I should warn you: This Florida motorcycle ride doesn’t include challenging hairpin curves or drastic changes in elevation. The Sunshine State has a well-earned reputation for flat, straight roads, but there are little nuggets here and there that offer riding entertainment of a different sort.
Jacksonville is the second largest city by area in the contiguous U.S., so it’s spread out in clusters of population density. To get away from the hustle and bustle, I headed to a local favorite for motorcyclists, State Road 13, which runs for nearly 50 miles along the east bank of the north-flowing St. Johns River from Jacksonville south to Spuds, a rural community that grows exactly what its name would suggest.
On the day of my ride, I hit the lottery in terms of traffic. I had the day off for Presidents’ Day. Schools were out, less fortunate souls were working, and my family was visiting the zoo, so I had a cool, sunny day all to myself.
After filling my body’s tank with high-octane coffee, I fired up my air-cooled Ducati Scrambler 1100, and its Italian rumble brought a smile to my face. I started off midmorning in no particular rush, enjoying the Duc’s torquey Twin while my fellow travelers sat locked in their steel cages.
As I approached Greenbriar Road, my thoughts went to the history of this unremarkable stretch. Artist Amy Stump, who is a native to the area, once told me about the road’s history and its nickname, Ghost Light Road, which was summed up in Bill Delaney’s Jaxlore column in The Jaxson:
“[T]he ghost is a young motorcyclist from the area whose father had warned him about speeding on the dirt road. One fateful day, the young man’s brother strung a rope across Greenbriar. This prank merely would have unseated the cocky rider had he heeded his father’s admonition, but, unfortunately, he gunned the engine and lost his head. Thereafter, his ghost shined his headlamp down Greenbriar in a nightly vigil, either searching for his lost head or warning others against being so reckless.”
Like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the tale is apocryphal, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Greenbriar Road ends at SR 13 near Switzerland (which is nothing like the country), and I headed south toward the town of Orangedale, passing under a large canopy of oak trees casting shadows over the road. The 17-mile stretch of SR 13 between Julington Creek and Wades Creek is designated as the William Bartram Scenic and Historic Highway, named after the naturalist and botanist who documented plants, animals, and native peoples in the area during the late 1700s.
As I rolled along the well-kept two-lane road, I caught peeks of the St. Johns River through the trees, and a few curves and roundabouts provided an opportunity to lean the Ducati over. There are small parks aplenty for scenic stops, many with benches to take in the river views and get a taste of “Old Florida.”
As I approached Orangedale, I was enveloped by the smokey smell wafting from Woodpeckers Backyard BBQ, a local favorite. Amy Stump’s mural of angel wings encircling regional landmarks greeted me as I placed an order for brisket and datil corn. Luckily, I got there before the brisket sold out, a gutting experience for those who arrive late in the day. I took my platter across the street to the Shands Pier and ate while watching boats gliding on the glint of the St. Johns.
Continuing south on SR 13, I took a brief detour on State Road 16 and crossed the Shands Bridge, passing fishermen, food trucks, and farm vendors. After riding by boatyards full of masts jutting into the sky, I stopped at The Military Museum of North Florida, located at the former site of Naval Air Station Lee Field. With its bunker-like main building, heavy machinery, and even a couple of military motorcycles from past theaters of war, it serves as a vivid reminder of the area’s deep military history.
Back on SR 13, I stopped at Trout Creek Memorial Park and Marina, highlights of which include the Major Gen. William W. Loring Monument and swamp-boat rentals for sightseeing or fishing. While enjoying an inspiring view of the creek, I imagined William Bartram recording observations and gathering samples in the same location hundreds of years ago.
Just down the road, I stopped at Buddy Boy’s Country Store, the best gas station on this route to fill up or enjoy the camaraderie of fellow riders. With its Adirondack chairs, general store provisions, and tasty country barbecue, it’s a must-stop if you’re in the area.
On the road again, the beauty of my ride really unfolded with curvy roads winding through tree canopies with peekaboo views of the river, piers, boat docks, and parks. Between the well-to-do town of Picolata (once the home of a Spanish fort) and Tocoi, SR 13 opened up, giving the Ducati a chance to stretch its legs.
Once past Tocoi, I recommend stopping at Riverdale Park. With picnic tables, benches, and a well-kept public restroom, it’s a nice place to relax and reflect. As the glassy calm waters of the St. Johns lapped gently against the shore, I closed my eyes and soaked in the ambience.
SR 13 ends at the junction with State Road 207 near Spuds. I had a decision to make: head east toward the coast to towns like St. Augustine, Palm Coast, and Daytona Beach, or cross the river and ride up the west bank of the St. Johns. Eager to get home in time to enjoy dinner with my family and listen to the adventures my 6-year-old and his friends had at the zoo, I returned home the way I came, enjoying the open road and the scenery in the opposite direction. The beauty of this route is that it’s enjoyable on its own, or it can be combined with other scenic roads nearby. One thing’s for sure: It was the change of pace I was looking for.