ORANGE CITY — Riding his bicycle on a trail near Blue Spring State Park, Mark Schweder spotted a rare find for mountain-biking fans: woodland terrain with slopes and gullies.
He envisioned an off-road cycling trail that explored the changing elevations and cut through thick stands of oak and pine.
Two years later, that vision is progressing through the state park, one hand-sawed palmetto trunk at a time.
The first five miles of a potential 20-mile hiking and biking trail could open this year, with enough volunteer help to build it, said Schweder and Park Manager Robert F. Rundle.
"This would be the first real official public access to this part of the park, and it'll be a good thing when it's done," Rundle said.
The new trail could offer yet another big draw for Blue Spring State Park, which ranks ninth among Florida state parks in annual attendance. A prime site for wintertime manatee viewing, it had 540,084 visitors during the previous fiscal year, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. The trail cuts through a little-used area of the 2,600-acre park, north of the entrance on West French Avenue.
Mountain-bike enthusiasts say there is a tremendous demand and interest in new trails, so this one could easily attract people throughout the state. That demand could increase, if state budget cuts cause the closing of some state parks and the state's main trailways department.
"I know I'm not the only person who goes out of the way to find and ride great trails," said Stephanie Striefel of West Palm Beach, a board member of the nonprofit Florida Bicycle Association. "Mountain bikers are like that. As the movie said, 'If you build it, they will come.'"
The trail would also be a boon for local riders, said Ted Wendler in DeLand. It could connect to and complement Volusia County's major trail project, a 26-mile, paved Spring-to-Spring Trail from DeLeon Springs State Park to Gemini Springs Park in DeBary.
All those visitors could help boost the local economy, without hurting the environment. "It's a passive use that is one of the least invasive," Rundle said.
With enough hands to cut through the forests, the trail costs little to build. Schweder visits the park several times a week, on his days off from shifts as a firefighter in Marion County.
Meanwhile, the park has played host to several trail-building sessions; the next one is set for March 19.
Last summer, the park had a summer camp for young people, ages 11 to 18, said Katie Bergin, the AmeriCorps staff person based at the park. Last weekend, several Stetson University students and other newcomers spent a Saturday cutting away palm fronds and digging out "gator-backs," or thick palmetto trunks jutting from the soil.
Schweder led a small group of volunteers on a new section along the edge of an old sinkhole. Volunteers bent over to shovel and chop the underbrush, working in silence. Metal tools clanging against trees and rustling dry leaves were the only sounds in the secluded section of park.
"There is a lot of labor in this," Rundle said. "To have a trail in the woods and make it look like a trail in the woods, it has to be done by hand, rather than by machines."
The progress is evident in the first two miles already roughly cut through the pine flatwoods, through oak hammocks and up to sandy, desert-like scrub. Meandering through the woods, the path will take future visitors past seasonal ponds and wetlands and Florida scrub-jay habitat.
Eventually, Schweder would love to see the trail extended into two old borrow pits, relics of sand and clay mining, where the gullies and cliffs offer elevation changes as much as 12 yards. It could be converted into a challenging course for an expert mountain biker.
But it takes time and energy to get the pathway there. In coming months, a college spring-break crew and an experienced trail-building group are expected to help.
With enough hands, Schweder hopes the first five miles could open sometime this summer.
Ludmilla Lelis can be reached at email@example.com or 386-253-0964.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun