Accessible Travel: Experience Natural Florida on the Wekiva Trail
By Janet K. Keeler
So close and yet so far away. That’s what it feels like to roll along the beautiful Seminole Wekiva Trail on a recumbent bike or in a wheelchair knowing that the bustling theme parks of Orlando are mere miles away.
The accessible Wekiva Trail in Central Florida’s Seminole County is a paved 14-mile pathway that meanders through natural Florida in the shadow of busy Interstate 4. The northern suburbs of Orlando, including the towns of Lake Mary and Altamonte Springs, flank the trail, putting it in the thick of a growing area. That means there are places to eat all around when riders get off the trail.
It also means that for travelers to Florida, an accessible bike ride isn’t out of the question when the family has come to the Sunshine State to visit the theme parks of Orlando. The Wekiva Trial is about 20 miles north of the city and surely that short side trip can land a spot on the itinerary.
The trail ends in the north at the Wekiva River Protection Area west of Sanford. There is an unpaved connecting path from the trail to the river that is not as welcoming to disabled travelers unless they have beach-ready wheelchairs with balloon wheels or fat-tire bikes. Not far from the Wekiva Trail to the west and closer to Sanford is Wekiwa Springs State Park. The springs here have long beckoned locals and travelers and there is now a swim lift to make the springs accessible to all. The seat is lowered into the water and remains there until the user is ready to exit the water.
Another bonus of the Wekiva Trail is that it is quite wide so it can accommodate walkers and bikers simultaneously. Anyone walking with an assistive device, be it a cane or walker, can easily share the path with bikers of all abilities whizzing by. And whiz by they do. This generally flat trail makes it easy to pick up speed, no matter your physical prowess. The trail crosses two busy byways, Markham Woods Road at Route 434 and Lake Mary Boulevard at International Parkway, and thankfully recently built underpasses keep bikers and hikers safe from traffic.
Phil Mings is a disabled U.S. Navy veteran who rides the Wekiva Trail regularly. He switched to a recumbent bike when his mobility issues increased. Mings is able to maneuver comfortably on the recumbent bike because the reclining position distributes his weight more evenly and provides support for his back. He is rarely alone on the trail. As vice president of the Florida Freewheelers, he’s usually rolling along with the “flock,” as they call themselves. The Freewheelers boasts about 700 members of various abilities and meet regularly for rides through Central Florida.
Mings said the Wekiva Trail is attractive to bikers and hikers with mobility issues because it’s flat, especially in the middle section. There are four trailheads with parking, including handicap spaces, and the Jones Trailhead, just south of Lake Mary Boulevard, is a good place to jump on. Mings’ group often starts their rides at the southernmost San Sebastian Trailhead and rides north through stands of towering palms trees and blooming bougainvillea in the spring and summer. In some places, the trail runs through subdivisions, separated from the houses by fences. Again, so close to civilization but so far away as fresh air and Sunshine State blue sky become the riders’ focus.
Two of the four trailheads, the Seminole County Softball Complex at Sanlando Park and the Markham Trailhead at the northern end of the Wekiva, have accessible restrooms. All trailhead areas have paved parking and water fountains to fill up those bottles. The Wekiva is also accessible about halfway from the Shoppes at Oakmonte in Lake Mary. This is an unofficial trailhead that can be used as a drop-off spot but car parking is not encouraged and is reserved for shoppers and diners there. However, there’s always bicycle parking (packed on the weekends) and many trail users congregate at one of the restaurants to socialize and eat or have coffee. Miggs said he stops at this point on the trail for rest and refreshment while the rest of the group completes the trail and then circles back to meet him. He then rejoins the group for the ride back to the softball complex trailhead.
Bikes can be rented at the center from David’s World Cycle, though they do not have recumbent bikes. For travelers who arrive in Florida with bikes in tow, this Oakmont is a good drop-off spot if others in the party want to shop or maybe head back to the theme parks for the day.
At the softball complex trailhead, there are picnic tables under covered shelters where riders might rest and eat, while listening to the crack of the softball bats nearby.
Here, too, are markers that tell the story of the trail which, as often happens in Florida, has a history that includes intrepid entrepreneurs and explorers. The Wekiva Trail was built in the abandoned roadbed of the old Orange Belt Railway. Peter Demens, a wealthy sawmill owner in nearby Longwood, was the driving force behind the railway that eventually connected the area to the Gulf of Mexico and St. Petersburg (Peter Demens namesake city if you didn’t make the connection) in the late 1800s. For a time, the Orange Belt was the longest narrow-gauge railroad in the country, extending nearly 120 miles. As they traverse the Wekiva Trail, bikers and hikers can contemplate those folks who paved the way for travel long ago.
The Wekiva is part of a larger trail system in Seminole County, including the Cross Seminole, Flagler and Kewanee trails. All are paved except the Flagler. Beginning in picturesque Winter Park, the Cross Seminole Trail rolls along for 23 miles and meets up with the Wekiva Trail at a pedestrian bridge along I-4 in Lake Mary. Bikers and hikers will experience similar amenities along the Cross Seminole, including parking and water fountains, but the ride is more challenging because of the hills.
That’s one reason biker Mings recommends the Wekiva Trail for premiere accessibility. The largely flat byway makes it attractive to people of differing abilities. And the ambitious round trip of nearly 30 miles is enough for a serious workout amid beautiful scenery.