I recently completed the Huracan 300 bikepacking route with my husband Mark and friends Cathy and Zach. The Huracan 300 is the Singletrack Samurai’s signature route, featured on bikepacking.com and described as “the ultimate off-road endurance experience in the state of Florida.” The route is a 360-mile loop of singletrack, forest service roads, grass, swamp and sand through central Florida. Over 100 riders showed up for the 13th annual Grand Depart on February 4th.
Our foursome had done several of the Samurai’s routes, most notably the Spanish route, which covered 520 miles from the west coast to east coast of Florida. We were familiar with the Huracan terrain and felt well prepared physically as well as from an equipment standpoint. I rode my Surly Bridge Club with ExtraTerrestrial 27.5 x 2.5 tires, which are a great option for the heavy Florida sugar sand. We planned to complete the route in four days, which meant roughly 100 miles a day and lots of riding in the dark. We had our helmet lights and bike computer and Garmin inReach dialed in and we were able to keep them recharged with portable batteries. We carried a great lightweight tent, Nature Hike Cloud Up 2, and our Marmot sleeping bags rated to 20 degrees. We got really lucky with the weather, as it was in the mid to upper 40s at night and mid 70s during the day with not a drop of rain.
We camped at the Shangri La campground in Ocala the night before the Grand Depart. The majority of the other riders also camped there, and we enjoyed checking out everyone’s bike setup and chit chatting about everyone’s plans for the race. Then I discovered that I had forgotten to pack my bike shorts and jersey that I was planning to ride in. I momentarily panicked until we remembered there was a bike shop at mile 20 of the route where I could replace them.
As we slept, we heard packs of coyotes howling throughout the night.
The Samurai sent us off on the morning of Day 1 with his famous “May the course be with you” and we began our first 20 miles of technical singletrack through the Santos Mountain Bike Park. We made a quick stop at the Santos Bike Shop where I was able to purchase a pair of Pearl Izumi shorts and a Santos jersey which I changed into at the shop and continued to wear for the rest of the race. After that, we rode through 20 more miles of singletrack then through the pineapple palm-lined Marshall Swamp Trail which was the most gorgeous section of the entire route. Next up were the red gravel roads of the Ocala National Forest, which are really hilly by Florida standards. This area is solidly bear country, with signs posted about bear activity, but we saw no bears that day. Night caught us just as we finished in the forest, and we rode through a deeply sandy residential area where I fell twice and a man living there came out and yelled at us for shining lights at him and riling up his dogs. After that, we made our only service stop of the day at the legendary Shockley Heights Market. There were at least eight other Huracan riders who stopped there and we briefly exchanged stories with them. We rode a few more miles up the road and stopped at the Alexander Springs State Park campground for the night.
Day 1 totals: 76 miles and 2,195 feet elevation gain.
Day 2 began with us rolling out from our campground at sunrise and heading to the Paisley Mountain Bike Trails, a pristine 15 miles of wooded singletrack, and on to the gravel roads of the Seminole State Forest. From there, we encountered the most rugged section of the route, Rock Springs Run State Preserve, which had trail often obscured with tall grasses, several shallow water crossings, and sand and rocks. It was slow going with a little bit of hike-a-bike. From there we encountered the Wekiva River, which we had to cross at a spot that was about 30 or 40 feet wide with waist deep water. We decided our husbands would be able to carry each of our bikes overhead as they crossed the gator-filled river. Cathy and I waded across, carrying miscellaneous equipment. The water was cool and felt great to us since it was in the 70s and we were a bit sweaty. We saw no gators during the river crossing. After the crossing, we headed to Apopka where we had dinner at a Taco Bell and then we rode the Lake Apopka gravel trails just as the sun was setting. After it was fully dark, we saw a dozen possums and we kept seeing red gator eyes looking back at us when we shone our helmet lights at the lake. We saw a seven-foot gator lying at the edge of the trail. He didn’t bat an eye at us as we rolled by him. The Apopka Trails spit us out on the roads of Clermont, which seems like a Tuscan hill village with steep hills. We rode all the hills of Clermont, including the long and steep Sugarloaf Mountain, late at night before arriving at our hotel which, to add insult to injury, was at the top of a hill.
Day 2 totals: 103 miles and 3,310 feet elevation gain.
Day 3 began with a sunrise rollout from our hotel, a ride around Lake Minneola, and on to Groveland where we stopped at a Dunkin for coffee and avocado toast and a re-supply at a Publix grocery store. From there, we hit some sandy roads that led to the East Tract of the infamous Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve. Our intro to the swamp was some sandy and grassy double track with a few gators along the trail. We started noticing an enormous cloud that we realized was a big billow of smoke that we could now smell. A bit later we rolled up to a helicopter that had landed in a clearing. The men standing around the helicopter explained they were doing a controlled burn in the swamp. They said as long as we kept to the main gravel roads we shouldn’t have a problem with the fire. We continued on and saw three rusted out abandoned vehicles from the 1950s. We kept smelling smoke and saw some trees burning but it wasn’t bad enough to deter us, so we biked on. After 50 miles in the Swamp, we ran out of daylight just as we were entering the West Tract of the Swamp and then it got real. We encountered heavy unrideable sand that we had to push our bikes through and two water crossings with calf-deep water and cypress knobs everywhere. You know it’s bad when you turn onto Graveyard Road followed by Dark Stretch Road. There was a full moon, we heard hunting dogs howling, there was smoke everywhere and a few burning trees, we saw a memorial on Graveyard Rd with a lit candle in the middle of nowhere, we were being chased by some big animal clomping through the woods parallel to the road, and somehow we survived and emerged onto Highway 50 in Ridge Manor. We hightailed it on a one-inch-wide shoulder with trucks zooming past us to get to a Circle K gas station. That was the scariest and most intense section of the route to say the least. We stopped at Taco Bell in Ridge Manor for a late dinner. We had a reservation at a nearby campground but when we saw a Days Inn near the Taco Bell, we made a quick decision to stay there instead. Covered in mud and smelling of smoke, we snuck our dirty bikes into our room. It was a puzzle to get the four bikes to fit around the small room with two beds.
Day 3 totals: 96 miles and 1,020 feet elevation gain.
On Day 4, we rolled out at 6 am on our final day knowing that it was only about 95 miles to our car. It was a chilly Florida morning, about 48 degrees, and after four miles of warmup, we headed into the Croom Mountain Bike Trails for 25 miles of twisty, sandy singletrack with lots of punchy climbs and descents. As it was a Tuesday morning, we had the trails pretty much to ourselves. I enjoyed this section but it was getting monotonous near the end and we were glad to finally be done and onto new scenery. We rode a bit of paved country roads before connecting onto part of the Florida Hiking Trail, which runs through all of Florida. From there, we headed to the Lake Lindsey Mall, an old fashioned restaurant and convenience store and the only service stop until near the end of the route. We spent over an hour there eating sandwiches from their deli at a picnic table behind the restaurant. It was a refreshing stop and the food and cold drinks gave us the energy we needed to continue. It wasn’t long before we entered the Citrus Forest where we rode forest service roads for about 15 miles. The roads were mostly hard-packed gravel but there were some deep sandy sections that caused me a bit of trouble. The temperatures by then had risen to mid-70s and there was no shade at all and the white gravel was reflecting the sun’s heat, so this was definitely the hottest part of our four-day ride. We exited the Citrus Forest and encountered a man on a bike with a professional camera. He said he had been dot watching and had been waiting for us! He was with bikepacking.com and documenting the race. We chatted with him for a few minutes and he took some action shots of us as we pedaled away. From there, we took some of the Florida Hiking Trail that connected us to the Withlacoochee Trail, a paved trail that our group had ridden countless times in the past. This was familiar territory for us and we knew we were getting so close to being done. We had about 20 miles of that trail, which then connected us to the gorgeous Dunnellon Trail, a short section that crosses the Withlacoochee River and then goes through the Rainbow River. After being spoiled by the paved trails, we got spit out onto a sandy, brushy, thorny section of field that connected us to a harrowing four-mile stretch of highway just as it was getting dark. None of us enjoyed being passed by countless cars and trucks zooming by at 70 mph as we rode a narrow shoulder with no proper bike lane. But we survived it and connected onto the Pruitt Trailhead, the westernmost section of the Santos Mountain Bike Park trails where we met several mountain bike riders who had just finished a night ride. They were so excited to chat with us to find out more about the Huracan. They were intrigued but also thought we were a bit nuts to be doing it. We had 17 miles back to the car at this point and it was about 8 pm. We were tantalizingly close but those last miles took forever and were for me the most miserable miles of the entire route. We hit the Tricycle Trail and rode it for a seemingly endless 12 miles of slow-going twisty, sandy singletrack through forests as we listened to coyotes howling and rang our bells to warn the bears of our presence. After finally making it to the end of Tricycle, we decided to ride the easier green trail Beyond instead of the prescribed technical blue trail called Ern N Burn. Then it was just one more two-mile trail back to the Shangri La campground and the end point of the route. At 10 pm, we arrived at the finish and chatted with one rider who had finished an hour before us. It was dark, it was quiet, there was no fanfare or medals or t-shirts or applause. We rode to our car, quickly changed out of our smelly, smoky, dirty riding clothes and drove back to Tampa, arriving home at midnight, longing for a hot shower and our clean beds.
These bikepacking races are an odd blend of freedom, accomplishment, elation, misery, discomfort, and fear all wrapped up in an unforgettable experience. In the days after the race, I began to process all of the things I saw and felt. There’s so much to process, from the sight of gators on the side of the trail and the gorgeous sunset over Lake Apopka and the bright full moon shining over us in the swamp, to the feel of the refreshing water as we crossed the Wekiva River, the smell of the burning forest as we passed through the controlled burn, the taste of the black bean chalupas at Taco Bell at the end of a 100 mile day, the sounds of the howling hunting dogs and coyotes and our bike bells warding off the bears, and the whistling of the wind in our ears as we coasted down the hills in Clermont. Then there are the stories of the people we met along the journey, both the other Huracan riders that we commiserated with and the confused onlookers like the older gentleman paddling his kayak on the Wekiva River just as we were crossing it with bikes overhead. There were the funny moments like when we set off the fire alarm in our hotel room at 6 am trying to dry our wet socks with the hotel hair dryer, and there were the miserable moments, most notably the last 15 miles of the route where everything in my body hurt and I just wanted to be done. That’s the conundrum of bikepacking: it’s full of highs and lows and everything in between. It stretches you to your limits and takes you to heights unimaginable. Riding bikes is the best way to experience life at its most basic yet most profound. I am already longing for my next multi-day bikepacking trip!
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