The Legacy Trail: It’s More Than Just a Bike Path

by | Dec 22, 2022

If you live or work in Sarasota County, you’ve probably heard of the Legacy Trail. More than 18 miles long, this paved pathway runs from Venice to Sarasota and is one of the most popular trails in the region for bicycling enthusiasts. I count myself among that group, and I am very excited about the trail’s latest milestone: the mid-December completion of the Ringling Trail extension, a dedicated travel lane for cyclists in downtown Sarasota.

I’ve always loved bicycling. My bike was my preferred mode of transportation on the campus of Florida State University. (Go ‘Noles!) When I lived in Baltimore, I rode a bike to and from law school classes at night. I owned a folding model that made it easy to hop on and off the bus or light rail system when necessary. And now, living and working in Sarasota, I am a daily commuter-by-bike, thanks to the Legacy Trail.

The Legacy Trail is part of a long-term “rails to trails” conservancy project to build a nationwide network of trails on former railway paths. Florida is a leader in this project, being well on its way to creating a 355-mile-long, multi-use trail along the entire Gulf Coast. Work on the Legacy Trail segment began over 15 years ago and has been a labor of love and community, spearheaded by the group Friends of the Legacy Trail. The group has done a great job of documenting the day-to-day progress of the Trail on its Facebook page; it’s worth a follow to stay informed.

The Legacy Trail is built along the pathway of the Seaboard Air Line Railway, which played a vital role in the early 20th-century development of Florida’s tourism and agricultural industries. After passenger trains stopped operating on the route, it was still used for many years by the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus to transport their animals south to Florida for the winter.

The Legacy Trail’s first segment opened in 2006, using the restored Venice Train Depot as the initial trailhead. It gained more use after being paved in 2008, and then section by section, clearing and paving work were completed northward toward Sarasota, in an almost perfectly straight line. Several trailheads were added as easy access points, and also to provide restrooms and parking lots for trail users. Connections to other existing trails, such as the scenic Venetian Waterway Park Trail along the Intracoastal Waterway, extended the length of what was becoming a premier cycling experience.

By 2018, it was estimated that about 225,000 riders used the trail annually. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, ridership doubled and a new urgency emerged to complete the trail’s northern portions. The last two years’ progress have been exciting for Sarasota-based cyclists like me, as the final few northern segments of the Trail were completed: one to downtown Sarasota’s Payne Park and an extension to North Port. And now, with the opening of Ringling Trail improvements this month, Sarasota can boast of having a true “complete street”: bicyclists, walkers, joggers, rollerbladers and more can travel in a clearly marked traffic lane designed with safety in mind.

This intra-city segment of the Legacy Trail is an important aspect of the rails-to-trails initiative. The original focus of the concept was to improve people’s health by providing safe places to exercise in a natural environment. That alone was a great reason to develop a paved-trail system, but now we have even more at stake: environmental studies have shown that one of the most impactful things we can do to reduce harmful emissions and lower our reliance on fossil fuels is to cut down on gas-powered automobile usage. Adding connectors to urban areas makes it easier to “travel green” by cycling from home to work, school, shopping, or restaurants.

That’s one reason why I pedal to work, but it’s certainly not the only benefit derived from using the Legacy Trail as my commuter route. The fresh air is exhilarating, especially on cooler mornings. The aerobic exercise I get from the ride helps keeps me fit and should reap long-term benefits. Avoiding traffic jams and the game of parking roulette makes for a less stressful workday. It’s actually faster for me to bike! And the sheer beauty of the trail does wonders for my frame of mind; communing with nature twice a day just makes me feel happy! The bike ride also helps me to shift gears mentally so that I can leave work at work and focus my attention on my family at home.

There are many picturesque spots along the trail. Perhaps my favorite is one that I see during weekend recreational rides: the Dona Bay Bridge, which southbound riders cross just before getting to Venice. I really enjoy a relaxing predawn ride south. I try to time it to catch the sunrise at the bridge with its beautiful water views and then enjoy a great breakfast in Venice before pedaling home.

I’m grateful for Sarasota County’s commitment to the rails-to-trails initiative, and for the beautiful result of that commitment. I’m not just a daily user of the trail: I am proud to announce that the Matechik Law Firm is a sponsor of the Legacy Trail. I love the name Legacy Trail, because it both acknowledges the legacy of the railway route it follows and also offers the promise of its own legacy: developing a greener society for generations to come. I can’t think of a better partnership for a firm that specializes in legacy plans.

I hope to see you on the trail!