Within a mile of busy State Road 580, an osprey is perched on a bench in Sheffield Park near the Oldsmar Trail. As two cyclists approach, it takes flight, moving westward over the Lake Tarpon Outfall Canal. "I have seen so much wildlife out here, gators, red-tail hawks, herons, rabbits and armadillos,'' said Becky Afonso, as she pedaled her Trek Five 20 touring bicycle. "And not all Oldsmar residents know the trail exists.''
More than 10 years in the making, the construction of the Oldsmar Trail is almost complete. Only two outstanding tasks remain, including paving a gravel path along the Outfall Canal and widening the sidewalk on Pine Avenue near Bayview Boulevard.
What this means is bicycle enthusiasts like Afonso, 50, as well as pedestrians eager to convene with nature, can wind through Oldsmar on a continuous 10-mile system of hiking and biking trails.
It runs through 10 city and neighborhood parks including Cypress Forest Park to the north, Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve to the south, Canal Park to the west and Bicentennial Park to the east. R.E. Olds Park serves as the center link.
"I always prefer taking scenic trails over busy highways. I even use the trail to go up to see a movie,'' said Afonso, who holds a cycling instructor certification through the League of American Bicyclists. "I can go from my home near R.E. Olds Park to Canal Park on the designated paths, and from there I use the sidewalks to get to the movie theater at Woodland Square.''
The project has been done in phases at a total cost of $4 million, according to Lynn Rives, the city's leisure services director. Although the city has used dollars from its capital budget over the years, most of the money has come from grants through the Florida Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration's Recreational Trails program.
"The biggest challenge was assembling the money to do the project but we have had great partners that have made it all come to fruition,'' Rives said. "Now we have lots of trail and lots of ways to get around that require minimal crossings at major roads.''
Within the next year, Afonso plans to team up with the Oldsmar Historical Society, providing bike tours on the Oldsmar Trail. She plans on breaking the trail into sections, giving participants a choice of three loops to choose from. All will begin at R.E. Olds Park, named after Ransom Olds, the founder of Oldsmobile as well as the original developer of the city.
"The blending of a bicycle tour with history has people learning something while they're exercising. The residents can learn history of where they live and for visitors they can learn history of where they are,'' said Afonso, who came up with the idea, in part, through watching the success of the walking tours put on by the historical society.
The conversation concerning a trail system through Oldsmar dates back to the early 1990s, according to City Council member and former mayor Jerry Beverland, who has written several books on the history of the area.
"No way did we comprehend what it would turn into today,'' he said. "If someone told me back then that the trail system would be this big I would have asked them what they had been drinking.''
Beverland also said he approves of Afonso's idea to use history in the bike tours.
"Oldsmar is rich in history and it goes way back. For example, on the trail, go down past Bicentennial Park. If you stop and be silent, you can almost see the Tocobaga Indians who lived there hundreds of years ago,'' he said. "You can almost hear them too.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4163.