Friday, May 1, 2009

Biking the Lower Suwannee NWR

The 52,257 acre Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1979 to protect one of the largest undeveloped river-delta estuarine systems in the United States. The refuge is predominantly wetland and includes 26 miles of the Big Bend of Florida's Gulf coast, as well as the mouth and over 20 miles of the 325 mile long Suwannee River made famous by Stephen Foster in "Old Folks at Home" and later by Al Jolson in his popular song "Swanee." Winding its way south through northern Florida, the Suwannee River emerges from Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp and empties into the Gulf of Mexico at the refuge. A few years back I paddled 60 miles of the Suwannee as reported here, and three times since have done day paddles on this beautiful river.

The refuge is 10 miles from Cedar Key along County Road 347. The nine mile limerock Nature Drive is perfect for biking -- a bit bumpy in places, but fat tires handle it well -- and few cars travel the road and their speed limit is 25, so it felt safe.

Several ponds line the road, and cricket and bird songs fill the air.

We also ventured down the four dead-end side roads and also beyond several yellow gates onto old forest logging roads which are hard-packed dirt, not the slippery sugar sand so prevalent in Florida. Over 50 miles of such dirt roads are open to bikes (but not vehicles) allowing for much exploration. It was on the side roads (photo below) that the majority of today's wildlife spotting occurred, including Great Blue Heron, dozens of butterflies, a snake, and a bobcat that paused as it crossed the road in front of us to check us out, before scampering into the underbrush before we could get our cameras out.

We encountered an interesting mix of conifers, hardwoods, and palm and palmetto trees all in the same locale. The variety of habitats in the refuge provide homes for over 250 bird species including Ospreys, swallow-tailed kites, bald eagles, wood storks, white ibis, Herons, egrets, anhingas, double-crested cormorants, and Florida scrub jays. Other wildlife in the refuge include alligators, otters, turkey, deer, bobcats, river otters, salt marsh voles, eastern indigo snakes, and gopher tortoise.

We also were entertained by dozens of land crabs scurrying on the side roads as seen below...

It was a wonderful bike ride - the best off-road biking we've found around Cedar Key -- and we'll explore more of the dirt trails when we return next winter.

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