After several years of working on trail crews in Western Pennsylvania, I returned home to Florida in 1999 looking to find an organization similar to the Keystone Trails Association, which coordinated volunteer efforts on hiking trails. I discovered the Florida Trail Association, and to my delight, an active trail-building effort going on very close to home on the Cross Florida Greenway.
I’d grown up with the Greenway nearby, before it had a name or a purpose. It was just woods, like all the other woods around us. But in the dozen or so years I’d been away, huge housing developments were chipping away at the big oak forests on our side of Ocala. So it was a delight to discover that this corridor, originally slated to be a canal was being set aside for recreational use.
Yesterdays’s hike, between 49th Avenue Trailhead and the Land Bridge, brought back a lot of memories. It was here I first started my long association with the Cross Florida Greenway, helping to route and build this segment to connect to the Land Bridge, then under construction, along Interstate 75.
At that time, Kenneth Smith, a long-time Florida Trail member who’d retired from Miami to Belleview, oversaw the routing of the trail and the volunteers who came out to help. I remember going on a handful of scouting trips with Kenneth and Bob Jones, who now oversees volunteer efforts on the completed trail.
The trail was only a dream, an idea, to start, but Kenneth had the vision of creating this new 30-mile piece of the Florida Trail. He’d done a lot of scouting through the woods along the Greenway to find interesting features. Chief among them, west of I-75, were the extensive diggings for the canal itself.
More than 60 years of forest growth topped these man-made sand pits and their steep sides, with decades of erosion carving deep channels in places. This made for terrain unlike anywhere else in this part of Florida, where hiking would actually involve some scrambling up and down steep climbs.
In this area near 49th Avenue, our efforts focused on showcasing one of the rare places that the original diggings were visible. On one scouting trip, we ended up atop the diggings from an odd direction, looking down on this big hill that looked like a giant sand dune. “Not this way,” said Kenneth, and we found a different approach, coming through the valley that would have been the canal floor. The base of the “dune” is an impressive site, and it was an ideal spot for a campsite, with a pond nearby. We had one there for a while.
Revisiting the spot yesterday was another reminder of how things change. Most people don’t assume that hiking trails ever change, but I can tell you from a decade’s worth of guidebook writing, they certainly do. More frequently than you’d imagine. In this case, at some point after we’d built the trail here, Kenneth was told we’d have to move the hiking trail elsewhere. The concept of “zoning” the Greenway for different uses was now in place, and this area around the diggings was going to be reserved for horse trails.
I wasn’t involved in the relocation, but recall the disappointment on my next hike through the area when I discovered the change. Yesterday, I followed quite a few false leads trying to find our way to the diggings until I found an unmarked trail next to a bench. That one got us down to the canal floor and I could find the “sand dune” from there. A horse trail goes right up and over it now, so it doesn’t quite look the same as it did the first time I saw it, but it helps to keep the vegetation from filling in the soft sand.
The habitats through this section are a mix of sand pine scrub and sandhills, but the sand pines dominate. When we first built the trail through here, they grew thick and close together, almost like bamboo. A decade-plus of growth is a lot in a sand pine forest, where the trees normally live only seventy years. Only a small portion of the forest is a thicket, but the pines certainly dominate. On a trail kiosk, we saw this segment referred to as the “Christmas” section, which seemed appropriate. Sand pines have that Christmas look.
After assisting with trail building in this area for a handful of years, I bought a house just two miles from Pruitt Trailhead and took care of the trail between Pruitt and Ross Prairie until I moved away. So the Greenway and I have a bit of a history together. Over the next few weeks, while revisiting the Greenway again for a new project, I’ll be sharing stories like these with photos comparing present and past.
Hiking 49th Ave Trailhead to Land Bridge Trailhead
Hikes on the Cross Florida Greenway
Florida Trail on the Cross Florida Greenway
Bridge to the Future (2001 article on the Land Bridge)