As the Cross Florida Greenway sweeps through Ocala and along the edge of Belleview, it provides access to a series of forests broken by unobtrusive road crossings in the heart of horse country, canopied roads that are a joy to drive between the two trailheads. 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.
Location: Ocala / Belleview
Length: 7 miles
Lat-Long: 29.059735, -82.154948 (Land Bridge) 29.105688, -82.094217 (Santos)
Fees / Permits: None unless you are camping, which requires a free permit
Good for: Birding, backpacking, geology, wildlife
Difficulty: 3 of 5
Bug factor: 2 of 5
Restroom: Available at both the Land Bridge and Santos trailheads
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. Visibility is good at all trail crossings.
If you are backpacking and plan to camp en route, please contact the Office of Greenways and Trails (352-236-7143) in advance for a free permit. Inform them of the general area in which you plan to camp (suggestions are made in the text). 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.
A very pleasant developed campground run by the Office of Greenways and Trails is available at the Santos Trailhead, right along the trail. The trailhead is within a 3 mile walk (south on US 441) to Belleview for grocery stores for long-term resupply. For snacks, ice cream, and camping food (Liptons, mac and cheese), visit the newly opened bike shop across the street from the trailhead.
The Land Bridge Trailhead (westernmost point) is 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.
The Santos Trailhead (easternmost point) is 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 just tall enough to cast some shade on the footpath. A bicycle trail forks off to the left; the Florida Trail continues straight into the longleaf pine forest. After 0.4 mile you cross a bike track and get to the edge of the pines, where a horse trail runs along the firebreak.
Enter the shady laurel oak forest. It’s a climax forest with a very open understory, and I remember it well from nearly a decade ago, when it was my own personal “Mirkwood” where my friend Rich and I battled spider webs at the rate of a mile an hour (during the month of October) to cross it. 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 (but still young) 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, relaxed like languid octopus arms, a wonder to behold. 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, you 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, where you’ll see a bench not far 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 and festooned in Spanish moss, 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 towards the soft buzz of model airplanes (another site carved out of the greenway). This climax laurel oak forest has incursions of sandhill, the original habitat attempting to reclaim its proper place.
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 at a large dead oak tree to parallel the bike trail, then splits off from it into a fencerow of laurel oaks. You’ll see some longleaf pines that have been tapped for turpentine, and one girded by barbed wire from long ago. The trail continues down a long, narrow shady straightaway for some time. The glossy leaves of Southern magnolia stand out in sharp relief against the background of draperies of Spanish moss. There are fields planted in longleaf pine to the right and left of this corridor.
The trail skirts the rim of a sinkhole of rather tremendous girth at 3.6 miles, with mountain bike trails snaking through the lower levels of this large karst feature. Laurel oaks grow out of the bottom, which looks a bit marshy from this height. 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 – along the with mountain bike and equestrian trails – the trail continues within sight of a kiosk along the bike trails. Turning away from a horse pasture, the trail turns right into a laurel oak forest with a very open understory and visibility of the other trails. 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 and see the remains of something red and white in the distance – the bed of an antique pickup truck amid the pines.
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. After a view into that area – mostly obscured by vegetation – the trail winds past some artifacts, what looks to be the remains of an old building, perhaps the loading facility for the limestone mine once upon a time. Covered in a light green ground cover with purple flowers, it’s rather pretty. A parking corral sits off to the left for mountain bikers; it’s usable as a trailhead as well.
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, which is at another confluence of trails. Look for the orange blazes! You’re in the final stretch now, but the landscape gets more and more rugged as you approach the trailhead. It doesn’t appear that way to start. You pass through a spot of scrub in the laurel oaks, crossing a bike trail at a handmade bench. The understory is very dense with greenbrier and young oaks. Crossing another bike trail and a broad horse path, the trail comes up to a depression on the right that looks as if a canal once ran here. The trail drops down into the depression. After passing through a stand of gigantic oaks, you walk up to a monstrous tree, a “holey oak” with a gaping gap big enough for a bear’s den. The trail soon crosses a horse trail. Oaks rise like ancient Grecian pillars, inviting a sense of reverence.
You 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. Within a couple miles of the Santos Trailhead are two mostly-forgotten attractions that showcased this weird landscape – Paradise Springs, a karst window for divers (still open!) and Ocala Caverns, a roadside attraction in the 50s and 60s and long closed to public access.
The trail continues along an area on the right that looks like it’s being restored back to its natural habitat. A glimmer of light in the distance is glancing off RVs in the Santos Campground. The trail gets rockier underfoot; watch your footing. Passing a counter – which records hikers on the trail – you reach the blue blazed junction to the Santos Trailhead. There is a trailhead register here; be sure to sign in. The Florida Trail continues through the campground en route to the Baseline Trailhead. To complete your day hike, turn left and walk up the short blue blazed trail past the restrooms to the trailhead parking area, completing your 7 mile hike.