In its mile-wide sweep across a swath of Central Florida, the Cross Florida Greenway hits an interruption just a few miles to the north of Belleview. The community of Santos was “in the way” during the construction of the Cross Florida Ship Canal in the 1930s, and emptied of its African-American residents; only the name and a historic church remains to commemorate the small town. Since building the canal meant cutting down trees and leveling hills, most of the lands you cross are covered in second or third growth forests, and there are many old pastures where cattle used to graze. You see “the middens of Marion County,” too, as the trail parallels the Baseline Landfill for some time, but unlike those towering garbage heaps along I-95, these are grass-covered and look like mountain ridges in the distance. While this section of the Florida Trail is surrounded by suburbia, you won’t see much of it along the hike. Listen to the woodpeckers and pine warblers, enjoy the longleaf pines rising against bright blue skies, and imagine how many people within earshot of this sliver of forest don’t even know it’s here.
Location: Belleview / Ocala / Silver Springs Shores
Length: 4.5 miles
Lat-Long: 29.105688, -82.094217 (Santos); 29.142205, -82.052940 (Baseline)
Fees / Permits: None unless you are camping, which requires a free permit
Good for: Birding, backpacking, wildlife
Difficulty: 2 of 5
Bug factor: 2 of 5
Restroom: Available at both the Santos and Baseline trailheads
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.
The Santos Trailhead (westernmost 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.
The Baseline Trailhead (easternmost point) is 5.7 miles north of Belleview via SR 35 just north of the intersection of SR 464 (Maricamp Road) and SR 35 (Baseline Road) in Silver Springs Shores, to the east of Ocala and south of Silver Springs. An intermediate access point, the Santos Ballfields, is located just east of the Santos Sheriff Station along SE 80th Avenue and should be used as your starting point if you prefer not to cross the four lanes of busy US 441 when day hiking this section. Exit the parking area at the ballfields near the picnic pavilion to the road to catch the trail as it emerges for a short roadwalk through historic Santos.
Starting at the Santos Trailhead, a blue blaze leads from the trailhead just behind the restrooms into a shady stretch of forest, connecting you to the main ribbon of the Florida Trail. Turn left and follow the orange blazes past the Santos Campground, a pleasant stop for long distance hikers that offers showers, potable water, and picnic tables with your campsite. It’s an inexpensive getaway for tent campers and popular with mountain bikers taking on the state’s most impressive mountain bike trail system, which also starts at Santos.
The Florida Trail emerges from the woods to cross busy US 441. There are no signs to alert drivers that hikers cross the road here, but traffic is high speed and one-way, southbound,. So be careful as you cross. Entering a patch of laurel oak forest in a very broad median island between the two segments of highway, the trail comes up to a large concrete bridge abutment. This is a relic of construction of the Cross Florida Ship Canal, a bridge pier that is poured concrete and dates back to the 1930s. I remember in the 1960s that it was clearly visible from the highway, but the forest has enveloped it as if hiding an ancient Mayan temple. An interpretive kiosk provides some history of the construction effort as you cross the Historic Ship Canal Trail and continue through the woods to emerge at the northbound lanes of US 441. Cross carefully and re-enter the forest on the western side of the highway.
The trail works its way around the Santos Ballfields complex through the laurel oak forest before emerging at SE 80th Avenue at an at-grade railroad crossing. This is a very active rail line, so stop, look, and listen before you cross to the north side of the road. You are now on a roadwalk through what remains of the historic African-American community of Santos, most of which was displaced anticipating the construction of the canal, which never happened. One of the few community icons that remains is a beautiful little church set under the live oaks. It’s primarily residential, and the road is busy, so keep to the berm. The road swings left and changes road numbers. Passing Kenny’s Place Nursery on the right, keep watch for where the Florida Trail returns to the woods on the left. You’ve hiked 1.3 miles.
This is another climax forest of laurel oak, where the trees are tall and spindly–a not uncommon sort of forest along the Cross Florida Greenway because of how the land was disturbed a generation or two ago to make way for “progress.” Laurel oaks grow quickly but are short-lived, so they tend to rain down branches. The ground slopes away as the trail winds its way through the woods into a narrowing corridor where you pass mats of deer moss on white sand. It emerges at a road crossing at the corner of SE 73rd St and SE 41st Ct, where a prominent sign to the right (and industrial noise beyond) announces the
entrance to Marion County’s one and only landfill. Cross the intersection and head for the Florida Trail sign to the left of the landfill sign. Passing through an old farm fence, the trail turns left and winds through a narrow ribbon of forest between the adjacent road and old pastureland, passing beneath a grand old sand live oak that you must duck under. A red-shouldered hawk calls out overhead.
Turning away from the road, the trail emerges into a old field, crossing a fire lane down a corridor of blackberry bushes, where young longleaf pines are emerging from dense grasses. Crossing another firebreak, the trail enters another sliver of laurel oak forest dividing two old fields, turning left. The trail pops back out into an open field where more young longleaf rises from a dense thicket of blackberries. Off to the right are the mounds of the Baseline Landfill in the distance, rising like a series of far-off mountain ridges. Crossing another jeep trail, the trail ambles past longleaf and slash pine and Florida myrtle that casts off puffs of white in fall. The land undulates underfoot but the footpath is a comfortable base of pine duff and soft grass. In the midst of this field, the trail comes up to a small hammock and makes a sharp left, heading through the former pastures towards the next ribbon of trees in the distance. It’s another oak forest, here with a smattering of loblolly bay and Southern magnolia, a shady respite with opportune openings for camping, albeit without a water source. Emerge into another field of longleaf pine with a noticeable downhill slope to another distant treeline, crossing a firebreak with a sweeping view of the landfill off to the right before it heads back into the shady forest.
At 3 miles, the trail reaches a confusion of footpaths in the midst of the forest. You see a house off to the left through the trees. Follow the blazes carefully across an old road; they lead to a railroad track deep in a cut. Carefully cross this rail line and clamber up the far side for an amble through laurel oak forest and sandhill habitat with its turkey oaks and wiregrass. The trail makes a sharp right to parallel the track briefly, then turns left into the woods. You soon emerge at an open area on the edge of Rotary Park, a county park that primarily is used in the evenings for ballfields. There are restrooms with potable water, but they are generally locked during the day. Walking behind the berm separating the park from the privately owned section of forest, you come up to a fence at a pasture. A basic stile – clamber up and over the wood planks – grants you access, and the cows may come calling. Mind the cow patties as you cross, following the blaze posts across the open pasture to exit the far side over a similar stile under the shade of the oaks.
This next segment of forest feels like the most natural and untouched along this section of the Greenway. It’s a descent down rolling hills, a true sandhill habitat with the haze of wiregrass as a base and turkey oaks and longleaf pines above. To your left are live oaks and laurel oaks in groupings. Deer moss peeps out from the wiregrass. There are several nice flat spots for camping off to the left. One lonely cabbage palm rises next to the trail.
The canopy lifts and the understory opens up enough for you to hear the hum of cars and see flashes of light in the distance–you’re approaching the intersection of Baseline Road and Maricamp Road, a busy place but, thanks to the traffic lights, possible to cross; just watch for traffic turning. Cross Baseline first (the road you emerge on), and then Maricamp. A construction project is underway to four-lane Baseline Road, so the intersection is rather torn up, with heavy equipment everywhere. Look for the FNST sign in the distance cattycorner across the intersection; it may vanish as they lay pavement down. After you cross both roads, make a beeline towards the large trees in the distance, the parking area for Baseline Road trailhead just behind them. This trailhead is home to a Boundless Playground; you’ll see the bright colors through the trees. It also offers picnic spots, restrooms, and access for bicyclists and hikers to a paved segment of trail headed north through Silver Springs Shores. You end this segment of the Florida Trail after 4.5 miles.