Exploring The Cross Florida Greenway

for the Orlando Sentinel

A raft of fattened blue-gray American Coots lumbered across the water, frantically kicking webbed feet and flapping wings, trying to take flight as the airboat screamed past them.  Even my ear protectors could not keep out the roar of the propeller, so imagine what the birds could hear.

Mickey Thomason, manager of the Cross Florida Greenway, was at the controls.

“There is so much food in the lake”, he said of the Coots, “they get so fat sometimes you think they’ll never get airborne.”

They do, and at 40-miles-an-hour, it occurs to me that we might too.  For a guy more accustomed to 4 miles-an-hour in my kayak, airboats more than exceed my need for speed.

We were rocketing across the Rodman Reservoir on a cold, dank, overcast day, starting a three-day exploration of one of the most unique recreation areas in the country.  Unique in terms of how it came to be.

 

The Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway is a sprawling network of public lands that run across Central Florida from the Gulf of Mexico north of Crystal River to the St. Johns River south of Palatka.

What is now a 110-mile spider-web of mountain biking, hiking, paddling and horseback riding trails was originally going to be a canal to carry small ships and barges across Florida. It is named after the late environmental activist from Gainesville, one of the leaders in the fight to stop the canal project, which was deactivated by the Corps of Engineers in the 1970’s.

The land was turned over to the state in 1991 for conservation and recreation use. The state Office of Greenways and Trails develops campgrounds and trailheads along the Greenway.  The trails are mostly created and maintained by volunteer user groups, such as mountain biking, hiking and equestrian clubs.

Eastern Greenway (Palatka-Silver Springs area)

The Rodman Reservoir is habitat for largemouth bass, shad and other varieties of fish. The real lunkers lurk beneath the waters of the stump forests that dot the lake. Osprey build nests on man-made platforms in the water, close to the food source. Kind of like being able to walk to the market.

As we launched the airboat we spotted a bald eagle on the shore, trying to steal a fish carcass from a flock of turkey buzzards. The eagle would leap around the outside of the circle of buzzards, trying to scatter the flock and create an opening to steal the food. It was our national symbol of courage and freedom playing its natural role of scavenger and thief.

The reservoir is formed by the Rodman Dam, which backs up the Ocklawaha River.  Environmental groups have been calling for the dam’s removal for years, but supporters of the dam claim it has created one of Florida’s prime fishing and birding locations.

Raptors like eagles, osprey, owls and buzzards are plentiful along the Ocklawaha and Rodman. With a lake full of fish, its nature in balance.

In the old days, the Ocklawaha carried steamboats and barges into Florida’s interior from the St. Johns River. Today it is one of Florida’s most beautiful paddle trips. At its widest point it is perhaps 40 or 50 yards. Mostly it is a narrow winding tannic stream, canopied under trees that shade the sun, offering a peaceful setting for a lazy glide on a steady northerly current.

If you are lucky, deer, otter and black bear can be seen along the banks. You may even spot a colony of monkeys, descendants of Hollywood outcasts. The area was used for location filming back in the Tarzan days. Some monkeys escaped into the wild, and others were simply released when filming was done.

Central Greenway (Ocala area)

I teetered at the top of the hill.  Below a gauntlet of roots, rocks and sugar sand stood ready to grab my front wheel and launch me over the bars.  The words “insurance copay” kept running through my mind. Mountain biking in the Santos area of the Cross Florida Greenway, is great fun, arguably the best in Florida, and only occasionally punctuated by moments of pain and panic. It’s a combination adrenaline junkies gotta love.

The Santos Trailhead is located off U.S. 441/27, where a Marion County Sheriff’s substation sits in the middle of the divided highway.   This is a mountain biker’s Mecca, dozens of trails with varying degrees of difficulty carved for miles through the woods.

The most popular hiking and equestrian trails cross the “Land Bridge” south of Ocala, which safely carries trail users and wildlife above Interstate 75 traffic. The bridge was built with a base of soil and native vegetation so that it is consistent with the rest of the trail environment.  Motion sensor cameras have captured pictures of bobcats and other wildlife migrating across the bridge. I’ve often wondered what happens when a hiker and bear meet in the middle of the bridge.  Hope they catch that moment on their camera.

I hiked along with a group of Florida Trail Association members from the Land Bridge trailhead as they cleared brush for a new primitive campsite. We climbed over and under downed trees, stepped over tell-tale signs of the horse trails, and enjoyed a cool morning in the woods becoming one with nature again. Volunteers brought along clippers and backyard tools.  FTA coordinator Kenneth Smith muscled a high-powered brush hog, kind of a super weed-eater on steroids that chews up small trees, brush and probably anything short of a young rain forest.

The outing is typical of the mix of government and volunteers effort that has helped create the Greenway. The state provided the powered tools and pays for materials and equipment. Volunteer groups like FTA do the grunt work, and the public reaps the benefit.

Western Greenway (Dunnellon area)

If you are really lucky, the western end of the Greenway holds a surprise that you will see few other places on earth…Whooping Cranes in flight.

Riding mountain bikes along the channel of the western barge canal, we saw a flock of large birds circling in a thermal high above us. There were a dozen or more, too big to be eagles or buzzards, they were a flock of Whoopers from the migrating program at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

They soared on white wings with black tips.  I got my camera out but they were too high, just specks against the sky.  No sooner did I put the camera back in the bag than first one, then another dove across the trail, probably trying to figure out what those strange creatures are that moved along the ground on two wheels.

The cranes are a signal of the early success of an experimental program that has used Ultra Light aircraft the past three years to guide yearling cranes into the Crystal River area.

Mickey and I rode our bikes on a paved section of the still-under-construction Withlacoochee Bay Trail. The trail will eventually run nine miles from the Inglis Dam and Lock to the Gulf of Mexico. Most of it will be open by this summer.

The trail deadends at the Gulf of Mexico, making it a great sunset trip.  The old barge canal borders the north side of the trail, and is dotted with fishing pavilions every mile or so.  The south side offers a marshy vista across tidal flats, and a view of the twin towers of the Crystal River nuclear power plant.

Most of the Greenway is within an hour or two drive from Orlando. It is estimated that nearly 1.5-million visitors used its trails and campgrounds last year, according to Greenway Manager Mickey Thomason. With 90,000 acres, he calls it is the largest state recreational facility in Florida.

Florida Greenways and Trails Director Jena Brooks says the Greenway is the biggest project in the state GWT system “and has the greatest potential”.  She noted that because of the long, largely unfenced corridor across the state, the Greenway is more accessible and free to more users than traditional state parks.

I tend to measure these things by how hot, sweaty, tired and grungy you are at the end of the day. To me the Greenway is a great way to spend a great day.

IF YOU GO SIDEBAR

A brochure with maps and features of the Greenway is available from the Greenways and Trails headquarters in Ocala. Call 352-236-7143.  Ask for the “Cross Florida, You Should be Here…” brochure. They also have detailed trail maps for specific trail areas you may want to visit.

www.floridagreenwaysandtrails.com

School Tours

The Greenway is becoming a popular spot for elementary school tours.  The tours are available at the Rodman Visitor’s Center, west of Palatka, on Route 19. They offer hikes, hayrides, scavenger hunts, and tours of the Buckman canal and lock.  Arrangements can be made by calling the Visitor’s Center, 386-312-2273.

Camping

Camping along the Greenway offers plenty of options, from full hook-up RV sites to primitive campsites along the trails.

There is a small campground at Rodman Park, near the Rodman Dam, on the south side of the barge canal bridge, west of U.S. 19. It has tent sites and RV hookups. Reservations can be made by calling 386-326-2846.

The Silver River State Park has camping, RV hookups and luxurious new cabins.  It is near Greenway trails at the Marshall Swamp trailhead, and not far from the Santos and Land Bridge trailheads.

Rainbow River State Park near Dunnellon is close to the Greenway.  It has full RV hookups, but not many good sites for tent campers.  Tent campers will want a site on the River Loop, where there is some limited tree cover.

State Park camping and cabin reservations are made with Reserve America,

800-326-3521, or at www.reserveamerica.com.

The Florida Trail Association is clearing a number of primitive campsites along the hiking trails in the Ocala area of the Greenway.  They are available on a first come-first served basis.

A campground at the Santos Trailhead is scheduled to open later this year.  A number of unofficial primitive camping sites are already established along the mountain bike trails between Santos and the Land Bridge.

Another campground is planned in a year or so on the Withlacoochee Bay Trail.

Discounts for mountain bikers are offered by the Hilton in Ocala. 352-854-1400, or at www.hiltonocala.com. They also offer a package that includes kayak trips on the Rainbow River.

Horse riders can find accommodations at the Bayer’s Lair B&B in the Goethe State Forest, which has stables for horses. 352-486-4314, or www.bayerslair.com.  Owner Beryl Bayer is also an equine artist.

The Black Prong Equestrian Center in Bronson has apartments, camp sites and stables for horses. 800-998-0212, or www.blackprong.com.

Directions to Rodman Dam and Park from Orlando

Take U.S. 441 to Eustis, State Road 19 north through the Ocala National Forest, across the Barge Canal Bridge.  The Rodman Visitor’s Center is one your right.

The Rodman Dam and Park are located west of Route 19.  Cross over the Ocklawaha River bridge on 19, then turn left just before the Barge Canal bridge.

Directions to the Land Bridge area from Orlando

Take the Florida Turnpike north to Interstate 75 near Wildwood, north on I-75 to Route 484 at Belleview, east to Route 475A (first traffic signal), north less than a mile to the Land Bridge Trailhead.

Directions to the Santos Trails area from Orlando

Take the Florida Turnpike north to Interstate 75 near Wildwood, north on I-75 to Route 484 at Belleview, east about 7 miles to U.S. 441/27, north on 441/27.  Turn left at light by the Marion County Sheriff substation.  The trailhead is on the west side of the divided highway.

Directions to Rainbow River State Park from Orlando

Take the Florida Turnpike north to Interstate 75 near Wildwood, north on I-75 to Route 484, west about 18 miles, watch for park signs on your right.

User groups

The primary user groups along the Greenway hold regularly scheduled outings.  Guests are usually welcome, either free or for a nominal fee.  The groups are always anxious to have new members, especially members who are willing to volunteer for trail blazing and maintenance work.

Florida Trail Association (hiking)

www.florida-trail.org

877-445-3352

Sun Country Trailblazers (horseback riding)

www.suncountrytrailblazers.com

Ocala Mountain Bike Association

www.omba.org

Ocklawaha Aquaholics (canoe/kayaks)

mcaquaholics@aol.com

 

 

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