Riding Florida Loops
South Florida offers cyclists some outdoor activity all-year round. Where else in the Continental United States could you ago cycling in shorts every month of the year? And the A1A road right along the Atlantic Ocean is probably the single best destination, with many public access options to the beach along with magnificent real estate and beautiful sights along the Intracoastal Waterway.
That said, it does get a bit repetitive when you main question at the start of the ride is simply: Do we go North first and then South or the other way around? And going back and forth every weekend can get a bit boring even with the best of views. For that reason, I'm always looking for routes which lead you around a loop, preferably even through some different landscapes to make it more interesting.
In the spring of 2019 I was trying to find some such loop rides. I wanted to find some loops of progressive duration and also include at least a few miles in each of the rides which I had not covered before. This led to three loop rides of progressive length on the following dates:
On Google Maps, the three loops side-by-side look like this (color = temperature):
Here is a brief description of each of those three rides.
- Sunday, 7-Apr-2019: 165km (102mi)
- Sunday, 21-Apr-2019: 202km (125mi)
- Monday, 27-May-2019: 262km (163mi)
Port St. Lucie - Jensen Beach 165km (102mi)
Early start just before sunrise. Going West on PGA Blvd is not for the faint of heart, as there can be a lot of traffic on this 6-lane highway with many intersections, traffic lights and overpasses. But on a Sunday early morning traffic is usually light and after the first 10 km you are past the Mirasol community and the last traffic lights - West of there past the Sandhill Crane park you are pretty much on your own.
At 16km (10mi) you turn on the Beeline Highway, also called Purple Heart Freeway which leads from West Palm Beach via Indiantown all the way up to Okeechobee in pretty much one long straight road running diagonally to the NW.
On this ride you turn North at the intersection of the Pratt & Whitney plant. After crossing Indiantown Road the route leads North through the Jones Hungryland Wilderness Environment Area. To my delight, the road here is wide, smooth surface, has a generous bike lane and little to no traffic. Some pine forest throws long shadows in the early morning sun.
This stretch seems very rural, with some cow pastures along the road and wide open fields. Definitely a very different feel from the often busy city traffic of PGA Blvd in Palm Beach Gardens.
At the development of Arundel the road bends West and crosses the canal which leads from the St. Lucie River basin SW to Lake Okeechobee. That bridge is tall enough to let sailboats go through, hence quite a climb, but rewarding with a nice view all around. Then the road turns North again and eventually crosses I95.
I had ridden this stretch once several years back during the Coast to Lake ride in 2011. Today's ride would pass the start and finish of that ride in Jensen Beach a few hours later.
Heading further North crossing the SW Martin Hwy 714 I reach new terrain which I have not seen before. At first, it's a nice highway without much traffic, head in a NW direction. But after crossing the Becker Hwy into the city of Port St. Lucie traffic increases and unfortunately there is no bike lane on this 3-lane thoroughfare called SW Port St. Lucie Blvd. It would probably be somewhat safer riding on the sidewalk, but also much slower.
I stop for some powerade drinks, sweets and bananas at a gas station at around 75km (47mi), just short of the halfway point. A few more km of the busy city traffic, then after crossing the St. Lucie River East bound I can turn NE on to the SE Veterans Memorial Parkway. Here traffic thins out and soon the road reaches the Intracoastal / Indian River via SE Walton Road. Today I'm heading back South towards Jensen Beach; in a future ride I plan to extend this loop all the way up to Fort Pierce and ride down Hutchinson Island on the East side of this stretch of the Indian River.
This is a beautiful stretch with nice views of the Intracoastal. Although I have ridden here many times, this was a new connection to get here. Soon I cross the bridge in Jensen Beach out towards the beach and cross the 100km (62mi) mark.
As I have plenty of daylight left and feel pretty good in my legs, I extend down to the Southern tip of Hutchinson Island with its beach access at the Bathtub Reef. Talk about another scenic highlight, both to get here past some Key-West style along a small road until you reach the beach park at the very end of the public road.
Good time to take off the bike shoes, eat and drink, and just enjoy the surroundings. From here it's back via the two bridges off Hutchinson Island towards Sandsprit Park, where Jill and I occasionally drive up by car to then ride the Hutchinson Island loop with the tandem. From here it's about 45km down via Hobe Sound and Jupiter Island back down to Juno Beach. This latter part is also very scenic, but of course much more familiar than the more Westerly parts of this loop. All in all a very enjoyable new loop of about 100mi with much variety and plenty of great stopping points. The only major drawback is the section through Port St. Lucie along the 3-lane highway without bike lane and city traffic. I need to find some alternate way to connect this loop...
Indiantown - Fort Pierce: 202km (125mi)
This is a slightly extended loop with the main difference being that it circumvents Port St. Lucie and its city traffic.
It's also a very cool morning, with temperatures dipping into the 50's along the Beeline Highway in the pre-dawn hour. So I'm glad when the sun finally rises just as I cross the bridge over the canal just before reaching Indiantown.
The air is fresh enough for there to be some steam rising off the relatively warm water in the canal. I stop at the gas station and convenience store in town to warm up over some coffee and pastries.
The route is very easy to find, just three 45 degree turns to the right every 20 miles or so. On the stretch going straight North through the Allapattah Flats I pass a large flock of storks grazing next to the road. Surprisingly, two vehicles which just passed me a bit earlier don't bother them, but when I approach silently on the bicycle they all take flight and climb into nearby trees to get to safety.
After crossing the SW Martin Hwy 714 the road is new territory for me. Just near the county boundary between Martin and St. Lucie county there is a prison along the road. Riding past the correctional facility somehow reminds me of the freedom to just cycle along these roads and pursue one's own dreams...
The road quality here deteriorates a bit, with frequent bumps between the concrete slabs. There is also no bike lane, but since there is very little traffic I don't mind much.
There is something about those long straights which requires you to get into your own rhythm and take it literally one mile at a time. It's also one of the main reasons I keep my triathlon bars mounted on the road bike. You can take some pressure off your back and just ride more aerodynamically and comfortably (except perhaps having to crane the neck a bit more while tucked down low).
After many more miles I finally cross the path of I-95 again, which signals that I'm getting close to Fort Pierce.
Just another mile or so and I also ride under the Turnpike, and past a few large warehouses and shipping centers located close to the Fort Pierce exits of both major highways. I'm crossing the 100km mark. A more urban section awaits, with more traffic lights breaking up the rhythm, but also with more sidewalks, trees and shade.
Soon I reach downtown Fort Pierce where Jill and I have often stopped for breakfast during our tandem rides around Hutchinson Island. While my favorite cafe is closed on Sundays, the nearby Braford restaurant at the Galleria offers outdoor seating in the shade and plentiful breakfast options.
After this tasty treat and recovery I'm happy to continue the ride. First I have to cross the tall bridge out to the Fort Pierce Inlet. While a slow climb into the East wind, the view from the top is unusually clear. The air is so crisp and clean that I can see both the Jensen Beach bridge and the Stuart bridge at the Southern end of Hutchinson Island, some 19 miles (30 km) away.
I linger a bit at the park benches right at the Inlet and enjoy the cool breeze coming off the Ocean. Going South from here on Hutchinson Island is not very scenic, but a good flat road with bike lane, past the nuclear power plant at about the halfway point. Near the Southern end there is a Public, where I usually stop to buy some gatorade, bananas and pastries. Then I ride a few short miles to the Southern tip of the Island with the Bathtub Reef, where I enjoy eating, drinking and resting. And today, also swimming:
Thanks to the waterproof Nikon camera I can go for a refreshing swim. Better to have saltwater stains from a refreshing swim than salty sweat stains from a long ride on the jersey!
I need to lay in the sun as with the wet jersey and the Ocean breeze it is too cold in the shade. But thankfully there is plenty of sun - and I re-apply sunscreen to avoid sunburn.
After a while I continue heading back the by now quite familiar rest of the route, some 30+ miles (50 km). Since it's only 1:30pm early afternoon I have plenty of time - but also plenty of heat.
After the two tall bridges the route turns South again, past the Sandsprit park and Stuart down to Hobe Sound, where I turn to Bridge Road with its nice alley of banyan trees providing some relief from the sun.
I have 175 km down, some 25 km to go. One final rest at the beach access on Bridge Road and then on to the last hour or so of riding. I'm tired and the heat is getting to me, but I'm quite happy with this extended loop as it brought lots of interesting scenery, some new roads out West and the various Inlets (Fort Pierce, Stuart, Jupiter) as well as Hutchinson Island and of course Jupiter Island. Probably my favorite loop of this size. (Ride time 7h 31min, 202km, average speed ~ 27km/h)
Okeechobee - Fort Pierce: 262km (163mi)
Monday, 27-May-2019 (Memorial Day)
After the two shorter loops in April I decided to extend the loop all the way NE to the lake and town of Okeechobee. This would not just be an extension of these loops, but also a variation and extension of the Coast to Lake ride I had done eight years ago (March 2011).
I start riding at 4am. Despite the time of year less than 4 weeks from the summer solstice, I am surprised at how cool it gets along the Beeline Highway. There is a fog which makes the cool air fairly uncomfortable and also dangerous to ride as cars don't see the little blinking red light as well. Furthermore, there is construction on a stretch South of Indiantown which means all traffic is going along one side of the 4-lane divided highway, with no bike lane in the direction going North! Here it is very difficult to see when cars are approaching due to the blinding headlights and the fog. A few times I just decide to stop and get off the road when cars are approaching from behind and the front so as to not become a casualty of a would-be collision. I am very happy when I cross the tall bridge at the Southern town limit of Indiantown.
It's about 6am and I stop at the same gas station in Indiantown again to warm up over a cup of coffee and some pastries for my first breakfast. I chat with the owner Champ and two of his guests - exactly the same as last month! They must think I do these rides all the time...
After 45 minutes or so I continue NW on the Beeline Hwy. At least the sun is rising and we have daylight now.
I should cherish this cool air, as later in the day I will suffer from the heat and near vertical midday sun! But the residual fog and cool air will take a bit longer to warm up, so it's still a bit on the chilly side. I get into a good rhythm and listen to music, just clicking away the miles. It's about 18 miles (30 km) to the turn point where I can go West and access the levee along Lake Okeechobee. I actually miss the exit and ride a bit too far, realizing my mistake when there is another intersection that I know does not come before the turnoff. Begrudgingly I turn around and do an extra two miles or so prior to connecting over to the West.
Now the sun comes up and starts warming the air nicely. I pass a large antenna tower which hosts maybe a hundred vultures up and down its steel structure. I guess they'll have to wait a few more hours for the thermals to kick in by late morning. Once up on the levee there is a nice view all around, with the occasional alligator visible in the waters of Lake Okeechobee.
These next ten miles or so are definitely one of the scenic highlights of this loop. By the time I reach the beach access park in Okeechobee I have covered 60 miles (100 km). The nearby gas station and convenience store provides food for a second breakfast, which I now enjoy on the park benches at the Lake, the Western-most point of today's ride.
After about 1/2 hour I continue the ride. This next stretch follows the main highway from Okeechobee roughly East-North-East to Fort Pierce. I don't think I've ever driven along this rode, neither by car or bicycle - so again at least some new miles for me today. There is no wind and the sun is getting really intense now even though it's only 10am. I'm glad I have the white sun sleeves on my arms to protect the ski from the intense UV radiation. Sunscreen does work and I use it on face and legs, but you tend to sweat a lot more with it. The sleeves, by contrast, once moist with sweat, generate comfortable evaporation cooling with the air moving at cyclist speeds.
I follow State Road 70 for about 30 miles (50 km) all the way to Fort Pierce. It's a 4-lane divided highway with wide shoulder as bike lane and relatively little traffic, so I don't mind riding here. One challenge now is that there are no trees providing shade and it gets very hot on the tarmac. At one point I seek refuge in the shade of a pedestrian overpass.
This structure seems to be literally in the middle of nowhere and I wonder why it was built. There are some fairgrounds to the SE and I presume this is for people who use public bus transportation to get to the fairgrounds. But if I were a pedestrian, I would not use this overpass due to the long triple switchback ramps which have been built to support wheelchair access. Most pedestrians would probably just walk across the road, which doesn't have all that much traffic anyway. The few wheelchairs actually using this overpass probably cost tens of thousands of $ each use, considering the million $ it took to build this structure - what a waste of taxpayer money! But I enjoy the shade it provides...
Soon I reach both I-95 and the Turnpike, signaling that I'm close to Fort Pierce. At a Wawa gas station I stop to refuel with gatorade and bananas and pastries - plenty of mineral drinks and sugar. About 100 miles (160 km) down, some 60 miles (100 km) more to go today.
Due to the memorial Day holiday there is plenty of traffic now over the bridge across to the Fort Pierce Inlet. Passing the beautifully restored Coast Guard facility I reach the crowded parking lot at the Inlet. These last 3 hours were very hot and exhausting, I need a longer rest now. Sitting down at one of the restaurants in the shade, taking my shoes off to cool my toes, I order some sandwich and spend a while chatting with my best friend Andreas in Germany to plan our upcoming summer vacation in the Alps. One way of day-dreaming here at the Northern-most point of today's ride.
After an unusually long 75 minute break, the next leg down South on Hutchinson Island is uneventful and the scenery more familiar. At the southern end I again stop at the Publix to stock up on some groceries, then head the 1 mile down to the Bathtub Reef.
I just like these little houses along the narrow road nestled between the Atlantic on the East and the Intracoastal on the West. It reminds me a bit of Key West with the similarly constrained single-road access with water on both sides. I'm glad I'm here by bike as the holiday traffic in the heat is not pleasant and people have to wait for parking slots to get near the beach.
After 45 minutes of resting, eating and drinking, I finally resume the ride. I'm tired now, but since it's only 3pm I have plenty of time and daylight left, so I'm not in a hurry. Climbing the two bridges is hard work in the merciless heat, but offers rewarding views from the top to the Inlet and all the boat traffic.
The ride back is obviously much more familiar now. One nice short stretch is the concrete trail through the Seabranch Preserve State Park between Stuart and Hobe Sound. It's dry soil and pine tree stands make for an interesting contrast to the cultivated lawns and palm tree lined mansions along Jupiter Island, for example.
It's 4 pm and the shadows are starting to fall from the West now. Another 20 minute rest at Hobe Sound's Bridge Road beach park and I'm ready for the final leg down Jupiter Island. At its Southern end the parking lots are overflowing as everybody wants to take advantage and spend this glorious day out in the sun at the beach.
After 155 miles (250 km) I am very tired now and happy to be almost finished with plenty of time to spare. I reach my home a bit before 6 pm, time to jump in the pool and cool off after the long and hot ride.
Elapsed time about 14 hours from 4am to 6pm, 163 miles (262 km) and about 10 hours of ride time. Not a very fast ride due to no wind and heat, but great variety in scenery, Coast to Lake, surprising extremes in temperature, and some new terrain - not bad for a days' worth of work in the saddle :-)
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