Escape Winter on Florida’s Santos Trail System

Santos, Florida is the perfect place to escape the cold, snowy clutches of winter. This expansive mountain bike trail system offers something for everyone, from kids to adults, and beginners to experts.

While our family and friends in Utah and Idaho began posting their first pictures of snowstorms and selfies from the basement trainer, we were driving south to Ocala, Florida. After five days of freezing rain in the mountains of northern Georgia, our family was ready for warm temperatures and sunshine.  Along the I-75 corridor, the trees changed from pine to pecan and then to palm.

We pulled into the Santos trailhead, home of an IMBA bronze-level ride center, to 70 degrees and a light breeze. We quickly stripped off our sweatshirts, eager to get in a ride before bothering to unpack. I managed to get a helmet on my 5-year-old before he was gone, lost for the week to the pumptrack, the skills area, and the jungle.

Rather than rummaging through the trailer for clothes, I chose to forgo a kit, slipping on a pair of bike shoes and a hydration pack.  Amidst the throngs of boy scouts and couples on rental bikes, I fit right in wearing a pair of gym shorts and a tank top.

Despite the crowds in the parking lot, once we started down the trail, the jungle quickly swallowed us.  Dense trees loomed on all sides, vines reaching out as if to grab us.  The only sounds were a relentless cacophony of exotic birds and my 5-year-old asking for snacks.

Fun for All Skill Levels

Santos is unique in that it’s a place you can take your kids or your beginner-spouse and not want to poke your eyes out from boredom. Despite a complete lack of elevation (or thanks to it), the Santos trails are fast, fun, and surprisingly techy. Even the easiest green trails offer playful wooden features, with ride arounds for those who need them.

At the heart of the Santos trail system is an area known as the “Vortex.”  This skills area boasts a challenging “black diamond” trail, several jump lines, wooden features, and a pumptrack.  It also became our home base for the week thanks to its ability to keep the whole family entertained.

While the kiddo did endless, mind-numbing laps on the smaller jump lines, my husband and I took turns playing and riding the outer Vortex trail.  This singletrack manages to be surprisingly strenuous when ridden at full-speed, taking advantage of every 5-foot chunk of elevation change. Tree roots are supplemented with wooden features and some seriously big drops, should you choose to take them.

On several other days, I managed to sneak away from camp to get in some solo rides. The hardest of the system trails–John Brown, Rattlesnake Ride, Sinkhole–were challenging to the point that I had to re-ride sections before cleaning them. They are fun enough that you will be left wishing there was more. For a longer cross-country ride, I did an out-and-back on the larger Cross Florida Greenway. This is a technically easy, but enjoyable ride that allows you to rack up some big miles–42, if you choose to do the whole thing.

Winter Escape

Perhaps the most compelling reason to come to Santos is the weather.  When you are sick of frozen snot and riding with pogies, Santos is the closest thing to heaven on earth.

The average high temperature in Ocala in December is a balmy 73 degrees, and nighttime temps stay well above freezing.  Unlike other “winter” destinations like Moab, UT or Sedona, AZ, there’s no chance that you will get caught in a freak snowstorm. We visited the week before Thanksgiving and I never had to put on a long-sleeve jersey or knee warmers. In fact, I sent plenty of short-sleeve selfies to friends and family stuck in the snow. (Sorry, not sorry!).

For those interested in camping, the Santos trailhead has a campground that is open year-round. We stayed in Site 1 and were alone most of the week, except for Friday when the hoards started moving in. I hung a hammock from the many palm trees at our camp, where I enjoyed a daily post-ride beverage. There’s even a bike shop, Greenway Bicycles, across the street with all the necessities — bike parts, ice cream, beer. You could easily park your car for a long weekend and never drive again until it’s time to go.

If you do decide to venture away from the trailhead, Santos offers a variety of other activities to keep you occupied for a week or so.  We enjoyed kayaking with the alligators at nearby Silver Springs State Park and playing board games at the nearby Infinite Ale Works brewery. Or, maybe the ocean is your thing?  Daytona Beach is an easy 90-minute drive from camp.

If you’re still under snow in early spring, one of the best times to visit is in March for the annual Santos Fat Tire Festival.  The three-day event features bike demos, guided rides, and skills clinics.  A ticket gets you camping, meals, live music, and more.

Parting Thoughts

Santos probably isn’t the place you want to head for your annual “bro” trip.  There’s nothing “epic” here.  But for anybody who’s looking for a healthy dose of warmth and sunshine, or who wants to take a family-friendly mountain bike trip, Santos will surprise you with just how much fun it is.

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