Rails-to-Trails Cycling and Walking Routes take over SWFL

Converted railways and deserted spaces offer new avenues for cyclists and runners along the Gulf Coast.

BY May 1, 2023
SW FL cycling trails
(Courtesy Naples Pathways Coalition)

Rusted rails and worn-down areas are being transformed into scenic trails, bringing more than 80 miles of new biking and walking pathways to Lee and Collier counties. There’s existing precedent locally: The Boca Grande Rail Trail—the first of its kind in Florida—runs the length of the island, and in Port Charlotte, the former Charlotte Harbor & Northern Railroad is now the Cape Haze Pioneer Trail Park.

The proposed Paradise Coast Trail trumps them both in mileage. Five years ago, Michelle Avola-Brown, executive director of the Naples Pathways Coalition, set out on a mission to convert 70 miles of deserted land into biking and walking trails, from Collier-Seminole State Park in South Naples to Bonita Springs, with a tentacle east to Ave Maria and Immokalee. “We have a wonderful quality of life,” Michelle says. “It’s been a huge gap in our area not to have a trail system.” 

Thanks to successful fundraising and feasibility studies, the initial development for the approximately 11.5-mile Livingston section of the trail is slated to kick off in 2024—two years ahead of schedule. Existing pathways will connect to the Paradise Coast Trail, as well, including the 3-mile Rich King Memorial Greenway in East Naples and Paradise Sports Complex’s walking trail by Golden Gate.

In Lee, the nonprofit Friends of Bonita Estero Rail Trail (BERT) is generating strong support as The Trust for Public Land negotiates to acquire around 14 miles of the Seminole Gulf Railway for biking and walking trails. Safety is among the organization’s chief concerns: “Trying to bike in southern Lee County, we’re taking our life into our hands,” BERT president Deb Orton says. The issue is top of mind for Naples Pathways Coalition, too, which hosts a ride of silence on May 17, part of a global initiative to raise awareness for cyclists killed while biking. “Whenever I mention the trail to anyone, they’re really excited about it,” Michelle says. “Their next question is, ‘When will it be ready?’” 

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