As the Cross Florida Greenway sweeps south of Ocala and along the edge of Belleview, it snakes through a ribbon of forest broken by unobtrusive road crossings in the heart of horse country, along canopied roads that are a joy to drive.
Bordered by horse farms, this section of the Florida Trail provides a suburban getaway less than 10 miles south of downtown Ocala. It’s an immersion into secret delights, including rows of ancient live oaks that once served as living fences, a deep sinkhole, and rugged, rocky limestone karst features near Santos.
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Length: 6.7 miles linear
Trailhead: 29.059735, -82.154948
Restroom: at both trailheads
Land manager: Cross Florida Greenway
For safety’s sake, be cautious at all road crossings. CR 475A, CR 475B, and CR 475 are all posted at 55 mph and few signs exist to warn motorists of pedestrian crossings.
The trail also crosses a paved bike path where you need to watch out for cyclists whizzing past. Visibility is good at all trail crossings.
If you are backpacking and plan to camp en route, please contact the Cross Florida Greenway for a free permit. Florida Trail members do not need a permit to camp along the Cross Florida Greenway if carrying their Florida Trail membership card, but in this urban corridor, it’s safer if you check in and let them know your camping plans.
Santos Campground is a pleasant stop for long distance hikers. It offers showers, potable water, and picnic tables with your campsite. An outfitter with snacks and protein bars is just outside the gates.
Land Bridge Trailhead: Along CR 475A 2 miles north of CR 484 off the I-75 exit for Belleview / Dunnellon. Head east from I-75 to the first traffic light, turn left and drive north. The trailhead entrance has a turnout lane. Drive past the equestrian parking area and around to the large parking area near the restrooms.
Santos Trailhead: Located just west of the intersection of US 441 and SE 80th Avenue, at the traffic light with the Santos Sheriff Station, 3 miles north of Belleview along US 441. Park your vehicle near the restrooms close to the campground rather than at the larger parking area which serves the mountain biking trails.
Leaving the parking area at the Land Bridge trailhead, turn left and follow the orange blazes down a slender corridor deeply shaded by old live oaks. The trail blazes lead you out the front gate of the trailhead and across CR 475A. Look for the FNST shield on the far side of the road to continue the hike.
Continue straight through a gap in the fenceline and cross a fire line into a young longleaf pine forest, where row upon row of pines were planted a decade ago and now are tall enough to cast shade on the footpath.
A bicycle trail forks off to the left where the Florida Trail continues straight into the longleaf pine forest. After 0.4 mile you cross a bike path and get to the edge of the pines, where a horse trail runs along the firebreak.
Enter the shady laurel oak forest. Off to the right, you can see a gap in the forest, the location of the Florida Horse Park carved out of the Greenway. It’s a venue for Olympic-style equestrian events and polo.
The forest is very pretty, with older longleaf pines amid the oaks and soft pine duff underfoot releasing a pleasant scent in the air.
Longleaf pine needles hang like tinsel from the oak branches. You pass a deep dry depression on the left, perhaps a sinkhole, before the trail exits this segment of forest into an open field, turning left away from the horse park.
The trail winds past a series of lovely ancient live oaks, a notable one at 1.1 miles split into branches that have grown as large as giant trees themselves. The grapevines draping the oaks grow enormous, too. You hear the crunch of acorns and live oaks underfoot.
Crossing a dirt road used by horses to where the trail used to exit to the highway, the trail slips through another sliver of laurel oak forest and reaches CR 475B at 1.3 miles. Once you cross the road, there are three trails in front of you.
To the left, the horse trail, which has a “dead end” sign. Straight ahead, “bicycle trail only.” The Florida Trail continues right into the laurel oak forest. Occasional clumps of wiregrass and lone longleaf pines belie the sandhill habitat that this once was.
The corridor is very narrow, with the highway to your right, until the trail starts a diagonal towards the horse farm on the left. You may see bicyclists zip past on the adjacent mountain bike trails.
After 1.7 miles, pass a karst depression with a lot of surface limestone scattered along the trail. The footpath emerges at CR 475. Cross carefully to the far side.
A bench is up ahead near the intersection of the bike trail and the Florida Trail. It’s a good place to take a break before heading into this next segment, which offers some terrain changes you haven’t experienced to this point.
Duck under a tree limb into an open area with plum trees, and the trail continues paralleling a firebreak beneath a treeline of ancient oaks. Swaddled in resurrection fern, the live oaks are a delight throughout this next section.
Watch for blazes as you reach a confusing junction of trails. The Florida Trail turns right and heads into the sandhills towards the soft buzz of model airplanes.
Emerging into an open field with a lone cabbage palm and an FT sign, the trail works its way past plum trees and winged sumac to an old fenceline. Turning left at an old gate, the trail follows the fenceline, keeping to the shade.
At 2.7 miles you reach a covered bench at a junction of trails, another good stopping point. The FT turns right to head down another fencerow of oaks.
The next junction of trails sees the convergence at an OMBA marker (Ocala Mountain Biking Association) and a horse trail. The Florida Trail turns left to parallel the bike trail, then splits off from it into a fencerow of laurel oaks.
Continue down a long, narrow shady straightaway for some time. There are fields planted in longleaf pine to the right and left of this corridor.
The trail skirts the rim of a large sinkhole at 3.6 miles, with mountain bike trails snaking through the lower levels of this large karst feature. Chunks of limestone and bits of chert emerge from the footpath.
As the trail comes out of the laurel oak forest, it follows the edge of a firebreak along a field planted in longleaf pine, paralleling SW 95th Road, a busy connector between CR 475 and Belleview.
Crossing the road, the trail continues within sight of a kiosk along the bike trails. You also cross the new paved bike path. Turning away from a horse pasture, the trail turns right. A small depression sits off to the left.
Turkey oaks and longleaf pines dominate, and there are patches of deer moss growing in the pine duff. Four miles in, you cross a horse trail.
Laurel oaks yield to tall longleaf pines as you transition into a natural sandhill habitat with the towering pines overhead. The pine duff is a comfort to walk on as you continue your zigzag towards Santos.
Around 4.3 miles you pass a spot on the right that looks suitable for a dry primitive campsite, an open area next to a copse of oaks just before you enter a stand of skinny longleaf pine mimicking a bamboo forest.
Mounds come into view, not middens, but leftover clumps of rock and dirt from excavations in what were once limestone quarries and are now some of the wildest mountain biking experiences in Florida, known as the Vortex.
The trail winds past some artifacts, what looks to be the remains of an old building, perhaps the loading facility for the former limestone mine. The Vortex trailhead is down a side trail to the left.
Crossing SW 25th Avenue, the last road crossing on this hike, it’s not immediately evident where you go. Head towards the kiosk to the left, at another confluence of trails. Look for the orange blazes!
Pass through a spot of scrub in the laurel oaks, crossing a bike trail at a bench. The understory is very dense. Crossing another bike trail and a broad horse path, the trail comes to a depression on the right that looks as if a canal once ran here.
The trail drops into the depression. After passing through a stand of gigantic oaks, you soon cross a horse trail. Oaks rise like ancient Grecian pillars, inviting a sense of reverence.
Pass through a clearing where the sweet scent of pine needles rises from the soft duff. After a second clearing with the sign “Pine Tree Trail” for the nearby mountain bike trail, the landscape becomes very rugged. There’s a sinkhole on the left which the mountain bike trail passes through.
The trail starts a noticeable ascent with rocks underfoot everywhere and small pits beneath the trees. This is karst country, where surface limestone is an expression of what lies beneath – underground streams, springs, and caverns.
A glimmer of light in the distance is glancing off RVs in the Santos Campground. The trail gets rockier underfoot as you come up to the trail junction and its trail register. Turn left and walk up the short blue blazed trail past the restrooms to the trailhead parking area.
See our photos of the Florida Trail, Land Bridge Trailhead to Santos
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
3.6 miles. Bookended by soft sand pines and ancient oaks, this particularly fascinating hike along the Cross Florida Greenway includes a massive dune-like slope and the Land Bridge over Interstate 75.
The shortest trail on the Cross Florida Greenway interprets nearly a century’s worth of efforts to dig a canal across the Florida peninsula and split it in two.