What started out as a very bad idea somehow turned into the best thing that could've ever happened for trail riders in Florida. Known today as the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, this 110-mile nature park was born from what was formerly known as the Cross Florida Barge Canal.
Crossing central Florida from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. John's River, this unique nature park offers horseback riders the best trails around. Hiking and biking trails also crisscross and/or run parallel to equestrian trails, but there's plenty of room for everyone. If not for a little luck and a determined woman, however, the Florida Greenway might not have come to be.
Imagine a deep-water ship canal cutting east-west across Florida. It almost happened, twice. In 1935, construction began on the Cross Florida Barge Canal, but was suspended in 1936 when federal funds ran out. In 1964, construction began again, but it was thankfully halted by a suit filed in 1969 by the Environmental Defense Fund.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order suspending further work on the canal. Here's the scary part: When halted the final time, the project was nearly one-third complete, and some $74 million had been spent on land acquisition and construction.
In 1990, the canal was formally deauthorized. The following year, the Cross Florida Greenway State Recreation and Conservation Area was created.
Leading the fight to preserve this land was biologist Marjorie Harris Carr, who was a great friend of Florida's natural environment. It was she and her organization, the Florida Defenders of the Environment, who led the way in the battle to stop the Cross Florida Barge Canal. In 1998, the land she helped save was renamed the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway.
Riding the Greenway
The best place to begin a trail ride in the Florida Greenway is from the Land Bridge Trailhead, south of Ocala on 475A. You'll find plenty of paved parking for vehicles and horse trailers, restroom facilities, a picnic area, and clean water.
From there, you'll ride 1.5 miles from the Land Bridge Trailhead to the Cross Florida Land Bridge that spans I-75. Clearly marked, the trail meanders through a pine forest, which provides shade even on the warmest summer day. This is the most direct route, but for those wanting a little more adventure, there are three side trails to explore before crossing the Land Bridge: the Blue East-West trail; the Red trail, which loops back to the Blue trail; and the Wagon Trail, which is wide enough to ride side-by-side and is lined with beautiful oak trees.
Crossing the Land Bridge is in itself an adventure. It goes across I-75 and provides access to the western portions of the Florida Greenway. The bridge has a horse-safe limestone surface, is fully landscaped with native Florida vegetation, and has two viewing areas on each side. Once on the east side, there's a water trough for horses.
From the Land Bridge, there are miles and miles of trails to ride on, including a trail to the 49th Avenue Trailhead. The most direct route to this trailhead is 2.4 miles, but there are 8.7 miles of equestrian trails to explore. The Christmas/Blue East-West trail is the most scenic route, taking you through a variety of Florida terrain. In addition to pine forests and sand pine scrub areas, there are also remnants of the defunct barge-canal project. These small-scale valleys offer challenging terrain.
The 49th Avenue Trailhead provides vehicle and horse trailer parking areas, a picnic pavilion, and water for horses.
Ride to Utopia
Don't stop here-keep going on the 49th Avenue Trailhead Underpass just north of the trailhead, which provides safe crossing under 49th Avenue and into yet more of the Florida Greenway. Again, the continuation of the Blue East/West trail is your best bet. You're now into the area known as Shangrila, which offers 5.43 miles of riding trails. The main trail is 3.28 miles long, and an alternate trail is 2.15 miles long. There are more valleys in this area from the barge-canal project that have long been a favorite of trail riders.
You can also ride to the Shangrila Trailhead, a popular overnight horse-camping spot. From Shangrila, you can go into what's known as Utopia, which leads to County Road 484. Cross CR 484, and continue on to the Ross Prairie Trailhead, the newest edition to the Florida Greenway off State Road 200. You'll find forested areas, prairie land, and more hilly terrain carved out from the barge-canal project. There are about 6.3 total miles of riding trails in this section.
The Ross Prairie Trailhead offers parking, restrooms, showers, water, and a campground. For more information on the Shangrila and Ross Prairie campgrounds, call the Ocala field office of the Greenway Trails.
If you take the most direct trails, it's about 18 miles from the Land Bridge Trailhead to the Ross Prairie Trailhead-a good thing to keep in mind while planning a trail-riding adventure in the Florida Greenway.
The Florida Greenway is truly a gift to horseback trail riders. Treat it as such, and get out there and enjoy it!
The Florida Greenway is operated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Greenways & Trails. For more information, contact the Ocala field office at (352) 236-7143, or visit www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt, and click on Cross Florida Greenway.