Hidden treasure. As youngsters we’d spend hours, even days searching for that “great discovery” that would make us rich-maybe even famous. Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, exploring the desert trails and foothills on my horse, I was sure that one day I’d find something extraordinary.
As an adult though, I’ve realized that if you know where to look, treasures aren’t necessarily hidden. Sometimes they’re just around the corner. Literally.
The Santos Trail in south Marion County is one of those remarkable finds. What’s amazing is that many locals don’t even know it’s there. Come onboard, fellow explorers, and prepare to make a grand discovery. Dozens of miles of mountain bike trails, hiking paths and horseback riding trails are waiting.
More than 70 miles of biking trails, ranging from easy to extreme, are available at the Santos Trail. Photo by John Moran
Ironically, the Santos Trail, which is part of the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, came into being as a result of what many consider one of the biggest blunders in Florida history, the Cross Florida Barge Canal Project.
Hard as it is to believe today, government officials once thought it would be a completely sane idea to dig a canal right across the middle of the Sunshine State. Instead of having to take the long sea route all the way around the peninsula, ships could save time and money by using the canal.
Multiple surveys for a proposed canal across Florida took place over the span of a century, beginning in the early 1800s. Federal surveyors sent to the area realized the impracticality of the concept, but canal supporters refused to relinquish the idea, leading to the establishment of the Florida State Canal Commission in 1931. The Ocala Star-Banner itself published an abundance of “pro-canal” stories and editorials.
The Great Depression gave President Franklin Roosevelt an excellent excuse to revive the project under the auspices of job creation. Over 6,000 workers tackled the enormous task, clearing some 4,000 acres and making 30 cents per hour, a good wage at the time. Many of those workers spent their hard-earned dollars in Ocala, resulting in a substantial business and entertainment boom for the town known as “The Brick City.”
Federal funding for the canal dried up in 1936, even though only about one-third of the land was cleared. The project idled for nearly three decades until President John F. Kennedy resurrected it again in the early 1960s. President Lyndon Johnson continued to support the project after Kennedy’s assassination.
Marjorie Harris Carr, a native of Boston who moved to Florida in the late 1920s, was stirred to action after realizing the environmental threat the canal posed to the area, particularly the Ocklawaha River. She and other activists formed the Florida Defenders of the Environment and worked tirelessly to halt the project. Their efforts finally resulted in a federal court injunction, and President Richard Nixon pulled the plug on canal construction in 1971. By that point, some $74 million had been poured into the project.
Supporters spent nearly another decade arguing for the canal’s completion, but in January 1991, the federal government officially “deauthorized” the Cross Florida Barge Canal Project. The “blunder” then became a blessing in 1998 when the state of Florida turned the former canal route into a 110-mile-long corridor aptly named the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, which runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Johns River.
Hills, turns and uneven footing make portions of the Santos Trail challenging for even the most dedicated hiker. Photo by John Jernigan.
Here in Marion County, the Santos Trail is just part of that vast greenway where visitors can experience Florida’s great outdoors much as it was a century ago. The trailhead takes its name from the former town of Santos, a predominately African-American community of approximately 300 that was destroyed in the 1930s to accomodate canal construction. At one time, Santos was an important rail stop for the Florida Transit and Peninsular Railway. Today, it’s the ideal spot for adventure seekers eager to take advantage of the area’s abundant outdoor activities.
“The Santos Trail is one of the top three trails to ride in the whole state of Florida, if not the whole Southeast. We meet new people from all over the state, even all over the country. We even have people from out of the country,” says Chris Fernandez, an avid cyclist and owner of the Santos Bike Shop, which sells bikes, clothing and accessories, and also offers bike rentals and service.
“It’s a secret in Ocala, a diamond-in-the-rough, if you will, that attracts thousands of people a year,” Chris continues. “People who live here really have a great resource to take advantage of, but I think there are more people from out of the county who know this place. We have tons of people from Orlando come here all the time to ride, almost on a weekly basis. It’s unfortunate that not a lot of people who live here know about this trail.”
But some Ocalans are catching on to the rich opportunity in their own backyard. Residents Melissa and Ed English head to the Santos Trail about twice a month during the cooler weather.
“It’s so convenient. The trails are well maintained, and there are bike shops close by,” says Ed, noting that they ride between 10 to 23 miles at a time, typically on the intermediate (blue) trails.
“The trails are gorgeous,” adds Melissa. “It feels like you’re getting away from everything.”
“There’s something for everyone, including the BMX riders at the Vortex,” says Ed. “There are some real die-hard riders there doing tricks and some have cameras on their helmets.” (Check out their amazing videos on youtube.com, keyword “Santos Trail.”)
Dano Kinnee, who owns Greenway Bicycles with his wife, Jessica, says the best thing about the Santos Trail is that it’s easy enough for beginners and technical enough for the most experienced riders. Their popular shop offers bike rentals, retail sales, bike repair and a convenience store where riders can purchase snacks and drinks.
“People have a passion for riding bikes,” adds Dano, a certified United States Cycling Federation (USCF) bicycle mechanic. “If you were to poll the people out in the parking lot, probably only one-fourth of them are from Ocala. It’s amazing. People from all over come here.”
Although the Santos Trail is primarily designated as a mountain biking trailhead, you don’t need wheels to tackle the trails.
Equestrians appreciate the fact that the “staging area” is fenced and there’s even a small corral on-site, although this trailhead is smaller than some of the other Greenway trailheads that cater mostly to horseback riders.
“I ride there all the time and have ridden those trails for years,” says Iris Diaz, president of the local Sun Country Trail Blazers riding club.
Diaz says she regularly heads to the Santos Trail, whether for an organized club ride or with a group of riding buddies.
“This is the most flat of all the greenway trails and the footing is great,” she notes. “It’s good in the summer because there’s a lot of shade. You can ride straight out on a loop ride for a couple hours at a slow pace. You can also cross the street and enter the 110th Street trailhead.”
Bathrooms are an added benefit and picnic tables make it easy to relax and have a snack before or after your ride. In addition to the restrooms, which have potable water, there are 80 paved parking spots and three picnic pavilions.
“We always bring lunch and rest the horses while we eat,” says Iris. “It’s nice that there’s water and you can hose the horses off.”
Hikers often venture out on the trails, many bringing their dogs on a leash. Trails are clearly marked and for safety reasons, there are separate trails for mountain bikers, equestrians and hikers so you don’t have to worry about sharing the path. There are places where some of the trails cross each other, but those who use the trails regularly say it’s never a problem because the trails quickly veer off in different directions.
On the Cross Florida Greenway as a whole, there are approximately 40 miles of equestrian trails, 40 miles of hiking trails and 70 miles of mountain biking trails.
The more than 30 miles of mountain biking trails at Santos are broken down into three levels of difficulty: yellow is easiest, blue is labeled intermediate and red is for experts. Trails are color-coded, which makes them easy to follow. Anytime you see “TH” with an arrow on a trail sign, this will lead you back to the trailhead.
On the day I hit the trails, I saw everyone from families with young children on the yellow trails to BMX riders pulling off some hair-raising stunts on the red trails. Personally, I decided the blue trails were more my style. The majority of all trails are shaded, but the number of roots, rocks, ups and downs, and twists and turns will vary greatly depending on the level of trail you opt to ride.
The Ocala Mountain Bike Association (OMBA) does a masterful job of maintaining the trails as well as cutting new ones.
“The amount of hours our volunteers [donate] in one year is the equivalent of the state spending about $80,000,” says OMBA president Tim Mulhall. “The first Saturday of every month, anywhere from 15 to 20 members show up to maintain existing trails and build new ones. We hope to have three miles of new blue trails open by late March.”
As I learned from firsthand experience, it’s possible to take a tumble on the blue trails if you don’t negotiate the rocky areas successfully. But for the most part, I found the blue trails to be a blast. They were challenging enough, but not too intimidating.
Wear a helmet, bring along extra water and ride safely. The Santos trails are yours to enjoy, so make the most of them!
Want To Learn More?
Greenway Bike Shop (Offers bike rentals) greenwaybikeshop.com / (352) 351-3475
Santos Bike Shop (Offers bike rentals) santosbikeshop.com / (352) 307-BIKE (2453)
Ocala Mountain Bike Association omba.org
Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway Headquarters floridagreenwaysandtrails.org / (352) 236-7143
Got A Fat Tire?
If you love all things mountain biking or just want to learn more about this exciting sport, check out the Ocala Mountain Bike Association’s 5th annual Fat Tire Festival held at the Santos Trailhead March 18–20.
Space is limited to 350 riders and those spots are already filled for the weekend event, but the public is welcome to attend. You can visit the vendor village and take advantage of a demo bike ride. (Bike demos are subject to weather and trail conditions.)
“We have vendors coming this year from as far away as Washington, D.C.,” says OMBA President Tim Mulhall. “There will be demo bike rides all weekend from Friday to Sunday. Every major bike manufacturer will be there.”
Among the most popular activities on the agenda are the free ride demonstrations where you can watch riders drop off 20-foot cliffs and more.
“We’re pretty famous for the red trails, which are expert level,” says Tim. “We have one of—if not the largest—free ride areas in the country with dirt jumps and cliff drops.” (“Free ride” means you don’t have to pay to ride.)
Visit omba.org for more information and to find out about upcoming area mountain bike events, such as the “Ride of the Living Dead,” a costumed 50-mile ride on the Greenway trails held around Halloween.