In December of 1998, me and two friends from Gainesville take advantage of some fabulous December weekend weather. We drive 45 minutes south on U.S. 441 to a place just south of Ocala for me to check out some mountain bike trails that I have heard people raving about for several months now.
What awaited us was incredible. We spend two hours hammering through a veritable honeycomb network of about 40 miles worth of trails in an area called “Santos.” It is also known as the “Barge Canal Trails,” because it is a trail network that was established after the federal government de-commissioned the “Cross-Florida Barge Canal.” The Santos Trails are now found along what is officially called the “Cross-Florida Greenway.”
The Santos Trails are found within a very pleasant oak hardwood hammock, featuring ancient oak trees with enormous branches arching over many of the trails. You will also find trails winding through prairie and pine flatwoods.
There are three types of trails for three skill levels: red blazes indicate the most difficult, technically challenging trails. Blue blazes are intermediate, and yellow are for beginners. We avoid the red trails because none of us three feel we are at that skill level. Some of the entrances to red trails looked fairly treacherous. But we have great fun on the blue and yellow trails. They are winding and the up-and-down character of them gave them a “rollercoaster” effect. Even the yellow trails are challenging enough to be fun. Many of the trail surfaces are smooth, hard-packed sand, which make for fairly high speed bicycling, and there are many sections made technical by the need to navigate around tightly-spaced trees, limestone rocks, and tree roots. And because the area was formerly used for limestone mining, there is some fairly steep topography not found anywhere else in Florida. In many ways the character of the trails near the limestone pits reminds me of what I would expect to find at the Moab trails in Utah.
Some of the excellent trails we did: Snake Trail, Termite Trail, Canopy Trail, Speedway Trail, Yellow Trail, Sink Hole Trail, Dr. Ruth’s Trail, Ant Hill Trail (When we got to the top of the hill on this trail, two bikers were repairing a flat. They tell us they were the ants.)
In fact, at one large, old limestone pit, we stop for a break near a trail that drops almost straight down about 25 feet. Neither of my friends have the courage, but I cannot resist. However, I approach the precipice eight times on my bike, and turn back each time because it looks too terrifying as I glance down at the rocky cliff below. Finally, on the ninth approach, I take the plunge to the bottom. And live to tell about it.
On another occasion, we are bicycling at high speed down a sandy slope with a number of embedded “water bars” installed to control erosion. It is somewhat scary for me, as it was a downhill over some water bars in Boulder, Colorado, that caused me to crash and hurt myself in a mishap in 1996. Sure enough, history repeats itself. I approach a turn with too much speed, and use too much of my front brake to avoid trees. An “endover” put me into the sand and shrubs—this time, fortunately, unhurt. The fall was a good one, unlike Boulder.
Formerly, I considered the Suwannee River trails to be the best mountain bike trails in Florida. In my opinion, the Santos trails should now be considered the best. For a fabulous time, I highly recommend them.