Florida Spotlight: Bikepacking to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
It finally happened: I went on the bikepacking trip I had dreamed of doing for so long.
If you read one of my recent blog posts about my bike Jolene then you already know some of the backstory about this trip, but my desire to bikepack the St. Marks trail started long before I got my bike.
When I started my first semester at FSU I was desperate to find a community that I connected with. I tried out every club that even remotely caught my attention and pushed myself to attend as many events as I could. Eventually I found my people at the Tallahassee Rock Gym, but in the early stages of my time at the rock gym I still craved that special connection. At the time I rode my bike to class everyday, so I considered getting involved with the biking community in Tallahassee. One event on Facebook in particular caught my attention: it was an all-female introductory bikepacking trip to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. I was so psyched on attending this trip – even though I didn’t even own a tent or a sleeping bag at the time – but unfortunately I had a conflict on the same weekend and wasn’t able to go.
Looking back, I’m not entirely sure if it was the conflicting event that kept me from signing up for that trip or my lack of experience and confidence in my biking abilities. Even so, a seed was planted that day that finally came to fruition in March of 2019.
My boyfriend John had been working feverishly on creating bikepacking bags for almost a month before our trip. One weekend in March the stars seemed to align, because I had time off from work and our bikepacking set up was complete, so we planned our trip.
The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge sits along the gulf coast of Florida, roughly 20 miles from the city of Tallahassee. Trains used to travel from the city to the refuge throughout the early 1900s, and when the railway was no longer used for transporting goods to the coast the city converted the tracks into the St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail.
John and I knew that the St. Marks trail would be the perfect introduction to bikepacking because the trail is paved and surrounded by trees that offer shade for most of the ride, and there are also plenty of covered benches and restrooms along the trail.
The plan was to depart from our house in Tallahassee on Saturday morning and bike to the Tallahassee Rock Gym, which is close to where the trail starts up. We would ride along the trail through the city and then continue until we got close to the National Wildlife Refuge. Our goal was to bike all the way to the historic lighthouse along the coast, so we planned on deviating from the trail and taking the coastal highway into the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and riding on the road in the refuge until we reached the lighthouse.
Since there isn’t any camping within St. Marks we reserved a spot at a campsite in Newport, Florida and planned on backtracking after we got to the lighthouse so we wouldn’t have to bike as much on Sunday. Here’s an outline of our trip:
For the first 6 miles of our trip John and I rode with our roommates Adrian and Noah, and our friend Dom. I’ve always been nervous biking along the road in Tallahassee, so it was nice to travel with a group of friends. After all, there’s safety in numbers.
When we reached the picturesque tree-lined section of the St. Marks trail, our friends left to ride on a shorter trail nearby and John and I continued on our own. My bikepacking set up included the frame bag that John made me, a stuff sack that we attached to my handlebars, a saddle bag that I bought off Amazon, and the cutest water bottle cage in the shape of a bird from REI (scroll down for a picture!). I managed to fit a sleeping bag in the front stuff sack, snacks and toiletries in the frame bag, and my sleeping pad and clothes in the saddle bag. John had a much more elaborate set up; he had a frame bag, a handlebar bag, and a back rack with two “pannier” style bags hanging off the sides and a stuff sack on top. John made all of his bags by himself, except for the tiny bag on the top of his frame close to his handlebars. Since John had more room to work with and is a stronger cyclist he carried our tent, our cooking gear, bike tools in case of an emergency, and his own personal sleeping gear and snacks.
When we started biking along the St. Marks trail I felt energized and strong. The trail was absolutely beautiful: we were riding under a canopy of trees and wildflowers occasionally peppered the side of the trail. It was a warm and sunny day, but it wasn’t miserably hot because a cool breeze was blowing. Other bikers would smile and nod as we passed and I could tell that they were sizing up our setup.
After about 13 miles of biking along the canopy trail (that puts us at about 19 miles total) we reached the Coastal Highway. For the next 3 miles we rode on the shoulder of the highway. At first I was terrified every time a car rushed past us, but after a while my fear drifted away and was replaced with a general pain in my thighs and knees. By this point in our ride the elation of being on the trail had worn off and I was only focused on the road in front of me and the thwip thwip thwip of my knees against my frame bag. Luckily for us, the cars on the Coastal Highway were extremely respectful of cyclists and gave us a wide birth, which allowed me to focus instead on the repetitive motion of peddling over and over again.
We passed our campsite as we biked on the highway, but opted not to stop so we could reach the lighthouse faster. Shortly after we left the campsite behind us we turned onto Lighthouse Road and biked into the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The fee for entry on a bike is only $1 per person, but the attendant waived us in since he wasn’t able to break a $20.
The ride through St. Marks towards the lighthouse was easily the most scenic and the most difficult portion of the ride. The light breeze that had kept us cool earlier in the day had turned into a fierce headwind that made coasting impossible. To make matters worse we were in the sun the entire time and the road was often bumpy, which is excruciating when you’ve been sitting on a bike saddle for hours. We stopped once to use the bathroom during that section of the ride and pushed on for the last 7 miles to the lighthouse. When we finally reached the coast it was a huge relief; we were greeted with stunning views of the Gulf of Mexico and collapsed in the sand to soak it all in.
As we stood with our feet in the water and our bikes in the sand I remember John turning to me and reminding me that we had left our house on our bikes that morning and were now standing on the coast of Florida. It felt unreal to have traveled so far on just our bikes.
We eventually moved to a shady tree underneath the lighthouse and lied down beneath it to eat snacks and rest. Passersby would ask us where we came from, and they marveled at our journey.
John and I stayed at the lighthouse for an hour before we heaved our bodies back onto our bikes and pushed off towards our campsite. The ride out of St. Marks was just as physically demanding as it was on the way in – somehow in the mere hour that we spent resting the wind had changed directions so it could continue to push against us – but the time flew by. I remember passing the bathroom we had stopped at and wondering how we had traveled so far so quickly. Within what felt like the blink of an eye we were leaving St. Marks behind and traveling back to our campsite in Newport. When we arrived at the campground we dismounted our bikes and staggered to the check in station to find our campsite.
The camp host led us to a spot close to the bathrooms, and we collapsed onto the picnic table. The full weight of the ride was finally kicking in, so setting up the tent was completely out of the question until we could allow our legs to rest. John and I feasted on rice and beans and then crawled into the tent to avoid the bugs.
The next morning we packed up our bike bags and were eager to hit the road. The ride on the highway towards the trail somehow miraculously flew by, as if some strange phenomena makes trips quicker on the way back than on the way there. The return ride on the St. Marks trail was even more enjoyable than the ride the day before, mainly because we were the only cyclists traveling towards the trailhead instead of away from it. The wind that had fought us so hard the day before was finally cooperating, and it pushed against our backs and propelled us forward. For the first couple of miles John and I were completely alone on the trail, and that was the perfect reward for the effort we put in the day before.
As we biked into Tallahassee and approached the rock gym we were ecstatic. It was an absolutely beautiful day, so we stopped at a local coffee shop in Railroad Square Art Park and enjoyed the sunshine with two iced coffees. Our good friend Tyler happened to show up shortly after we did, so we chatted with him while we drank our drinks.
I know our ride was only two days long, but it felt so rewarding to be back in civilization and to sit at that coffee shop knowing what my body had done up until that point. I was thankful for the pain in my thighs and the throbbing in my butt, because I was proud of what my body was capable of. Almost a year ago John and I had rode for 20 miles along the St. Marks trail with our friends Brooke and Noah, and I remember feeling completely exhausted after that ride. Here I was, a year later, feeling strong and ready to go after two days and 60 miles.
When we left the coffee shop we made a stop along Gaines Street to chat with our friend Liz, and then we finished biking back home. I am extremely familiar with the ride from the rock gym to my house, and I was dreading the numerous uphill sections; surprisingly, though, they weren’t that bad and before I knew it I was standing in my living room.
This ride was extremely special to me for a variety of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that I had been dreaming of this ride for over two years but never felt like it was a possibility. I am extremely proud that John and I were able to identify bikepacking as something that we want to do and then actually do it. It’s so easy to talk about doing things but never take the steps to bring that dream into fruition. Within two months John had built the bags and we had bought the supplies in order to make this happen, and I am so proud of that.
What really made this a memorable experience for me, though, was the knowledge that I couldn’t have done this back when I saw the initial event on Facebook. The lack of gear wasn’t what was holding me back, it was my own body. The change in my physical endurance from my last St. Marks ride to now was drastic enough for me to realize that I have gotten stronger.
I can tell that this is just the beginning of my bikepacking adventures with John and Jolene, and I can’t wait for our next ride.
If you’re interested in getting into bikepacking I have a few suggestions that might make it easier. For your first ride, try and choose a location that you are somewhat familiar with and that is relatively close to help in case something goes wrong. The St. Marks trail was perfect for me because it is so close to Tallahassee, and a good friend volunteered to pick us up if we needed to bail. Like with all multi-day trips, be sure to let someone know where you’ll be and what time they should expect you to be back.
As far as the bikes go, keep in mind what issues might arise and be prepared to fix them. John brought all of his bike tools because he wasn’t sure what to expect, but now that we’ve gone on our first trip he plans on thinning out his stash until he’s only bringing the essentials. Tune up your bike before you go but don’t try anything drastic – John changed my tires the night before we left and accidentally popped the tube. Luckily we had a spare, but don’t attempt anything crazy if you don’t have the necessary replacements on hand.
The bike bags that I brought held up wonderfully! I highly recommend the saddle bag that I got from Amazon because it kept my stuff dry during the late night dew. If you’re looking to really invest in bikepacking specific gear I recommend having a down sleeping bag that compresses a lot or a liner if you’ll be in colder weather, as well as an ultralight sleeping pad. I have a therm-a-rest sleeping pad and it took up almost the entirety of my saddle bag, so if I get more into bikepacking I’ll probably invest in a smaller model. Jolene is blessed with lots of braze-ons, which means I can attach water bottle cages to various spots on her frame. If your bike isn’t so lucky then consider buying a hydration pack to carry extra water if you need to use a frame bag and can’t fit additional water bottle cages (if I needed a hydration pack though I would totally buy this one).
The last thing I learned from this trip is that it is worth the extra money to buy nicer gear. I had bought the bird shaped water bottle cage purely for the aesthetic, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that it performed far better than the cheap cage I borrowed from one of my roommates.
All that being said, the best thing to do if you want to get into bikepacking is to go bikepacking. Start small, but at least start. This article from Outside Magazine is a huge inspiration to go after your cycling dreams no matter how big they are. Riding a bike is one of the easiest things to do – it’s as easy as, well, riding a bike – so your trip is only as hard as you make it.
Ride safe everyone, and I hope to see ya’ll out on the trails.
Was this helpful? Have feedback for me? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise specified in the caption.