For years, we made the uneventful, 2.5-hour drive from Gainesville to Tampa. And for years, about an hour into that drive, we’ve been stumped by a curious overpass just south of Ocala on Interstate 75.
If you’ve ever looked up as you’ve neared exit 341, you’ve likely seen the same perplexing structure: a bridge seemingly bursting with plant life, stretching across all six lanes of the interstate — with a gate situated in the middle like something out of The Secret Garden.
That overpass is part of the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, a bizarre state park with an even more bizarre history. You see, for a long time — like since Florida was discovered — sailors have wished it wasn’t in the way. Having to transport goods all the way down the coast of Florida, only to wrap around the southern Keys, and double back up the other coast is kind of a buzzkill. If it were possible to somehow sail straight across the state, their lives would be a lot easier.
It may sound ridiculous, but the government actually tried to make that happen. Funding was secured for the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which would create an artificial canal large enough for ships to pass through — all the way across the state. My history professor at the University of Florida actually wrote an entire book on it called The Ditch of Dreams (affiliate link).
While the Florida Canal was a complete fail, the land acquired for it was put to use as a very oddly-shaped park — the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. The greenway stretches 110 miles (177 km) linearly from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Johns River in Palatka, Florida. Trailheads and campgrounds dot the greenway as it traces along waterways and forests.
How to Explore the Cross Florida Greenway
Though technically correct, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to think of this skinny strip of land as one contiguous park. The best way to explore it is just to pick out whichever of its points of interest happen to be near you, and take an afternoon to check them out. But we actually took a short trip exploring the whole thing recently, spending a few days traveling between stops, camping in our van, and hiking the various trails throughout the park.
So, yeah, basically that mysterious overpass I mentioned before was the entire inspiration for our trip. When we found out the Land Bridge (as it’s called) over I-75 was part of the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, I began to dig into the details of this “park.” I’m putting “park” in quotes here because the greenway, while very long, is only a mile wide at its widest and has no through roads connecting its collection of trailheads, campgrounds, and recreation areas.
We started our journey to see all the greenway had to offer from its easternmost point in Palatka, Florida. I’m glad we started there because it definitely gets better as you travel west. You can honestly skip most of the stops around Buckman Lock and the Rodman, Eureka, and Kenwood Recreation Areas. Most of these are just boat ramps, picnic tables, and grassy trails with limited views. Although the skies were pretty clear for stargazing.
The greenway hugs Ocala National Forest as you head southwest, and this is where it starts to get interesting. There are all kinds of trails in Ocala that are part of the greenway, and they’re pretty close together for a day trip. South of Ocala is that Land Bridge, with its own hiking and biking opportunities. As you continue westward, the greenway eventually ends with a trail all the way out to the Gulf of Mexico.
Best Hiking and Biking of the Florida Greenway
Ocala is probably the best place to stop and explore the greenway because of its high concentration of hiking and biking trails. On one side of town, you can access the Baseline Road Trailhead, which features a playground and five miles of paved trail, and Marshall Swamp, which is a more natural, unpaved trail.
Drive about 15 minutes southwest to access the super cool Santos Trailhead and Campground, which boasts paved multi-use trails and an entire network of unpaved mountain bike trails. The Santos bike trails in this area have a few different access points depending on how you’d like to spend your day, all within 8-10 minutes of each other by car.
The Santos Trail system is open to cyclists of all levels and ages, and it has separate hiking trails for those on foot. You can also do what we did and hike back into the network of mountain biking trails to just sit and watch them do their thing.
While you’re near Ocala, definitely make time for the Landbridge Trailhead, which offers another really unique hiking and biking experience. It’s a three-mile loop, so you can fit it into just about any day trip to the area.
Near the Land Bridge is the Ross Prairie Trailhead and Campground, which has some hiking and biking trails, as well as 14 campsites with hookups. If those are full, the primitive (and cheaper) Shangri-La Campground is just a short drive down the road. After hiking the Land Bridge, we went toward Dunnellon, and while we didn’t do the Dunnellon Trail ourselves, it seemed like a nice place to walk (it’s a couple miles of paved trail).
In addition to the Land Bridge hike, we also quickly became enamored with the idea of hiking out to the Gulf of Mexico on the Withlacoochee Bay Trail and flying our drone out over Florida’s Nature Coast (the satellite view was extremely convincing).
So the next day, we drove to the little town of Inglis, which has a few trails and recreation areas itself, but also hosts the start of the five-mile Withlacoochee Bay Trail. The wide, multi-use, paved Withlacoochee Bay Trail takes you all the way to the coast to overlook the Gulf. We walked the whole thing in about 4 hours (with stops for photos and a picnic lunch), but I’d recommend bringing a road bike instead of doing it on foot.
In fact, most of the folks out on the trail were biking it. We didn’t realize this until we were out there, but apparently there are little parking lots along the trail that’ll get you much closer to the Gulf than where we started our hike from at Felburn Park. Pretty sure that makes us some of the very few people who have actually walked all 10 miles (round trip) of the in-and-out trail. But it was worth it.
Along the trail are also several stopping points overlooking marshland and the canal (and just fyi there’s one vaulted toilet at about the halfway point, and regular flush bathrooms with running water at the Felburn Park entrance — no services at the end).
We packed a couple PB&Js, some BBQ chips, and a few clementines for our journey. At the end of the trail, we got to enjoy a quiet lunch at a covered picnic pavilion overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. It was the perfect ending to this little Central Florida road trip.
A Wild History for a Not-So-Wild Park
The puzzling sight of that Land Bridge across I-75 led us down a bit of a rabbit hole, trying to figure out what exactly it was, why it was, and how it fits into the larger Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway.
It was fun to get out there and explore more of our home state’s history, and portions of the Florida Greenway are certainly worth a day trip. But it’s also not really a proper “park.” There’s no one entrance and no single through road to every point of interest. On the bright side, most everything within its boundaries is completely free to experience (our favorite price).
All in all, we’d happily return to some of these spots, and we definitely recommend spending an afternoon hiking or biking the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway if you’re near one of its trails.