Mabel
Length: 29.2 miles linear
Restrooms: Vault toilets north of Polk City trailhead and at Bay Lake trailhead, flush toilets at Greenpond Rd trailhead and Mabel trailhead
Land manager: Florida State Parks
Open sunrise to sunset. Surface is asphalt. Benches are provided as rest stops at regular intervals. Leashed pets welcome.
Hunting is permitted in adjacent forest lands at the north end of the trail in the Green Swamp and Richloam WMAs.
Check hunt dates and wear orange if riding the north end during scheduled hunts.
There are mile markers stenciled along the pavement to help you keep your pace, as well as providing a location if you need to call for assistance.
Starting north from Polk City, the trail begins under a low canopy of oaks. Although it is a straight shot north, the canopy obscures the view to start.
Right at the beginning, there is a white stripe to note you are in Polk City with a mileage of 0.0. While faded, these stripes are also painted at major road crossings.
After the first stretch of forest the trail crosses an old wooden bridge. It was under repair when we rode over it.
Just beyond it is a vault toilet, just far enough from the trailhead to discourage vandals but easy to cycle up to.
Pass a “stretching bench” north of a private side entrance onto this greenway. It’s wide enough for horses to ride up the grassy side of the trail, and locals do just that.
This is farm and ranch country, so you pass by family complexes with grazing cows, pastured horses, chickens running around, and big ponds.
The first rural road crossing is Fussel Rd, a lightly used graded road at 2.7 miles. The trail is edged by woods on both sides.
A gas pipeline parallels it up this section, obvious from the orange-tipped white markers on the east side in the forest understory.
By 5.4 miles, the trail reaches Dean Still Road at a stop sign. This can be a very busy road and although there is no trailhead, cars park along it obscuring the view.
Be cautious of this crossing. On the other side is an FNST sign for the Florida National Scenic Trail, which joins the Van Fleet Trail northbound at this point.
The trail enters its first patch of Green Swamp habitat here. Bayhead swamps and cypress strands are along both sides of the corridor.
A covered shelter along one of the swamps is in a very pretty setting, and even has its own built-in bike repair kit box with tethered tools.
At 8.7 miles, the Florida Trail leaves the Van Fleet Trail at the Poyner Rd trail crossing to continue northwest towards to Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve.
The trail briefly parallels Poyner Oaks Rd before entering another swampy forest and crossing a bridge.
Cross Greenpond Rd and reach the trailhead there after 9.9 miles northbound. There is another large bench here surrounding an informational kiosk.
A covered picnic pavilion offers a welcome bit of shade, and there is cold water from the fountain at the restrooms.
Our explorations have only taken us just north of the Greenpond Rd trailhead up to the 10 mile marker, a 20 mile round-trip from Polk City.
Just north of this marker, the trail’s surroundings get much more wild as it enters the Green Swamp, a massive landform that is the birthplace of four major Florida rivers.
At 12 miles, the trail crosses three bridges across the Withlacoochee River Swamp, headwaters to the north-flowing Withlacoochee River.
There is a homestead just north of the swamp, but past that, the landscape becomes a mosaic of cypress swamps and pine flatwoods.
As the corridor immerses itself in the Green Swamp, it provides some canopied stretches. Around 14.2 miles, there is a rest stop with benches.
A half mile north, an old two-track road leads west into the dense forest which is part of Green Swamp WMA, connecting to a network of graded roads used by hunters.
After 20 miles, you reach the Bay Lake trailhead. Cross CR 565 at the edge of Bayroot Slough immediately north of this dry spot.
Once north of the slough, farmland edges the trail in places to the east, but it’s firmly a massive swamp to the west.
The trail is nicely canopied through this deeply forested stretch as it continues into Richloam WMA.
A roofed picnic pavilion sits next to the trail at 25.1 miles, a good place to take a break before the final push to the north end.
Passing through some pine plantations as it continues on its forested route, it’s almost a surprise as it emerges from the woods to an open field at its northern terminus, the Hazel trailhead, after 29.2 miles.
There are four trailheads along the route. The busiest and largest one is the southern terminus in Polk City off CR 33, 5.8 miles north of Interstate 4 exit 38 or 2.6 miles north of exit 44 via CR 559 to Polk City.
In addition to its large parking area, it has a picnic pavilion and a large kiosk with informational brochures and a bench.
The Greenpond Rd trailhead is much smaller, but is home to a restroom and water fountain.
A caretaker lives nearby and there is informational signage (and sometimes cute displays) at this trailhead. There is also a marker commemorating General Van Fleet.
The Bay Lake trailhead, southwest of Mascotte off Bay Lake Rd (CR 565), has a picnic bench and vault toilet.
The Mabel trailhead at the northern terminus is just south of and within sight of SR 50 off CR 772, and has picnic tables and a restroom with a water fountain. This also gets busy on weekends.
Getting here is a straight shot west from Interstate 75 exit 301 in Brooksville along SR 50 east for 18.8 miles, or west along SR 50 for 15 miles from the US 27 junction in Clermont.
TECO Auburndale Trail
A 6.7 mile linear trail betwen Auburndale and Polk City, the TECO Auburndale Trail runs due south from the Polk City trailhead, allowing easy connectivity between the trails.
It’s named for the route following directly under the TECO power lines connecting the two communities.
The southern trailhead is along Denton Avenue in Auburndale at Lake Myrtle Park. A city trail, it is gated at the ends and at road crossings when closed.
A portion of the statewide Florida Trail joins the Van Fleet Trail for 3.4 miles between Dean Still Rd and Poyner Rd.
It is part of a much longer route known as the Western Corridor, which stretches from the prairies southeast of St. Cloud up along the Withlacoochee River basin and across the Cross Florida Greenway to the Ocala National Forest.
It involves walking for 68.9 miles along regional roads, bike paths, and sidewalks to get around the Orlando metro and back into the woods.
So the Three Lakes to Green Swamp segment of the Western Corridor is not heavily used by backpackers.
However, for some of us who’ve knocked out the mileage for the entire 1,400 miles of our statewide National Scenic Trail, it’s included a walk along this piece of the Van Fleet Trail.
See our photos from biking the Van Fleet Trail
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Camping beneath the twinkling stars at Colt Creek State Park, enjoy a getaway from the busy bustle of the Interstate 4 corridor between Lakeland and Tampa
On a 1.7-mile loop, Crooked River Preserve showcases a wide variety of habitats in a short hike on the northernmost extent of the Lake Wales Ridge in Clermont
As longleaf pine reaches for the sky, the rolling hills of Lake Louisa State Park near Clermont return to their forested roots