I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," wrote Henry David Thoreau in "Walden." Surely Thoreau retreated to the woods of Concord, Mass., to live a simple life immersed in what inspired him most -- outdoor beauty. Then again, he also wanted to avoid paying taxes. But you needn't be a civil-disobedience preaching transcendentalist to appreciate the euphoria and peacefulness of the outdoors.
Here are a few suggestions for exposing yourself to the elements -- from leisurely hikes through the woods to hard-core gut-wrenching cycling -- courtesy of those who've been there.
"It's really an experience more than exercise," says Steve Murillo, 27, who has done off-road biking in Central Florida for about seven years now. He's a salesperson at Orange Cycle Works in College Park.
Mountain biking isn't a deadly sport, but it's certainly not for the faint of heart. About two years ago, Murillo was going down a steep incline at Bell-view, a cycling area near Ocala, and was catapulted into a tree. "I peeled off a couple layers of body and flesh," he jokes. "But it gives you character."
Bellview nonetheless is one of his favorite trails -- not too sandy, with packed hard dirt. The steepness varies and, as with snow-ski slopes, the trails are color-coded to indicate the degree of difficulty.
Off-road biking challenges you physically -- "You can get a pretty darn good workout," says Murillo -- but also tests your mental fortitude. The voice of reason often pipes up when you're about to embark down a 20-foot decline at a ridiculous speed.
"A lot of people think Florida is flat with no hills, but if they get out there, they can find some pretty mountainous terrain. There are some big holes in the ground," says Murillo, referring to Hard Rock Mountain Bike Park in Ocala. The park, once a limestone quarry, offers steep and long climbs.
"It's really a hoot, but it's technical riding -- not anything a beginner would want to do," he warns.
The more reserved rider should check out the local rails-to-trails path at the Withlacoochee Trail. It's paved and travels from just south of Highway 50 to Citrus Springs.
Central Florida doesn't have the rapids of someplace like Colorado, but there's an abundance of flat-water paddling, explains Aaron Gray, 22, an MBA student at UCF who works at Travel Country Outdoors in Altamonte Springs. There's the St. Johns River, Banana River, Indian River and the Butler chain of lakes.
Gray recommends the Econlochhatchee River, but points out that its many twists and turns make it a technical challenge. His all-time favorite is Juniper Springs in Ocala National Forest. He describes it as several springs that well up with sand and go into a fast, narrow river, meandering five or six miles before reaching a pick-up point.
Any need to fear a gator encounter? "A kayak is the biggest alligator in the water, so gators avoid them," he reassures.
But maybe other unexpected wildlife should be of concern. Gray and a friend recently kayaked the Winter Park chain of lakes at 5:30 a.m. Although it was still dark, they spotted an enormous owl on a branch, with a wing span longer than a man's outstretched arms. "The branch broke and the owl landed in the kayak with me and taloned my leg," he says. "Potentially an owl could do a lot more damage, so I was lucky."
Canoeing provides exercise, but Beth Hollenbeck, owner of the Eco-Store in College Park, uses it as a chance to clean up the environment, too. She's executive director of Eco-Action, a nonprofit group that coordinates canoe cleanups every Sunday afternoon. While helping Central Florida's wildlife be free of trash, volunteers get to canoe in some of the most beautiful and remote waterways in Central Florida.
Hollenbeck cites the St. Johns River, which is just east of Orlando and the only river in North America that runs south to north, and Lake Monroe in Sanford as her two favorite waterways. "St. Johns is so gorgeous," she gushes. "Marshes, swampland, wildlife, a lot of birds -- and it expands into lakes, winds into tributaries."
Sometimes the trip is more eventful than the destination. Eight years ago Tony Papas and a friend were hiking to a campsite in Ocala National Forest when they encountered head-on a wild boar. With tusks flailing, the boar chased them.
"We ran for about 15 feet, climbed a tree and then laughed," he remembers. The animal stuck around for 10 minutes, snorting and scratching its tusks against the bark.
Raccoons have torn up Papa's trash. He once saw a 14-foot alligator lolling in the sun across the shore. Mosquitoes remain pesky opponents.
Yet these animals and insects haven't deterred Papas, a sales associate at Travel Country Outdoors. His love of camping remains strong, and he even encounters plenty of peaceful animals, like the time two sea otters followed him along a river for two miles.
Both Big Econ State Park and Seminole Woods near Wekiva River Basin offer seclusion, which means a one- to two-mile hike to the campsite. If hiking with cumbersome gear isn't your idea of a good time, try Ocala National Forest. You can pull your car right up to the site.
Walk this way
Ocala National Forest is a favorite hiking destination for Peter Durnell, chapter chairman of the Florida Trail Association (FTA). He also edits the state newsletter.
Hiking offers "a chance to see the real Florida," he says, plus "you get to see the areas that aren't promoted." Ocala, for example, offers a taste of Old Florida. Even some of the very first pioneer homes ever built lie within the center of the forest.
Deer and fox squirrels are plentiful in Wekiva Springs State Park, says Lois Heuschen, an activity leader with FTA. You can even cool off with a dip in the spring if the day gets too steamy.
If all this hyperactivity isn't your speed but you still want to bask in the outdoors, take a drive to Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, about 60 miles southwest of Orlando. Sandy Bogan with the Florida Audubon Society says the garden "goes along the ancient ridge -- the backbone of Florida." The ridge, a relic that is a leftover sand dune system from when the state was a series of islands, runs from Ocala down to Highlands County.
Bok Tower is "an outrageously beautiful garden surrounded by scrub habitat," Bogan says. The tower houses a carillon that is played during regularly scheduled recitals, and there's an educational center on the premises.
"The garden utilizes all your senses," explains Bogan.
Indeed, jolting your senses in the spring also takes advantage of simple common sense. Whether hiking, biking or kayaking, come June, it makes sense only to stay in; by then, it's just miserable outside.
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