What started out as a politically charged and controversial idea has resulted in the best venue for trail riders, hikers, and bikers in Florida. Known today as the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, this 110-mile nature park was born from what was formerly known as the Cross Florida Barge Canal.
Crossing central Florida from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. John’s River, this unique nature park offers horseback riders, hikers, and bikers some of the best trails to be had. All can enjoy the great Florida outdoors in their favorite recreational style, be it from the back of a good horse, on foot, or on an off-road bike. Hiking and biking trails crisscross and/or run parallel to equestrian trails with plenty of room for everyone. But if not for a little luck and a determined woman, the Florida Greenway might not have come to be.
IMAGINE THIS: a deep-water ship canal cutting east-west across Florida. It almost happened, and construction actually began on two different occasions. From 1935 to 1936, construction for the ship canal began and was suspended when federal funds ran out. The project sat dormant until 1964 when construction resumed. But it was halted again by a suit filed in 1969 by the Environmental Defense Fund.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order suspending further work on the Cross Florida Barge Canal. When halted this last time, the project was nearly one-third complete with $74 million spent on land acquisition and construction.
Decades of legislative actions followed to finally get the Cross Florida Barge Canal formally de-authorized when President George Bush signed into law the change of the land to recreation and conservation. In 1991, the Cross Florida Greenway State Recreation and Conservation Area was declared.
Leading the fight to preserve this land was Marjorie Harris Carr, a biologist from Micanopy and a great friend of Florida’s natural environment. She and her organization, the Florida Defenders of the Environment, led the way in the battle to stop the Cross Florida Barge Canal. In 1998, the land she helped to save was renamed the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway.
THE BEST PLACE TO BEGIN a trail ride is from the Land Bridge Trailhead, south of Ocala on 475A. There is plenty of paved parking for vehicles and horse trailers, restroom facilities, a picnic area, and water.
Clearly marked, the trail meanders through a pine forest which provides shade even on the warmest summer day. For those wanting a little more adventure, there are three side trails to explore before crossing the Land Bridge. There is the Blue East-West trail, as well as the Red trail which loops back to the Blue trail. There is also the Wagon trail, which is wide enough to ride side by side and is lined with beautiful oak trees.
Crossing the Land Bridge is an adventure. Completed in 2000, the bridge goes across I-75 and gives access to the western portions of the Florida Greenway. The bridge has a horse-safe limestone surface, is fully landscaped with native Florida vegetation, and has two viewing areas on each side. Once on the east side of the Land Bridge, there is a water trough for horses.
From the Land Bridge, there are miles of trails to ride. The Christmas/Blue East-West trail is the most scenic route, taking you through a variety of Florida terrain. In addition to pine forests and sand pine scrub areas, there are also remnants of the former barge canal project. These small-scale valleys offer more challenging terrain for trail riders to test.
The 49th Avenue Trailhead also provides vehicle and horse trailer parking areas, a picnic pavilion, and water for horses.
THIS DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THE END of your ride. You have several options with the continuation of the Blue East/West trail being your best bet. You are now into the area known as Shangri-La with approximately 5.43 miles of riding trails, with the main trail being 3.28 miles and an alternate trail at 2.15 miles. There are more valleys in this area from the barge canal project which have long been a favorite of horseback riders.
You can also ride to the Shangri-La Trailhead, which is a popular overnight camping spot for horseback riders.
From Shangri-La, riders go into what is known as Utopia, leading to County Road 484. Riders can cross CR 484 and continue on to the Ross Prairie Trailhead, the newest edition to the Florida Greenway off State Road 200. In addition to the forest areas, this section features a prairie setting on the western end and more hilly terrain carved out from the barge canal project. There are approximately 6.3 total miles of riding trails in this section.
The Ross Prairie Trailhead provides parking, restrooms, showers, water, and a campground area. For more information on the Shangri-La and Ross Prairie campgrounds, call the Ocala field office of the Greenway Trails.
WHILE RIDING the Florida Greenway, always put safety first. It is best to first ride with someone who knows the trails and be aware of the fitness levels of both you and your horse. It’s a good idea to bring along water, snacks, identification, a watch, a compass, and a cell phone. Tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to return.
Pay attention to the weather and seasons. In the summer, afternoon thunderstorms can come up suddenly and in the winter, darkness can quickly creep up on you.
The Florida Greenway is truly a gift to horseback trail riders. May you enjoy these happy trails created by one persistent woman.
Want To Know More?
The Florida Greenway is now operated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Greenways & Trails.
For more information, contact the Ocala field office
at (352) 236-7143 or go to www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt and
click on Cross Florida Greenway.