Sun Country Trail Blazers
Horseback Riding Club
The Greenway that horseback riders now enjoy did not come to be by design but instead was born from the controversial Cross Florida Barge Canal. As a way to create jobs during the Great Depression, the plan was to construct a deep-water ship canal cutting east-west across Florida. Construction actually began in 1935, stopped a year later, resumed in 1964 but was halted again in 1969. Thanks to environmentalist efforts led by Micanopy biologist Marjorie Harris Carr, the barge canal construction never resumed again.
In 1991, the Cross Florida Greenway State Recreation and Conservation Area was declared where the barge canal work had begun. The Greenway was officially renamed the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway in 1998, honoring Carr who had died at 82 the previous year.
Today, the Greenway is operated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Greenways & Trails and is considered a state park. This unique 110-mile nature corridor stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. John’s River. The Greenway section that runs through southern Marion County, from Ocala to Dunnellon, offers horseback riders, as well as hikers and bikers, some of the best trails in the state.
“A great way to get to know the Greenway is by horseback,” says Bre Ximenes, who is the Cross Florida Greenway Trails & Volunteer Coordinator. “There are more than 65 miles of horseback riding trails. The forests provide plenty of shaded trails, and, for the more adventurous, there are the canal diggings hills to ride up and down. You’ll likely see plenty of wildlife, including deer, bobcats, coyotes, fox squirrels, wild turkeys, owls, hawks and woodpeckers. There have even been occasional black bear sightings.”
For Dr. Doug Shearer, a lifelong horseback rider who competes in and judges endurance riding, the Greenway trails top his list.
“I’ve ridden many, many trail systems throughout the Southeast, and there’s none better than the Greenway,” says Shearer, a small animal veterinarian who is president of the Greenway Equestrians. “The trails are great, plus there is no hunting or motorized vehicles allowed in the Greenway, so it’s safe riding. We encourage everyone to get out and enjoy the trails that we are so fortunate to have.”
Now let’s saddle up and go for a Greenway trail ride, east to west, from trailhead to trailhead.
(3080 SE 80th Street)
There are 2.5 acres of fenced horse trailer parking, a horse trough, picnic pavilions, bathrooms and three primitive equestrian campsites. In the Santos section, there are six miles of single-track trails on flat, sandy footing through pine forests. You can cross 25th Street into the Vortex section where there are winding single-track trails and a wagon trail, suitable for riders to ride side by side. Coming out of the Vortex section, cross 95th Street into the Spider Kingdom section, which was named by horseback riders for the abundance of banana spiders in the summer. While not venomous, the spiders do weave thick yellow webs from tree to tree that are an aggravation to horseback riders. The Spider Kingdom section offers 15 miles of trails through the woods, on wagon trails and firelines. Coming out of Spider Kingdom, riders go through the County Road 475 underpass into the Florida Horse Park. There are southern and northern trails, both about 2.5 miles long, looping around the park. Both trails lead to the County Road 475A underpass into the Land Bridge section.
LAND BRIDGE TRAILHEAD
(11100 SW 16th Ave/CR 475A)
It features 4 acres of fenced trailer parking, horse wash areas, a mounting platform, water trough, picnic tables and a bathroom facility. There are a pair of 2-mile single track trails, on the south and north sides, that meander through pine and oak forests, leading to the Land Bridge. Completed in 2000, the $3.2 million bridge over Interstate 75 connects the eastern and western portions of the Greenway. Once across the Land Bridge, veer to the left and into the Christmas section. So named by riders who said that “riding in the Greenway was like celebrating Christmas every day.” A 2.7-mile trail takes you through pine forests and sand pine scrub areas. Remnants from the barge canal diggings have created small-scale valleys and sand dunes for more challenging riding.
49th AVE TRAILHEAD
(12555 SW 49th Ave)
This is a small trailhead with parking for only four to five horse trailers, but it’s a good lunch stop on an all-day ride. There is a picnic table, two port-o-potties, hitching posts, a water trough and a large mounting block. To continue west, riders go through the 49th Avenue underpass, angle to the left and head toward the Shangri-La section. Single-track and wagon trails meander through a large grand oaks forest, plus there are canal diggings valleys to explore for nearly 19 miles of riding.
(12788 SW 69th Court)
This is the only trailhead dedicated solely to horseback riders; there is no hiking or biking trail from or to it. There’s a large horse trailer parking area, picnic tables, fire rings, horse wash areas and primitive camping with no electricity, but generators are allowed. Going west from Shangri-La, there’s a 3-mile trail to Highway 484, which has to be crossed to enter the backside of Ross Prairie State Forest. This section is also called Utopia, and there’s 10 miles worth of trails through the woods, barge canal diggings and the expansive prairie section.
ROSS PRAIRIE TRAILHEAD
(10660 SW Hwy 200/Dunnellon)
This trailhead sits at the western end of the ride that started at Santos Trailhead. There’s 1.5 acres of fenced horse trailer parking, horse wash areas, a water trough, a picnic pavilion and bathroom facilities. Adjacent is a large campground with several sites designated as equestrian sites.
(15430 SW Hwy 484/Dunnellon)
High-traffic SW Hwy 200 separates the Ross Prairie/Pruitt areas and is not safe for horseback riders to cross. Instead, riders should trailer to the Pruitt Trailhead and ride in what is also known as the Valhalla section. The trailhead has 1 acre of fenced horse trailer parking, a horse water trough and one port-o-potty. There are nearly 20 miles of trails, including woods and barge canal diggings.
Want To Know More?
Bre Ximenes, Cross Florida Greenway Trails
Cross Florida Greenway Equestrian Trails Guide
Equestrian trails are designated with a white Carsonite marker with a capital E followed by a number, which corresponds to a GPS coordinate. In the event of an emergency, a rider should call 911 and relay the E and GPS number to give precise information on your location. Arrows show the forward direction of the trail. An arrow with the letters TH indicates the direction of the nearest trailhead.
Trail 1 (yellow dot with black 1) begins at Santos Trailhead and is the only continuous linear equestrian route traveling east to west and ending at the Pruitt Trailhead. It is mostly a single-track trail with riders having to ride in single file. When heading west, all trail markers, including Carsonites and reasssurance placards on trees, will be on the rider’s right; when heading east, markers will be on rider’s left.
Trail 2 (blue dot with black 2) appears only in segments, originating from Trail 1 on the easterly side and connecting back to Trail 1 on the westerly side of a close boundary section of the Greenway. Primarily a single-track trail, Trail 2 segments are basically longer alternative routes to Trail 1.
TRAIL 3 (Green dot with black 3) is a designated two-track wagon trail which allows riders to ride side by side. Wagon trails vary in length and direction, sometimes intersecting or overlapping Trails 1, 2 and other wagon trails. They may also dead end and be very sandy in spots due to their periodic use as an access road or fire line.
TRAIL 4 (red dot with black 4) is plentiful and best suited for experienced riders. These are difficult trails over and through the steep terrain of the historic Cross Florida Barge Canal diggings. Traveling east to west, they branch off Trails 1 & 2, eventually reconnecting to them.