Along the western rim of the C-18 Canal, the morning rush was in full force: More than 30 bicycles, at least a dozen horses, and the occasional sand hill crane, all competing for space along the newly-opened Pântano Trail west of Jupiter.
The 5.6-mile shellrock path, which starts at the south end of Riverbend Park and extends west along the canal before winding into the Loxahatchee Slough, won’t always be clogged with the heavy bike and equestrian traffic that marked the trail’s grand opening Tuesday.
But the large turnout for the 9 a.m. ceremony – at a spot off-limits to motor vehicles and only accessible to hikers, bikers and horseback riders — offered a glimpse of the new trail’s potential.
“This will further advance the ecotourism that we’re trying to push,’’ said Bret Baronak, the bicycle coordinator for the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization.
The Pântano Trail – named after the Portuguese word for “marsh” – is the third major multi-use trail developed in the Northeast Everglades Natural Area, 165,000 acres of conservation land in northern Palm Beach County and southern Martin County.
Pântano is an important link in a system that allows bikers, hikers and horse riders to travel non-motorized paths from Jonathan Dickinson State Park south to Grassy Waters Preserve and west to Lake Okeechobee.
“It all comes in small segments, one small bit at a time, but it adds up to a tremendous picture,’’ said Rob Robbins, the Palm Beach County’s Environmental Resources Management director.
Riverbend Park is considered the hub because it links to the Blue Gill Trail, which extends south to PGA Boulevard, and to Pântano, which goes west along the canal that separates Riverbend Park and Jupiter Farms on the west from Palm Beach Country Estates on the east.
“It’s connecting people to these great recreational spots that normally you’d have to get in your car and drive to each one. Now you can drive to Riverbend Park, take your bike to the Blue Gill Trail and ride all the way to PGA (Boulevard),’’ said Samantha Corr, an ERM analyst.
The 5.6-mile trail cost $800,000 for the shellrock surface and amenities such as shelters, horse hitches and bike racks. Plans call for Pântano to eventually extend 10 miles to the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Area, but no construction date has been set because officials are trying to acquire privately-owned land along the missing link.
That unbuilt 4.4-mile link is still accessible to the public but the terrain is rougher than the shellrock surface on the phase that opened Tuesday.
Work will start next year on the second phase of the Blue Gill Trail, extending it from PGA Boulevard to Grassy Waters Preserve, which has its own 16-mile network of bike trails.
“One of the nicest things about this system is it’s not on a road,’’ said Sally Channon, an ERM’s project manager. “You have a lot of people who are much more comfortable riding on these canal levees because you don’t have cross traffic.’’
The county hopes to spread word about the trail system not only to local residents but to markets outside South Florida for ecotourism.
The county considers the trail an important enough initiative that several Palm Beach County officials showed up for Tuesday’s event with their bikes, not only to snip a ribbon at the trail’s entrance but to participate in the inaugural ride.
County Commissioner Hal Valeche led the riders on his black mountain bike. In the middle of the pack was County Administrator Bob Weisman, in black spandex shorts on a red Cannondale mountain bike. Toward the rear, on a bike with an empty toddler seat fastened to the back, was Nick Uhren, the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization’s executive director.
All three, like many of the more than 65 people who attended the ceremony, parked their cars at the Indiantown Road entrance to Riverbend Park, then pedaled their bikes 1.3 miles to the ceremony site.
Uhren, whose agency helped secure federal money for Pântano, looked out at the crowd and noted that the last grand opening ceremony he attended was in February for the Jog Road extension from Florida’s Turnpike to Northlake Boulevard.
“That ribbon cutting drew maybe 20 people,’’ he said. “The reason this ribbon-cutting draws such as great crowd is because this is the type of exciting project that has not been the norm for Palm Beach County.’’