Saturday, October 8, 2011

Highlands County, Florida

Many of you are familiar with biking in Highlands County.  Several multi-day annual bicycle tours are hosted here.  Many other people come to the area for Highlands Hammock State Park, one of the oldest state parks in Florida.

The county lies at the southern edge of the Lake Wales Ridge, a series of sand dunes which mark what was an island in that long ago era when the majority of Florida was submerged.  The Ridge today forms a 100-mile spine down central Florida, its dunes spotted with fresh-water lakes of all sizes.

The county is rural, it's economy based in agriculture (citrus, cattle, and caladiums) with a smattering of tourism.  While multi-purpose bike trails are pretty much limited to Sebring, the county has a vast network of low-use rural roads perfect for bike rides.  If you are used to urban or suburban biking, Highlands offers a wonderful alternative.  It also offers a variety of pleasant hotels, motels, and campsites for visiting bicyclists.  Nothing like the Ritz or a resort, but well within my idea of OK.

River Otter
The county is Florida scrub punctuated by ranches and citrus groves.  Our local rides take us past groves, several ranches, a large expanse of wildlife refuge, and Lake June In Winter Scrub State Park. We commonly see sand hill cranes and scrub jays.  We also see river otter waddling across back roads, are paced by curious coyotes, watch wild turkeys roam through groves, and watch deer grazing on the roadsides and in nearby open fields.  Osprey sing in their high nests near the lakes, and black tailed kites soar above their homes in clusters of tall pines.

Scrub Jay
My personal favorite time of year is when the citrus groves are in bloom (winter-spring).  I have been known to do loop after loop though a local grove, just to enjoy the heady fragrance of the blooms.  My personal favorite activity is feeding the scrub jays.  I carry several snack bags bulging with raw peanuts in the shell on all our rides.  Scrub jays live in large family groups out in the scrub, and they come readily to offerings of peanuts.  Many people enjoy having the scrub jays eat the peanuts right out of their hands.  I prefer tossing handfuls of peanuts on the roadside and watching the birds fly in and carry them off.

Perhaps what is most enjoyable about biking here in Highlands is heading out for long, fast rides down uninterrupted stretches of quiet highways and back roads.  Businesses and residential neighborhoods cluster near highway 27 which runs north-south through the middle of the county.  The rest of the county is delightfully quiet and rural.

Al and I picked Highlands County as home because of Lake June and water skiing.  But before we bought our home, we biked the area extensively.  And we fell in love with it.