Eight Trails: Rye Preserve, Rothenback Park, Emerson Point Preserve, Red Bug Slough Preserve, Myakka River State Park, North Port Trails, Legacy Trail, Potter Park.

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On the northern edge of the 320-acre Rye Preserve, I stopped where the trail cuts through oak scrub to the north and river hammock to the south. After a moment, it started to get a little noisy on this recent early morning. A small downy woodpecker chipped away in a cabbage palm not far from my bike, and a wren sang from a scrubby oak. After some time, the wren flies off—and so do I, following the singletrack Red Trail as it turns, dips and alternates from hard-packed shell to dirt. At this Manatee County preserve, about 2.5 miles of unpaved trails loop through four distinctive ecosystems. Here bicyclists can see the occasional alligator, in addition to a variety of songbirds, and the rare gopher tortoise and Florida scrub-jay. The preserve, about 15 miles east of Bradenton, is a good nature ride for the two-wheeled, off-road explorer. “There are some small, patchy spots of soft sand, but otherwise the trails are very good for biking,” says Charlie Hunsicker, director of Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources. Riders would need a mountain bike or hybrid on the natural surface trails here, adds Hunsicker, who has ridden most of the trails on his hybrid bicycle. From the dirt trails here to the 10.6-mile Legacy Trail and the technical, twisting singletrack in North Port, a variety of trails—both paved and unpaved—take bicyclists off the beaten path in Sarasota and Manatee counties. The vistas are each uniquely stunning, even where the terrain is mostly flat, and often the wildlife is up close. “There are so many things to see off the trail,” says Denise West, co-owner of POPCycles, of the preserves and parks across the two counties. Several are family-friendly parks. SRQ takes a look at eight of these trails and pathways. Whichever adventure you choose, bring plenty of water and bug spray just in case.


Rye Preserve

TERRAIN: Unpaved   MILEAGE: 2.44 miles   

BIKE EQUIPMENT:  MTB or hybrid bike   DIFFICULTY: 2-3 out of 5

Rye Preserve is a serene patch of remnant Florida on both sides of the Manatee River, just northwest of the Lake Manatee Dam, yet not too far from Interstate 75. In addition to nature trails, the preserve has picnic areas, a playground, bathroom facilities and a canoe/kayak launch on the Manatee River. I nodded to a lone camper sitting before his breakfast fire at the campground that overlooks the river, but only saw a half-dozen other visitors during the entire morning I was at the park. The preserve’s trail system leads visitors through four distinctive ecosystems, including sand pine scrub, xeric oak scrub, oak hammocks and the river community. Within the preserve, visitors can view the Rye Family Cemetery, the last remaining reminder of the old Rye river community.  Bicyclists can also bike on the two park roads, Hunsicker says, which are little trafficked. Soon this preserve could become a key part of Manatee County’s proposed long-distance “Gateway Greenway” trail, which is planned to stretch from the Hillsborough County line to the Sarasota County line.


Potter Park

TERRAIN:  Paved loop; and dirt Catfish Trail    MILEAGE:  ~2 miles

BIKE EQUIPMENT:  Any (paved loop); MTB or hybrid (for Catfish Trail)     

DIFFICULTY: 1 out of 5 (paved loop);  2 out of 5 (for Catfish Trail)

Bicyclists can pedal on pavement and off at Potter Park. The paved path meanders through tall pines and across a small wooden bridge near Sarasota’s Palmer Ranch neighborhood. In addition, a half-mile dirt Catfish Trail twists through native hammock habitat along Catfish Creek, which flows into Little Sarasota Bay. Invasive plants were recently removed from the preservation area at Catfish Trail, allowing the native vegetation to thrive. Songbirds, snakes and rabbits are inhabitants of the hammock.  In total, there are just above two miles of both paved and unpaved nature trails at the 37-acre park. The park has a picnic pavilion, playground and restrooms.

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Rothenback Park

TERRAIN:  Paved, undulating   MILEAGE:  ~3.5 miles


Past the eastern end of Bee Ridge Road, 3.5 miles of paths curve amid the “hills” of a former landfill. Rothenbach Park is perfect for families or bicyclists looking for a meandering path, says Jon Robinson, division manager of Natural Area Parks, Preserves and Trails at Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources. “It’s undulating, but not steep,” says Robinson of the two paved trail loops at the nature park, which is built entirely on a closed and capped landfill. The two paths are accessible for young bicyclists and training-wheel bikes, and there is a changing table in the bathroom facilities for those with the youngest riders in tow.  “You’ll almost always see deer,” Robinson says, “and people have seen an otter and bobcat here.” Alligators are present, but typically the path is elevated above wetland areas, providing a safe viewing area from the pathway for families to see the gators. Along the one-mile Solar Trail, keep a watch out for wading birds, and, through the hammock forest, songbirds and butterflies. On the longer loop, bicyclists can expect to be in the shade about half of the time. While the paved paths don’t access the highest peak of the park, where the Sarasota Radio Control Squadron flies remote control planes, those wanting a little more of a workout ride the park road towards the back of the park for a greater change in elevation, Robinson says. 

Legacy Trail

TERRAIN:  Paved, flat   MILEAGE:  10.6 miles



For John League, president of the Friends of the Legacy Trail, the entire 10.6-mile Trail is beautiful, although he’s partial to the “quiet and peaceful” stretch near Oscar Scherer State park, and the relative shade in the morning, before about 10:30am, just north of Laurel Road. Another shady spot is near Central Sarasota Parkway.  One of the common native inhabitants along the way is the Sandhill crane, which can be heard trumpeting and croaking nearby. And sometimes these tall birds enjoy the Trail itself, as well. “You have to go around them, or just wait for them to cross the path,” West says. “But they are not in any rush.” West frequently spots osprey, blue jays, robins and woodpeckers off the Legacy Trail. She says some of her customers will rent a bicycle and take their binoculars to do bird watching along the way. Other longer-distance riders will continue pedaling to the connected Venetian Waterway Park Trail to extend their ride.  A neat new feature on the Legacy Trail is the addition of several stationary bicycle repair stations, complete with Allen wrenches and air pump, installed by Sarasota County’s transportation department along the multi-use pathway. “I myself have used it to add some air to my tires,” says Robinson, the Sarasota County parks manager.  Plans are underway to expand the Legacy Trail all the way north to Payne Park in Downtown Sarasota, and the Trust for Public Land is negotiating a purchase contract with CSX for the railroad right of way needed for the expansion, League said.

Myakka River State Park

TERRAIN:  Dirt, doubletrack and singletrack   MILEAGE:  12+ miles

BIKE EQUIPMENT:  MTB, hybrid or beach cruiser   DIFFICULTY: 1-3 out of 5

The state park is about 12 miles east from suburban Sarasota, but it can feel like 120 miles away, especially once you start to pedal onto the trailways off the wider Power Line Road or Ranch Road trails. West pedals the Power Line trail, a compact-gravel doubletrack that takes riders into nature. “There are so many beautiful birds and sounds, and almost every time we are there, we do see deer,” West says. Hiking and Biking trail maps are available at the park’s ranger station. Bicyclists can also ride the state park’s roads. The park’s North Drive often has less traffic than the Main Drive, and is an easy-going, scenic ride. According to the state park’s website, bicycles are also permitted on backcountry dirt roads north of S.R. 72. With 37,000 acres, Myakka is one of the largest and oldest state parks in Florida. The park protects one of the state’s most diverse natural areas. The Myakka River, designated as a Florida Wild and Scenic River, flows through 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pinelands. Summer biking, especially through the shade-less prairie, can be extremely hot and bikers should beware of heat exhaustion and stress. Insects, in addition, may be a problem at any time, and for those who venture out on the trails, the park recommends bikers and hikers always carry water, a map and compass.

Red Bug Slough Preserve

TERRAIN:  Paved, undulating   MILEAGE:  ~2 miles

BIKE EQUIPMENT:  MTB, hybrid or beach cruiser    DIFFICULTY: 2-3 out of 5

At this Sarasota County nature preserve, about two miles of unpaved trails loop through big oaks and wild coffee and slash pine. Nestled in the midst of Sarasota’s suburbs, Red Bug Slough is another patch of remnant natural Florida, preserved in 2000 through the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program and the Florida Communities Trust. The preserve was the very first purchase under the county’s Sensitive Lands Program, Robinson says. A swingset and public bathrooms, with changing tables for those who bike with a toddler in a bike seat, are located near the parking lot on the west side of Beneva Road. The trails are open to bicyclists, and many stretches are nicely shaded. Bicyclists may see a variety of songbirds and wading birds, and even a glimpse of an otter family that calls the preserve’s pond home. From her WeeRide bike seat, my 18-month old daughter, Elaenia, has spotted woodpeckers, red-shouldered hawks, a wading Roseate Spoonbill and gravity-defying squirrels. Popular among hikers and dog walkers, the 72-acre preserve is also a good ride for those wanting to pedal off-pavement and for the properly equipped bicycling family. “This is a natural surface trail,” says Robinson, “and riders would need a hybrid, beach cruiser or mountain bike.” Each is easily found in Sarasota and “a lot of our customers ride there,” adds POPcycle’s West.

North Port Trails

TERRAIN:  Ups and downs, technical singletrack  MILEAGE:  7+ miles

BIKE EQUIPMENT:  MTB required   DIFFICULTY: 3-5 out of 5

With several networks of technical, singletrack trails, North Port has some of the most intense and least-known mountain biking trails in Southwest Florida. The trails are a hidden gem, says Eric Latimer, service manager at Real Bikes, Venice and a volunteer with Sarasota County Off Road Riders (SCORR). Some of the trailheads can be difficult to find on your first trip, and seasonal flooding closes others, he says, but the bike ride is worth the treasure hunt. Mountain bikes are required on both of these trails. Latimer says if riders have any questions about which trails are open, or tips on locating trailheads, to reach out to him at Real Bikes. Try two of the North Port trail networks.

Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park, off the Sumter Blvd exit of Interstate 75,is a preserve maintained by Sarasota County with more than three miles of singletrack trail shared by mountain bikers, hikers and trail runners. The preserve has intermediate trails as well as some of the most challenging trails in Southwest Florida. Many stretches of the trails, which total 3.6 miles, feature jumps, tight turns, logs, ledges and sections that seem to overhang the banks of the creek. SCORR volunteers maintain the trails, and the group is working on building a new loop, Latimer says. Important note: as of early June, the trails at the park were closed due to seasonal flooding.

A separate trailhead located near Hillsborough Ave. and Toledo Blade Blvd. leads riders three miles out and three miles back to the trailhead. Fortunately, the trail here does not typically flood. “There are good little ups and down hills, and you get a good workout,” he says, assessing the trail as roughly intermediate to difficult. There is no parking at the trailhead, but limited parking is available by the dam on Hillsborough Ave., to the west of the intersection. 

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Emerson Point Preserve

TERRAIN:  Packed shell trail and dedicated, paved bike lane   

MILEAGE:  2 miles crushed shell trail, plus paved bike lane


Emerson Point Preserve is a 365-acre preserve located at the tip of Snead Island in western Palmetto. Bicyclists ride multiuse, packed-shell trails through large swaths of natural Florida habitat, and many of the trails are partially or fully shaded. “It’s a great family ride,” Hunsiker says. Bicycling is permitted on all of the preserve’s trails, except the Terra Ceia Trail and the Portavant Mound Trail. A variety of birds and wildlife can be seen throughout the preserve in the restored native ecosystems. The preserve is heavily vegetated, since there are some new plantings established since the preserve opened in 1998 and the park was carved into an existing wooded area, says Hunsiker. The terrain is flat, but offers vistas of coastal habitats and a spot to go for a swim after a ride. A bike-path parallel to the park road also provides a paved bike lane. The preserve has a picnic area, two restroom facilities and educational elements. Historical resources include the Portavant Temple Mound, southwest Florida’s largest Native American Temple Mound, and the surrounding midden complex. A Welcome/Ranger Station is open Friday and Saturday for preserve visitors.  

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