The Huracan 300 ain’t no trip to Disney World. Born from over 15 years of local land protection advocacy and route development, this 370+ mile bikepacking event showcases the finest, and sometimes forgotten, backcountry of central Florida. After making the voyage to the start line four times, Andy Karr writes about the routes’ rugged appeal and how it came to be.
I’m going to do my best to describe an experience that flies in the face of just about everything most people think they know about Florida. The Huracan 300 Challenge is a mystical experience. Riding the Huracan, especially for a mid-Atlantic city-dweller like me, is a surprising, challenging, and intoxicatingly bizarre experience. I’ve traveled to Ocala, Florida on four separate occasions to toe the line at the Huracan 300+ and I’m still bewildered that this route could even exist.
The Huracan 300 never strays more than 68 miles from Cinderella’s Castle in the center of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, coming as close as 10 or 20 miles of the iconic towers at its southeastern-most point. And yet, despite its proximity to Orlando’s resorts and hotels, this slight misnomer of a 370+ mile bikepacking route and yearly mass-start race course explores some of Florida’s most rugged and beautiful backcountry. Read that again. There is no Mickey Mouse on the Huracan 300+. There are, however, waist-deep water crossings; swampy, treacherous networks of Cypress knees; deep, oaky forests; a naval bombing range; critters galore (armadillos, gators, wild boars, coyotes, bears, snakes, eagles, and deer); more sand than a popular Dade County beach, and some of the most remote-feeling stretches of backcountry single track I have ever experienced.
Confused, and often concerned, looks accompany the semi-yearly declaration that I’ll be taking a week off of work to drive 16 hours south to participate in a multi-day mountain bike ride in central Florida.
“There are no mountains in Florida…”
“Watch out for gators…”
“Are you going to go to Disney World?”
Florida is better known in my part of the country as a destination for retirees and in fact the route (a loop) draws a wobbly circle around the largest retirement community in the world: the famous, or infamous, Villages.
The experience of being on the route stands in stark contrast to the Florida of the popular imagination. One feels far more existentially removed from the family vacation beach-goers, theme parks, and retirement communities than their physical proximity might imply. That’s not to say that the Huracan and the lesser-heralded central Florida terrain it traverses exists in a world outside of human impact. It most certainly does not. The route travels abandoned canals, man-made levees and lakes, professionally built mountain bike parks, a menagerie of convenience and country stores, and the occasional suburban strip mall, but never seems any less wild or adventurous for it. Those intersections with Florida’s past and current human inhabitants are peripheral to the Huracan experience, not definitional of it.
Make no mistake: riding bikes in Central Florida is magical but hard. Even in the middle of the northern hemisphere’s winter, the route is at times a tour through lush, green, and ecologically diverse landscapes, and at others a slog through deep, unrelenting sand. The route weaves through seemingly endless stands of South Florida slash pine. Gravel roads curtained in by Spanish moss carrying riders through both subtropical and tropical hardwood forests. Navigation is challenged by dense quagmires of dwarf palmetto. Single track twists and turns through treacherous Cypress knees, and wide vistas open up across sawgrass fields and wet prairie. Welcome to the real Jurassic Park, people—those other theme parks don’t hold candle to this wild ride.
If you haven’t gotten the message by now, the course is challenging. Though made accessible by plenty of restocks and water, riders should not take their safety for granted. There are pointy things in the night, both plant and animal, and lazy navigation could leave you susceptible to getting very lost. The riding is subtly hilly and the surfaces and trails are more technical than a first-time rider might imagine. For those of us used to riding in the mountains it is easy to forget that you spend half the time coasting up there. You do not spend much time coasting on Florida’s twisty trails and sandy roads.
Over 100 of the Huracan’s miles are proper singletrack riding, and the vast majority of the Huracan’s remaining surfaces are unpaved. It would be foolish to attempt the route on anything other than proper mountain bike tires. The route designer recommends biting off about 60 miles a day since there is so much to see and enjoy both on route or just beyond. Pushing yourself past a touring pace means riding at night through the deeply dark state and national forests of Florida, which can be a part of the unnerving mystique of the experience.
The Huracan 300+ is able to exist thanks to a vast patchwork of state and federally-managed wilderness, forests, parks, protected waterways, preserves, and miles of mixed-surface greenway trails. Famous examples of environmental mismanagement and runaway development abound in central Florida, and it’s easy to imagine that its natural spaces have been gradually hemmed into tiny isolated wild islands amidst a sea of sprawl. But that perception is simply not the case. This should not be taken for granted. This route is only able to exist because of a community of horseback enthusiasts, birders, ATV riders, mountain bikers, trail builders, hikers, and conservationists who have fought hard for years to keep these places as wild and natural as possible. One enigmatic, lifetime resident of Central Florida has played an especially pivotal role in safeguarding Florida’s wilder side: Karlos Bernart.
Karlos, the route’s primary architect and the organizer of its yearly event, was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Deltona, Florida when he was seven years old. He’s lived, and ridden a bike, in central Florida ever since. About 15 years ago, Karlos organized his first ride, and the excitement of those early participants motivated and pushed him to expand his route-building horizons. After that first route came another, and then another, and then another. He describes the evolution and discovery process that has ultimately gotten the route to the one riders enjoy today:
“I put on an adventure race at Santos called SSAR (Singletrack samurai Adventure Race) during that event, we got intel on the limestone road that would take riders west into Pruitt and Potts. From there, I saw how I could connect to SR 200 and I developed the first Cross Florida Individual Time Trial route. At first, the CFITT was a route that connected Ocala National Forest to Croom Forest. With that acquired knowledge and some input from my close friend Rob Roberts, we started experimenting more. He contributed to the first route across the Green Swamp. Then we both made the connection across Lake Apopka, then I added my old training loop in Clermont.
Eventually, I found an old map indicating there was a jeep crossing at the spot where the Huracan water crossing is now […] with Rob’s help, we mapped out the Challenge trail to connect to it. Before long the loop was obvious and we did the first running of the ride 13 years ago. It was just Rob and me at the start and we called it the Eye of the HuRaCaN loop. After a year or two Rob moved away and I kept working on fine-tuning the route. Kept scouting and discovering new things. The biggest key has been my willingness to listen to riders who after riding the route were inspired to explore deeper and helped share information to improve the route. It was through these countless hours of exploration paired with the humility to listen to good advice that I got the route to where it is today. It is essentially a collection of every little thing I love about riding in Florida. It truly encapsulates all the beauty the state has to offer in a compact loop.”
Thirteen years. Really let that sink in. This off-road ultra route is barely any younger than the Tour Divide. In that time, Karlos and other have created 3000 miles of known routes in the state, with 52 in Karlos’ own collection. Each year, he verifies every inch, makes improvements, and updates the guides to reflect any new changes.
In thirteen years of doing this event (and half a dozen other events like it), along with his dedication to mapping new routes, it’s undeniable that Karlos has imprinted on the off-road cycling psyche, not just in Florida but across the Southeast. The butterfly effect is remarkable. If you believe that the existence of what are now dozens of long-distance routes in the Southeast doesn’t owe a debt of gratitude to Karlos and the Huracan, we will just have to agree to disagree.
It seems I had a lot to say about the Huracan but I hope the photos speak for the quality of the route just as much as these ramblings. It’s an event I just can’t stop coming back for, the 15-hour drive be damned! I’ve had mixed luck with my own personal experiences on this route. Of the four times I have traveled down there, I’ve only completed the route twice. I woke up the morning of this most recent grand depart with a nasty head cold and my attempt to push through it ended predictably. Thankfully my friend and teammate Ian Carr was along for the ride and (with his Ricoh point-and-shoot) helped me fill in the photographic void left by my early retraction.
I will throw no shade at riding in the western US, or in any popular cycling destination abroad, but I implore you not to sleep on east coast riding and especially not central Florida. Let your preconceived notions and “Florida man” stereotypes of this place have a rest. If you are up for a serious, unqualified challenge rest assured that the riding is amazing in these parts, among the Spanish moss, and it is absolutely worth traveling for, far and wide.
The last words I’ll leave you with are from Karlos himself, as he probably has the best sense of anyone of what these roads and trails have to offer; “If anything my goals are simple: to showcase the magic, beauty, and challenge that Florida has to offer, and one of the best ways to experience it is on a bike. If anything, I feel my routes have a life of their own. They are like magical beings who impart wisdom and lessons, that’s why I tell every rider that the journey is the prize. It’s the only prize, period.”
Whether or not you decide to come down to Florida for the 2024 grand depart, I can’t recommend enough that offroad bike tourists come down and explore the Huracan. You can purchase the route and a detailed route guide from Karlos here.