Weekend Backpacker: Orlando
It was meant to be a canal. Instead, it's Florida's longest green corridor Â— 110 miles from the St. Johns River, near Palatka, to the Gulf of Mexico at Yankeetown.
The Cross-Florida Greenway shows how concerned citizens can turn an environmental nightmare into a valuable public resource. It was 1849 when Robert E. Lee, then with the Army Board of Engineers, suggested that a"canal across the isthmus" would simplify trade between east coast cities and new outposts along the Gulf of Mexico; the Civil War sidetracked his suggestion. In the early 1900s, a developer picked up the ball again and built a dam across the Withlacoochee River with the intent of digging a canal. War and the Great Depression delayed plans again. Finally work on the canal started in 1935. Using pick and shovel, mule and wagon, unemployed workers flocked to the sand hills of central Florida to dig the ditch. But money ran out, and the project was shelved until the 1960s. Newly minted environmentalists bitterly fought the canal and won. The federal government turned the canal right-of-way over to the state in 1990.
Since then, hikers, bikers, and horseback riders have been hard at work carving out trails along this mile-wide corridor. The Florida Trail Association sees the greenway lands as crucial to establishing a "western wilderness" route for the trail, a jughandle that will allow long-distance hikers to bypass the sprawling urbanization of the Orlando area by heading west along the greenway from the Ocala National Forest to hook up with trail segments in the With Withlacoochee State Forest.
The Florida Trail, Section 13W
From the Santos trailhead near Belleview, a westerly hike along the Florida Trail meanders through a variety of ecosystems, including deeply shaded woods under the spreading branches of enormous, ancient live oaks, their bark furry with thousands of resurrection ferns. On this route, you'll cross one of the most unique bridges in the United States Â— a forested land bridge built to carry the Cross-Florida Greenway's trails over the busy traffic on I-75. On the western side of I-75, you'll come across some of the original diggings for the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, which create massive sand dunes, sand cliffs, and deeply eroded hillsides for hikers to test their stamina against. Dense oak thickets and majestic longleaf pine forest leads the way to the trail's current terminus at SR 484. Total miles: 11.1, one way.
From Orlando: Take the Florida Turnpike to the I-75 interchange; head north to Belleview. Exit on SR 464; turn right and follow it into Belleview. Turn left on US 441. Head north on US 441 to the Santos trailhead, on the left near where the road splits. Driving time: 1.5 hours.
No permits are required to camp along the Florida Trail route or to use the Cross-Florida Greenway.
The Florida Office of Greenways and Trails is your source for a free full-color map of the greenway, detailing all access points along the full 110-mile route. Call them toll free at 1 (877) 822-5208, and they'll mail you a copy. For specifics on the route of the Florida Trail along the greenway, including campsites and water sources, you can purchase Map 26, Cross Florida Greenway West, through the Florida Trail Association; an order form is posted on their Web site.
Equestrians and mountain bikers share the greenway, but they stick to their own trails that crisscross the Florida Trail in places. All trails meet inside the canal diggings, where a couple of benches have been erected between the spring and the giant sand dune. While you may camp anywhere along the trail Â— and there are plenty of nice spots Â— this unusual little pine-shaded valley provides a spring (dry during drought) and scenery not found elsewhere along any trail in Florida; it's a great spot to set up camp.
Water is a scarce resource along the route, especially west of the land bridge. Be sure to carry an adequate supply for the heat and humidity of Florida. Water is presently available at the Santos trailhead, and non-potable water sources (horse troughs) are expected to spring up at the SR 475A trailhead and near the land bridge.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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