Ocala Trail … An Epic for Floridians
The Ocala Trail is the best. I was told this by my buddy Nate (a Sarasota resident) and by the young man working in Ringling Bikes … the shop where I rented a Specialized Camber. Nate had told me the trail was created and maintained by the Ocala Mountain Bike Club. He also informed me the trail crossed several roads, and finding the correct trail on the opposite side of a road was difficult at times. I knew I would be on my own as he had to work. Oh well, I love adventure!
During our 2 hour drive from Sarasota to Ocala, Cindy took the time to tell me what she had gleaned from the internet regarding the Ocala Trail.
Length: 21.53 miles
Ocala Trail History
She said local politicians and businessmen were trying to make a canal to connect the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean across Florida for barge traffic. Two sections were built but the project was cancelled, mainly for environmental reasons. That left a 110 mile long (one mile wide) trench in the ground. When the canal project fell through the people decided to make the huge trough into a green space. The Cross Florida Barge Canal had turned into the Cross Florida Greenway. The Ocala trail follows about 20 miles of that greenway … and boy was it ever green!
Finding the trailhead proved to be the most difficult part, due to a couple of different factors. Our phone GPS directions consistently led us past the turn off, until we finally realized the problem. I had typed Ross Prairie State Forest into Google but the trailhead can only be found in Ross Prairie Campground … which lay entirely outside of Ross Prairie State Forest. Who would have thought Ross Prairie Campground was not in Ross Prairie State Forest!
The Ocala Trail … Interactive Map
- The Green Balloon marks the Trailhead.
- Click Icons for Ride Information.
- Click Garmin for all kinds of data for the Ocala Trail.
Have you biked the Ocala Trail? What did you think of it? How about sharing your thoughts on our Visitor Stories page?
As I parked the car and got my mountain bike gear ready I couldn’t help but notice the beauty of Ross Prairie Campground and a surprising fact … the campground was almost entirely unoccupied. Spring Break in California, one never sees empty campgrounds.
To enter the Ocala Trail I had to climb the hill past the bathrooms and coast down through a large open gate. Right away the trail begins to weave tightly through trees not more than 4 feet apart and less than 12 inches in diameter. The slope was … none … not for the entire ride! The weather was pleasant, especially under the thick canopy.
After an easy 3 miles I came to my first road crossing. I knew this might be the first place where I might need the help of the GPX file I had copied from Nate. But, just as I was about to cross the road I saw a guy straddling a bike in the dark shade of some trees about 20 yards from me … wearing a Florida State t-shirt. I made a U-turn and came back to see if he was okay.
A Fellow Rider
He said his name was Matt, and he had already biked several miles on the Ocala Trail and was feeling a little bushed. His Florida State t-shirt verified his statement as it appeared to be totally soaked. He then asked me where I was going. When I told him the Santos Trailhead (the north end of the Ocala Trail) he acted a little shocked, especially when I said I was considering riding back (about 42 miles). Matt told me he would lead me on my ride if I wanted … but he was not going as far as Santos. I gleefully said, “That would be awesome”, and added, “I was hoping to find someone to ride with out here. I have my buddie’s GPX on my Garmin, but I would feel much better following a local rider.”
Having a guide was great, especially after crossing Highway 475, where no less than 3 trails branched out within 30 yards of each other.
About a mile after crossing SW 49th Street we came upon a huge sign saying, “Land Bridge,” with a lot of information regarding the Greenway. Standing next to the sign was a very attractive young lady atop a horse. I am always polite to horseback riders … especially ones like her!
At the top of the Highway 75 overpass Matt stopped and got off his bike. I had been bugging him for his photo (to post on my Guide Page) and he had told me to wait until the Highway 75. After the photo we looked at the traffic on the freeway and were horrified … bumper to bumper in both directions.
Either the construction we’d witnessed on the way north had worsened, or there had been some car wrecks, or the volume of traffic increases in the afternoon, or maybe all three were causing the mess.
During the ride I learned a few things about Matt. He lived in Ocala, and worked on the equipment used in radiation treatments for cancer patients. I asked him if he had attended Florida State (since he was wearing the t-shirt) to which he answered in the affirmative.
He shared all this while we were cruising on a twisting, turning path through a rain forest. But when I asked him if he thought his quarterback (Jamis Winston) would be the 1st pick in the upcoming NFL draft he immediately stopped his bike dead in its tracks. He then turned to face me and said, “I don’t think he is mature enough to handle all he is going to face at that level.”
I responded with, “I think he is a very talented person, and not just physically. I think he is pretty sharp. I saw a show where John Gruden showed defenses and asked the quarterbacks about their read … where they would throw the ball. The quarterbacks had to respond immediately or Gruden would say, ‘Too late, you’re sacked!’ Winston was correct every time. Some of the other draft prospects struggled badly.”
In conclusion, I said, “But I agree with you … I don’t know if he can handle the lifestyle. He seems to get himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. And he says some pretty dumb stuff.”
When we got to Highway 95 (about ¾ of the way through the ride) Matt said he had gone far enough and was going to head back to his car. I thanked him and felt lucky to have come across him. His lead was perfect … I could stay right with him. A couple times he asked if I wanted to go first … but I told him I would not ride the Ocala Trail any faster or slower than he was. I found his pace, “Just Right.”
Right after Matt left me I came across an old wood chair sitting between the trail and an old split-rail fence. I stopped and just looked at the bench … and thought, “Who would have brought this thing out here and who would sit in this thing alongside the trail? Did there used to be a house near here that burned … or a cabin? I took about a dozen photos trying to capture the essence of the chair, trail, and fence in the right amount of light.
The Santos Trailhead
As I got nearer to Santos Trailhead, navigation became quite difficult. Dozens of trails fan out from the parking lot and go in various southerly directions. The forest growth was so thick I could not use landmarks to determine my position or the direction I needed to go, I began to use Nate’s GPX course quite a bit … often taking a trail only to hear the beeping of my Garmin 800 Edge just 20 feet down the trail. I would then turn around and take the other branch. The most difficult time came when the two branches ran parallel at about 30 yards apart. The Garmin wouldn’t beep on either of those trails until they diverged enough to get a clear distinction.
I followed some fellas the last mile or so as there were so many options and I did not find the signage real clear. They knew where they were going and said they were headed to Santos.
As I passed the Kiosk at the end of the parking lot I noticed our car … but no Cindy. That is quite normal for a lot of our adventures. She likes to hike and I like to bike. Sometimes I will get done a little before her … and sometimes it is just the opposite. However, I can’t count the number of times she has entered a trailhead parking lot at exactly the same time I have come in from the opposite direction.
Since I saw no sign of her, I took it upon myself to try the pump track and skills/obstacle course provided at the trailhead. I had a lot of fun, just as much as the 6 year-olds that were riding with me!
I only recall running over 1 rock formation the entire way. I did have to grunt a few times to get over the few climbs and a couple of times I was able to coast at a fairly high speed. I was thrilled to find some man- made obstacles when I was in the Santos Trail system, although it seems most were set up to be done traveling north to south (away from the Santos Trailhead). But … I did not visit the “Vortex.” From what I have since learned the Vortex is packed with difficulties!
The Drive Back
The drive from Ocala to Sarasota was not enjoyable. It was still bumper to bumper when we finally got on Highway 75. We never saw any evidence of wrecks and the construction looked the same so we concluded that maybe the traffic in the area was pretty intense on Friday afternoons.
Ocala Trail “Epic?”
I have biked the Wasatch Crest, Flume, Black Canyon, 401, North Umpqua, McKenzie River, Porcupine and Gooseberry Rims, and many segments of the Arizona Trail. I consider all of these trails “Epic.” Some are Epic due to the stunning views offered from the trail. Others due to the mental and/or physical challenge they present. Many are Epic due to the exhilaration and thrill that come while riding them. While set in a lovely forest, not once did I get the feeling this trail was epic. The Ocala Trail is not in the same category as these other trails.
Epic for Florida? Now, since I have only visited 2 areas in Florida I don’t have much to compare with the Ocala Trail within the state. If Floridians want to call Ocala Trail an Epic, that is all right with me.