by Mauricio Herreros, RAC member
Florida, the flowery land as named by the Spanish Conquistadores, is one of the top vacation destinations for runners. The Sunshine State is a runner's paradise with endless running opportunities and good weather year round. Besides the famous theme parks, countless tourist attractions, white-sand beaches, beautiful state parks, and unmatched natural scenery, Florida offers a rich past with many historic towns, landmarks, and unique places that can enrich anyone's visit. Florida is a big state with varied geography that will pleasantly surprise even the most sophisticated visitors. Perhaps the best way to describe Florida is to divide it into three regions: North, Central, and South. Within each region, runners will find a world of running options with literally hundreds of races to choose from, unlimited places to run, and tremendous enthusiasm from the active running communities in each area.
North Florida extends hundreds of miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Alabama border just west of Pensacola. North Florida is not only the state's biggest region, but is quite different from Central and South Florida. It is less populated and its geography more diverse. The forests are denser and the trees taller. There are many swamps, springs, rivers, and lakes. The terrain is flat and sandy near the east coast but hillier going west including the state's highest elevation point at Britton Hill (345 feet) in Walton County. Both the Gulf and the Atlantic coastlines are extremely beautiful and still mostly unspoiled.
Many peaceful resorts are located on the Panhandle where runners can combine a week of rest with some inspiring runs along the Gulf's green waters. Seaside, Grayton Beach, and Destin are just a few of these idyllic places. On North Florida's Atlantic coast from Daytona Beach to Jacksonville the beaches are wide and flat allowing for easy runs on the hard sand. The weather is very pleasant. The long spring and fall seasons and cool winters give runners more options to be outdoors all year. Because of its diverse landscape, this region has many excellent trails including paved rail trails as well as secluded dirt paths through preserves and state parks. Here, runners will find not only many great places to run, but also a vibrant running scene with multiple local clubs hosting excellent races throughout the region.
FAVORITE PLACES TO RUN
Jacksonville - Baldwin Trail: This is a secluded paved 14-mile trail over an old railroad line between Imeson Road in Jacksonville to County Road 121 west of Baldwin. The trail is maintained by the City of Jacksonville.
Jacksonville Beach: Several miles of white packed sand to run on. Start by the Seawalk Pavilion located on First Street and Beach Boulevard. You can go north or south for several miles. Best times to run are early morning or late afternoon depending on the tide.
St. Augustine Historic Center: Located about 30 miles south of Jacksonville, St. Augustine is the oldest European settlement in North America. Founded in 1565 by the Spanish this lively town is full of historic buildings and charming streets. Several popular 5K races are held here every year including the Matanzas 5K and the Bridge of Lions 5K.
Gainesville to Hawthorne Rail Trail: Extending over 15 miles between Gainesville and the town of Hawthorne, this paved trail is a popular place for runners, bicyclists, and hikers. The natural surroundings are very beautiful and peaceful.
Tallahassee - St. Marks Trail: This popular paved trail is mostly flat and scenic. It goes for 16 miles between Tallahassee and the town of St. Marks on the Gulf Coast.
Home to the nation's citrus industry and the world's most famous family attractions, Central Florida is the heart of the Sunshine State. Extending from Daytona Beach on the Atlantic Coast to St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast this dynamic area is bustling with activity. The geography is flat and sandy along both coasts with higher ground in the middle of the state west of Orlando. Central Florida has many lakes, rivers, and green fields with trees and lush vegetation. The weather is warmer than in the north with a milder winter and a warmer summer. Nevertheless, running is popular here all year with many well-established running clubs throughout the region. This region has the largest concentration of runners in the state, and between Orlando and Tampa are Florida's best networks of paved trails. These popular trails are well maintained and provide many miles of safe places to run away from traffic but within urban settings.
FAVORITE PLACES TO RUN
Daytona Beach Area: The world's most famous beach is very wide and flat making the run a great experience. For a fun run, start from the Daytona Beach Main Street Pier and head north to Ormond Beach or south to the Sunglow Pier. Either run is several miles long.
Seminole Wekiva Trail: This scenic 14-mile paved trail is located in the Altamonte Springs area northeast of Orlando in Seminole County.
West Orange Trail:This beautiful paved trail is 19 miles long and passes through several communities along Lake Apopka in Orange County west of Orlando.
Lake Hollingsworth Trail: This unique trail is a 3-mile paved loop around Lake Hollingsworth in Lakeland. The surrounding streets are hilly and the views of the lake are spectacular.
Bayshore Boulevard: One of Tampa┐s most popular running spots, the Bayshore Boulevard waterfront sidewalk goes for several miles along the scenic Hillsborough Bay.
Pinellas Trail: This famous trail extends for 34 miles between St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs. The trail can be accessed from multiple points along its beautiful path. The popular trail is shared by runners, bicyclists, skaters, and hikers.
South Florida is the most densely populated region of the state. Millions of people live along both coasts from Miami to Palm Beach and from Fort Myers to Naples. South Florida is truly unique because not only is it more tropical with lush green vegetation and taller palm trees, but its geography is flat and sandy on the coast and swampy across the Everglades in the middle. The weather is the big appeal of this region with short mild winters and relatively warm temperatures all year long. Although summers last longer here than in the rest of the state they are not much hotter because frequent afternoon showers and the constant ocean breeze help regulate the temperatures. The running scene is quite active here with several running clubs hosting great running events year round. There are many unique places to run in this region including city & state parks, scenic spots, and historic neighborhoods.
FAVORITE PLACES TO RUN
Hollywood Beach Boardwalk: The wide asphalt path, off-limits to cars, stretches for more than four miles parallel to the palm-lined beach on one side and a string of hotels, restaurants, and shops on the other. The boardwalk is shared by runners, skaters, bicyclists, and walkers.
Topeekeegee Yugnee Park: Also known as TY Park, this beautiful place is located just west of Interstate I-95 in Hollywood. The park has a scenic 2.2-mile paved path.
South Miami Beach: A great place to start is by Pier Park near the jetties. From this point, run north for several miles along the famous beach. Use the packed-sand corridor behind the umbrellas and soft sand.
Sanibel Island: This idyllic area is located about twenty miles southwest of Fort Myers. The unspoiled island has several miles of interconnected paved trails along tree-shaded back roads. The peaceful trails are a great way to explore this beautiful place.
Lowdermilk Park: Located in Naples, this is a popular spot with local runners. From the park, run south along Gulf Shore Blvd until it ends at 20th Avenue. Turn left at 20th Ave. and right at Gordon Drive. Continue on Gordon Drive until it ends at Gordon Point and head back the same way for a 10-mile run.
About the Author: A Club member since 2004, Mauricio Herreros is an avid runner and the author of three books including Running in Florida (Pineapple Press ISBN #1-56164-273-8), a complete guide to running in the Sunshine State. Mauricio has been running the roads and trails of Florida for fourteen years. When he is not running or writing, he works as a systems consultant. He lives in Northeast Florida with his family and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.