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New trail, bridge connect counties

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Path will eventually connect with Withlacoochee State Trail

By Pat Faherty

It’s being called “the prettiest three miles of trail in the state.”

And Grant Chance agrees.

“I believe it,” he said. “It’s absolutely gorgeous.”

Chance owns and operates Blue Run Bicycles in Dunnellon and hears quite a bit about the new trail and bridge over the Withlacoochee River connecting Citrus and Marion counties.

“It’s great for the city and Marion County,” he said. “People who ride are taken by it.”

Chance has seen bicycling grow during the six years he’s had the business. It’s a trend he thinks will continue and can only be helped by the new trail and bridge.

He said bicycling appeals to all ages because it doesn’t beat up the body. And while the six-mile round trip is adequate for some riders, Chance is looking forward to seeing the two counties’ trails connected. 

The new stretch, known as the Dunnellon Trail, will eventually be connected to the northern end of the Withlacoochee State Trail in Citrus Springs.

“It’s really going to be something in a few years,” he said, noting bicycling people will come some distance to ride it.

In Dunnellon, the new trail follows an old railroad grade and a well-used footpath. It is  accessible from Blue Run Park (tuber exit) with parking on Marion County Road 484 on the Rainbow River. 

In Citrus County, trail access is on County Road 39 (West Withlacoochee Trail), east of U.S 41. There is paved parking. In just over a mile from the highway to the river, the new trail has sweeping curves, new trees and grass. 

There are also plans to connect the Dunnellon Trail to the Marjorie Carr Cross Florida Greenway, which will eventually be paved for 11 miles east toward State Road 200.

New bridge

The centerpiece of the $3.2 million trail project is a bridge over the Withlacoochee River. It was proposed about six years ago and was completed last month. 

While bicyclists, walkers and skaters have already been enjoying the trail, the state is planning an official opening. Dee Ann Miller, a DEP spokeswoman, said the ribbon cutting is scheduled for May 16.

The bridge crosses the Withlacoochee River close to where it’s joined by the Rainbow River. 

The 12-foot-wide, 280-foot-long bridge has scenic river overlooks and benches at each end. The three-span bridge has aluminum fence guard-rails and stone-work entry pillars. 

Its unpainted rusty metal framework is a nod to the region’s railroad heritage, which influenced the bridge design.

The railroad motif was selected from several possible architectural themes at a public meeting in 2008.

The pavement ramps up approaching the bridge, and is steep enough, especially on the north side, to give a speed boost to inline skaters. 

But the loose, rocky shoulders make pedestrian river access difficult. Posted signs prohibit fishing, jumping or diving from the structure. The bridge did not use the old railroad trestle supports, which are no longer visible.

With a 10-ton weight capacity, the structure was designed to be wide enough and strong enough to support emergency vehicles with enough river clearance for normal boat traffic.

“They say it is a beautiful run,” said Sherry Bechtel, who owns and operates Inverness Bicycle and Fitness, just off the trail in downtown Inverness. “It’s a very exciting project. I’m all for it.”

Her customers have voiced enthusiasm about the new trail and bridge and they note the full value will come once the trails are connected.

“The (Withlacoochee) trail is 46 miles; this just adds more. People are looking for a longer place to ride,” she said. “This brings us publicity and gives them more options of places ride.” 

Contact Chronicle reporter Pat Faherty at 352-564-2924 or pfaherty@chronicleonline.com.