One of Florida's best non-Florida trail
Many of the descriptions of the Trails in Florida start off with - "most scenic trail in Florida, or very scenic". However, I would like to classify the Gainesville-Hawthorne as the most scenic because it looks like it was transplanted from some place not of Florida, making it exceptionally scenic. Nearly most of it in rural lands, and a good portion of it winding its way through hardwoods typically found in other southeastern states except Florida, sprawling oak and long leaf pine out in open grass lands, and general thick woods of the lowlands, this is all about scenic. The month of March brings out the white flowers on the prairie plum trees found in abundance near Paynes Prairie, plus the perfect green on the fresh sweetgum leaves, creates an idealic spring picture. As time goes by, the trail becomes more canopied making for tolerable riding in the warmer months and has created quite a tunnel affect which since there is no vertical relief in Florida, you're really are not missing any views. For a Florida trail, I would rate it 5 out of 5. Bring snaks and fluids.
"The first four miles are downhill, more or less when starting from Gainesville. The path does not always follow a railroad bed for this first portion, but twists and turns up and down through a very senic area festooned with live oaks, flowery meadows and pine trees. A bench beckons a between near mile two under a large shady tree. This turns into a hammock with more mild hills and twists and turns. You can gather much speed through here, expecially with a road bike, but be careful. There are a couple tight switchbacks and blind curves. The Gainesville end hosts many hikers, rollerbladers and familys with small kids that don't stay on the right side of the path. In fact, they have a habit of stopping dead center in the trail. Be prepared to stop for them.
At about mile 6 you are back on the former railroad bed and it is a straight nearly level shot to Hawthorne. Be careful at the crossings, police stake out one and ticket riders who don't come to a full stop. The area is well marked on the asphalt with stop warnings so be prepared. A couple other crossings toward the Hawthorne end are sandy roads and will grab narrow tires if you are not careful.
Sometime during the winter of 2002 a drinking fountain at the Hawthorne trailhead was removed, so make sure you bring enough water for the entire 30 miles. There are some eateries in Hawthorne, just a mile or so from the Hawthorne trailhead.
Overall, it is a very enjoyable ride."
First 5 miles are great
"The trail begins by the old city waterworks - a nice park in its own right, as well as an animal shelter. From there it heads south for a mile. You will pass a scenic overlook of Payne's Prairie - a wildlife preserve and an excellent example of that kind of habitat. Supposedly Payne's Prairie has been stocked with bison - Florida's only herd, but I have been there several times and never seen one.
When you come to the first stop sign, you can turn right and ride up to the ranger station. From here it's a short and scenic hike to Lake Chua and its thirty or forty lazy alligators. This is a small lake, and I have to wonder what all those alligators eat.
On the trail you have a short climb and then a series of exciting whoop-de-doos. Can easily exceed 25 mph even on a mountain bike.
After this section, the trail forks. To the right is a one-mile spur that leads to Lake Alachua overlook. At the end is a dangerous downhill that ends in a 270 degree turn to thr right. he first time I went here a fox trotted across the trail.
The main trail crosses some meadows along this stretch. The last time I was there (early September), the meadows were ablaze with yellow wildflowers in bloom as far as the eye could see.
From here there is a long climb through a hammock followed by an even longer downhill on the other side. Last year I set a new personal speed record (29 mph - Tour de France, here I come!) doing the downhill. It's a little scary because some of the curves are blind.
After the hammock, the trail is generally straight for another mile or two. There is a scenic overlook on the left, and finally you come to a bridge over a stream. This is a tranquil spot. A few weeks ago they were constructing a boardwalk into the swamp. To the left, you can go under SR 20 to the old fish camp, unfortunately closed. This would be a good spot for some liquid refreshments.
I don't recommend going any further. The rest of the trail (11 mile)is flat, not very scenic and not very shady, and there are no facilities. It's, well... boring, and when you get to Hawthorne there's not a lot to see there either.
However, the first five or six miles rank among the best trails in Florida. The whoop-de-doos alone are worth a ride. I'll be up there again in November."