“Be careful!” Paul said. “This is narrow.” I puffed, pedaled and bumped, thwarting rocks and roots before squeezing through the trees at the top of the rise.
“Woohoo! I rock like Elvis,” I said.
“Plus, you’re so modest,” my husband Paul added, shaking his head.
We were mountain biking the Santos Trailhead’s highly touted trails, part of the Florida Greenways and Trails system. Florida was the inaugural recipient of the American Trails’ award: Best Trails State in the Nation. The trailhead is located close to Ocala, in Marion County, on the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, which occupies land formerly known as the Cross Florida Barge Canal.
The area bristles with manicured horse farms framed by miles of board fences and adorned by ancient oaks. However, once you head out on the trail, you might as well have traveled to another planet.
Limestone ledges, ferns and ivy abound. The carpet of pine needles lends its perfume to the air. It is very quiet, and the forest seems endless. The only interruption is several manmade play areas for cyclists.
No matter what your age is, if you can ride a bike, you can join in the fun; the trails are clearly color-coded according to difficulty. The Santos Trailhead offers hiking and equestrian trails, too, but they are separate from the biking trails. This is an exceedingly good idea because horses sometimes mistake bicycles for cougars, which can be unpleasant for all involved.
On the beginner trails, expect your ride to be bumpier than if you were on pavement. You’ll be winding through the forest, traversing small roots and rocks on mostly flat terrain. The intermediate trails include hills, narrow spots, plus bigger rocks, roots and bumps. The advanced trails boast death-defying plunges and enormous obstacles that would keep an adrenaline addict happy for years. (No, I did not tackle them. I wanted to live to see dinner.)
Besides bathrooms and pavilions, the Trailhead features a “skills area” with obstacles that include a series of dirt mounds, logs, and a narrow wooden bridge perched a couple of feet off of the ground. It’s way fun! I was grinning like a third grader with a new puppy the whole time, and I had to be convinced to leave before I was too exhausted to explore the trail itself.
You’ll want to allow lots of time for exploring, since you can pedal more than 82 miles of trails. We saw only a fraction of the place and spent most of the day there. And get this --I never felt slightly bored. This is saying something because I have such a short attention span. Paul and I were instantly hooked, exclaiming how we couldn’t believe we had never visited before and how we had to bring all of our friends.
The “free ride area” is another playground for cyclists where competitions are often held. It offers a “pump track.” Even a hacker like me could enjoy its undulating terrain, but the area also offers a challenging series of dirt or wooden features and boasts fearsome obstacles for skilled daredevils. One ramp tumbles away into a dirt slide about 25 feet high. No kidding. I would have been more comfortable flying my hang glider off of that ramp than trying it on my bike.
If you can’t fit your bike into your suitcase, no worries. You can rent equipment (or buy some hot new gear) at the Santos Trailhead Bike Shop. Their staff gave us biking tips and a map, even highlighting trails we might enjoy.
Goneriding.com hosts frequent races that are divided by age and skill level. When I rode the trail, I saw several 6-year-old kids warming up for a weekend event. The Ocala Mountain Bike Association, which assists the Florida Office of Greenways & Trails in maintaining the Santos Trails, hosts rides and events. The Santos Trailhead Bike Shop often hosts special events, races and group rides, including rides for children and women-only. This means you never have to pedal alone, unless you want to.
This healthy, fun, back-to-nature, family-friendly adventure gets even better: There is no fee for trail use. If you’re inclined, you can leave a donation to help maintain the trail.
Need to know:
• Helmets are required.
• Water is a necessity.
• Bring a snack or a picnic. The closest restaurants are in Belleview, about 10 minutes away.
• Eye protection is advised to guard against branches.
• Though the trail is mainly shaded, sunscreen is always a good idea in Florida.
• Bring insect repellent. The bugs are scarce, but if you’re someone that they find particularly tasty (like me), you’ll want some.
• Pick up a map at the trailhead or bike shop.
Other Ocala Area Adventures:
• Stop by Silver Springs Nature Park, where you can ride a gondola, explore the wilderness trail on a tram or catch a fascinating glimpse into the crystal-clear water on a glass-bottom boat ride.
• A horse-drawn carriage provides a perfect way to tour the sumptuous horse farms.
• Visit the Florida Horse Park; they frequently host equine events and competitions.
• The Ocala/Marion County Convention and Visitors Bureau has even more cool ideas.
If You Go:
• The Ocala/Marion County Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.ocalamarion.com
• The Florida Greenway and Trails: www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt/guide
• The Ocala Mountain Bike Association: omba.org
• Goneriding.com: goneriding.com
• Santos Trailhead Bike Shop: www.santosbikeshop.com
• Silver Springs Nature Park: www.silversprings.com
• The Florida Horse Park: www.flhorsepark.com
• Ocala Carriage and Tours: www.ocalacarriage.com
• Best trails in the nation award: www.americantrails.org/awards