Looking over a business conference agenda's recreational options earlier this year, I felt pretty inadequate.
Deep-sea fishing? I get seasick.
Golf? I don't play on courses without fiberglass dinosaurs or windmills.
Tennis? Can't really serve after a shoulder surgery.
So I threw my mountain bike on top of my truck before driving south to Destin, Fla., in hopes of finding a few hours of solitary trail riding.
In an area known to millions for its wide swath of beaches, condos and outlet malls, there are a surprising number of less traditional outdoor opportunities in Destin.
I first started thinking about this last summer while on a family beach vacation. Neither my brother-in-law nor I have patience for lounging in the sun at the beach, so we set out for an extended bike ride.
Steve had already spotted the Eastern Lake Trail System on County Road 325 (the north-south road just east of Seaside), and he had ridden the loop-trail the day before I had arrived. He had also spotted the Longleaf Pine Greenway Trail, originating in the same fee-for-use parking lot in Point Washington State Forest, so we took it—heading back to the west, north of Seagrove, Seaside, Watercolor, etc.
We had a ball, riding on a great single-track trail that winds through the wilderness for several miles east-to-west, just a couple of miles north of some of the most developed and expensive real estate in the South.
The trail winds through long-leaf and scrub pine, knee-high palmetto groves and in and out of thick forest. There are wooden bike bridges over swamps. We didn't see another biker, but we did spot a couple of snakes, some birds and plenty of biodiversity. Undoubtedly, there are a few gators back there, too.
We weren't exactly mountain biking, of course—we probably didn't change elevation by more than 5 feet the entire ride. But what we lacked in hills we made up for in negotiating the sandy spots. More than once, we had to get off and walk to push our bikes through the sand.
On this ride, I was using my sister-in-law's hybrid, which has flat-top, knobby-sided tires. It was sufficient to get me through, but I later learned that full-blown, knobby mountain bike tires are far more efficient.
We also got lost a couple of times, but nothing too serious. We made our return trip via the numerous paved bike paths running along County Road 30-A, returning from the wilderness in just a matter of moments to the crowded buzz of beach traffic, condo construction and vacation civilization.
I was interested in checking out that Eastern Lake trail that my brother-in-law had spotted before. It offers a 3-, 5- and 10-mile loop. My plan: the 10-mile loop.
An unseasonably heavy, steady rain kept me off the trail on day one. Instead, I popped over to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park to enjoy a solitary stroll on a beach under gloomy skies, with 25 mph winds and crashing surf. (Topsail also offers hiking trails off the beach.)
The weather was set to clear overnight, so I awoke early Saturday and headed off to ride. My anticipation grew as I traveled due east on U.S. 98, listening to bluegrass music on the Florida public radio station and watching the sun rise dead ahead. Upon arriving at the trail, however, my mood was quickly dashed.
I stepped from my truck to realize the key to my bike lock was 25 minutes back to the west, sitting on my dresser in my hotel room. So, after killing the better part of an hour on the road, I had to divert to the five-mile loop to make it back in time for the end of the conference.
I found the Eastern Lake trail fun and challenging at points, but also less interesting on stretches than the Longleaf Pine trail. Twice I had to dismount, take off my shoes and carry my bike through sections of the trail flooded by two days of steady rain.
The trail, though, was made by patching a single-track trail and a network of dirt roads, which I found less challenging and interesting. Nevertheless, it is relatively well marked and not a bad way to spend part of your stay at the beach.