Potatoes, pine trees and dark waters

On a recent chilly January day, Walt Barry and I decamped from Anastasia State Park and took ourselves and our bikes to nearby Vermont Heights.

(Yes, Dorothy, there is a Vermont Heights. It’s right outside St. Augustine, just west of I-95 on State Rd. 207 You can look it up.)

More importantly, Vermont Heights is the eastern jumping off point of the Palatka-St Augustine Trail.

It was an opportunity to do an out-and-back. And it was a perfect day for it.

There was a cold breeze coming up from the south, but clear skies and big sun.

I have often ridden various segments of the trail. During my years with Bike Florida we often took cyclists through this landscape of potato and cabbage fields, wetlands, historic communities and stretches of piney woods.

But with the recent completion of the final “missing link,” between Hastings and Armstrong, it is finally possible to ride the entire 19-mile length of the trail, from Vermont Heights in the east to the banks of the St. John’s River in the west.

And not to forget that you are traveling on a path originally laid out by railroad magnet Henry Flagler to open up our frontier state. In fact, if you ride east a short distance from the Vermonts Heights trailhead you will come to a spot where the trail abruptly ends and abandoned tracks are still in evidence.

It’s an easy ride, suitable for most any cyclists. Flat terrain and country varied enough to keep things interesting.

On the trail you literally ride into history. Take a look around Armstrong. Founded by descendants of African slaves, the people of Armstrong have worked hard to make their community a welcoming “trail town.”

Shortly after leaving Armstrong you will cross Deep Creek. With its dark waters and swampy banks, it looks rather foreboding. But crossing the long bridge you can see that someone has built a boardwalk leading to a “swimmin’ hole.” Watch out for gators and snakes though.

And by all means take a rest in Hastings. Once dubbed the Potato Capital of Florida, it’s now pretty much a relic of the past. Founded shortly after the turn of the last century, Hastings residents five years ago voted to dismantle their town government.

But while the era of the Hastings Potato Kings may be gone, the town’s County Line vegetable market still does a booming business.

Just outside Hastings you’ll cycle past another reminder of past agricultural glory – the home of Bull’s Chips Farm. Its graveyard of ancient and abandoned farm machinery is a must see.

Keep going and eventually you reach trail’s end at Memorial Bridge, which crosses the St. John’s River at Palatka. The bridge has a protected bike-ped lane that is physically separated from traffic. So feel free to cross and visit the town’s work-in-progress historic waterfront. Check out the St. John’s River Center while you’re in the neighborhood.

Oh yeah, and before your return trip, lunch at Corky Bell’s is never a mistake.

Is this a great trail or what? It’s all part of Ron’s Florida.

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