Saturday, January 5, 2013

Santos Trails And the Endless Descent Dream

Turn, pedal, descend, turn, repeat.

Every once in a while you wake up with no clue where you are, what time it is, or how the heck you got there.  Ever since my diaper wearing drill sergeant arrived in August, those moments have been occurring with more frequency than I’d like to admit.  In that split-second, when you’re perched on the precipice between the dream world and reality, both sides seem equally plausible; and equally absurd.  In those moments your brain scrambles to dissect what was the dream and what reality is awaiting you. 

Was the baby crying?  Was I skiing?  Am I in a tent on top of Lafayette?  Am I sleeping in a chair again?

As I sit here writing about my most recent adventure, I feel like I’m sitting on that divide trying to get a grip on reality.  What the heck just happened?

Last year, I resolved to get off my in-laws' couch and into the wilds of Florida while making the annual Christmas trip south.  My Flor’Easter Backcountry adventure included mountain biking at Malacompra and Graham Swamp near St. Augustine as well as Alafia and Balm Boyette near Tampa.

 While these trails lacked any vertical, I noted that “flatness” of the trails kept me engaged during the whole ride.  I never had to go into “climbing” (a.k.a. suffering) mode and instead was constantly involved in the experience of riding.   I found the Florida trails fun in their own right, but because of the lack of vertical, in my mind they would always be inferior to “real” mountain biking trails to the north.

In addition, the trails were relatively small.  Balm, which is the largest, has roughly 15 miles of dedicated singletrack.  And they make use of limited space by folding trails in on themselves.  Like Burlington Landlocked Forest in MA, FOMBA in NH or Pine Hill Park in VT, you never feel like you’ve traveled very far even after hours of riding.  The landscape is limited.  The feel is more “city park” than “wilderness adventure”.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go sit on your stationery trainer for an hour and compare it to riding even a short loop near your house.  Did you go somewhere?  Did you experience anything but a dusty basement?

Only a select few trail networks convey that sense of traveling through a changing landscape: following the trail someplace distant and new.

I felt this sense of transformation most strongly on a ride at Big Laguna and Noble Canyon near San Diego earlier in 2012.  One long climb takes you out of the valley floor and onto a high plain.  Then, as you descend, the landscape transforms around you.  Alpine meadows, wooded canyons and ultimately desert scrub pass by as you work your way toward the valley.  The mostly uninterrupted descent along with the changing landscape builds an unparalleled feeling of flow: of being transformed and of “going places”.  After riding at Noble Canyon, I became possessed with the desire to find similar trails here in the East: one long climb followed by a long flowy uninterrupted descent.  This was a “real” mountain biking trail.  I was hooked.

I was also S.O.L.  For the most part, there just aren’t trails like that here in the Northeast.  Much like our hiking trails, we Easterners like to get to the point: switchbacks be damned.  Most trails run straight down fall-lines instead of winding their way to the bottom.  Go ahead and make me a liar by finding a trail in the Northeast that has an hour of uninterrupted descent.  I dare you.

Resigned to my fate, I had given up on my quest.  Then a funny thing happened.

On a chilly December morning (by Florida standards anyway), I set out from my in-laws near St. Augustine, FL to meet my buddy Dave at Santos Mountain Bike Park near Ocala.  I had read about Santos the year before, but given that it wasn’t particularly close to my in-laws or to Dave, it failed to make my itinerary.  The online chatter focused mostly on the tech-filled trails in the northern end of the park with a general consensus that Vortex was possibly the best free-ride trail in Florida, if not the Southeast.

However, Dave and I had a different focus.  Santos is also home to a Bronze Level IMBA epic trail.  The roughly forty mile ride takes you to on a circuit through all the lands that make up the park.  When you consider that our vaunted “Kingdom Trails” has yet to attain a Bronze status, my expectations should have been higher than they were.   But, again, there was no vertical and the only trails I had seen in Florida all had the same “compact” feel.

The roughly two hour drive across the state toward Ocala, where the park is located, took me through the Ocala National Forest.  This was not the Florida you’re used to seeing on postcards.  Almost immediately west of I-95, I was surrounded by boundless stands of pine trees that were interrupted only occasionally by a forest service road, a campground or a stand of old hardwoods.  It had a feel similar to Southeastern Massachusetts or even a very flat Adirondack park, but for Spanish moss and palmettos spilling out from under the needled canopy.

The transition into Silver Springs and then Ocala from this beautiful wilderness was shocking.  From the warm embrace of nature I was thrust into the armpit of humanity.  Suffocating commercial sprawl had worked its way to the edges of the National Forest.  I followed the litter of chain restaurants, faded pastel motels, pawn shops and six lanes of congestion through the middle of Ocala.  A center green seemed an afterthought, almost completely hidden midst the tangle of billboards and storefronts peddling their strip clubs, personal injury lawyers, gated communities and other hallmarks of Florida life. 

Not far from the main drag through town I pulled into the oasis that was the Santos trailhead.  Dave, who had driven the two hours from the Tampa area, arrived shortly after.  We filled our bags with food and water along with a handful of other bikers readying themselves in the mostly empty parking lot. 

The trail signs were a little confusing at first, but it might have helped if we carried a map or had even studied the map before setting out on the trails.  Despite our nonchalance we never missed a turn, stopping occasionally to whip out our smart phone and map apps to second-guess our instincts.

Don't be an idiot like me. Print this and carry it with you.  
The trail slowly descended, winding its way through a section of hardwood forest.  Every once in a while a rock or root provided an opportunity to get a little air and test the suspension.  We wound our way through the forest, occasionally rocketing through a straight section, but for the most part leaning through turns left and then right.  Almost an hour into our journey, Dave and I wondered aloud if we were in for a brutal climb at the end of our day.  We had been descending the whole time. 

Slowly the scenery changed around us.  The hardwood canopy slowly lifted until we were riding in a large open forest.  A pine needle carpet appeared and grew deeper as we transitioned into a pine glen.  Similar to Webs at Kingdom Trails, this pine forest was immense. It eventually gave way to hardwoods and palmettos and loose sandy soil.  Then, suddenly, the sun and blue sky appeared as we rocketed across a massive clearing and back into a mix of pine and hardwood.

My favorite section came near the southern end of the park.  Known as Shangri-La, the trail winds along small hills covered with high canopy pine trees. Much like a milder version of Graham Swamp or FOMBA, it slowly ascends and descends these small knolls to provide technical challenges including drops, dips and the occasional step-up and kicker while maintaining flow.

We arrived at the far end, and given that we had been descending the whole way, I had mentally prepared for a long upward slog back to the car.  However, much to my surprise we seemed to continue descending on our return.  Only an occasional rise interrupted what appeared to be a long slow descent back north.  As we snaked our way along the singletrack I kept waiting for the brutal climb.  The worst of the climbing, however, came on a doubletrack road, which was over before it even really started.  In the last couple of miles we tasted some of the technical trails in the Vortex section, climbing up over large limestone deposits and picking our way through roots.  Then, suddenly, roughly five hours after we had set out, we rolled back into the parking lot, tired and grinning from ear to ear.  The nearly five hour descent had brought a feeling of “flow” I had never experienced.  Not even Noble Canyon had been able to deliver a comparable exhilaration.

I was  shocked.  My internal vertical scoresheet had us hundreds of feet short of even for the day.  How could we have descended the entire time? 

And so as I tried to figure out what happened and how to make sense of my experience, it dawned on me that the relatively flat trail had only given us the impression of descending- even when it was climbing slightly.

And then the realization hit me:  Huge vertical isn’t needed for the best mountain biking experience.  I had found an unparalleled level of flow while climbing less than five hundred feet the entire day.  While there is still something to be said for earning a two thousand foot vertical descent, and the thrills of steep riding, it is suddenly clear to me that vertical isn’t needed for quality riding.

The Santos Epic provides an incredible experience precisely because there is no sustained vertical.  Instead it engages you with forty miles of "flow".  Because of the tame nature of the trails it is also enjoyable for both the seasoned rider and novice alike.    It is the perfect place to finally introduce your special someone to the sport that you love.  With the National Forest close by, it makes a great destination even for the most frugal vacationer.  Or you can stay at one of the pastel motels with the bluehairs if that's your thing.

In the end, one day at Santos and my perspective on good mountain biking has completely changed.  I have been transformed and taken someplace new.  And aside from the feeling of “flow” that we get from riding great trails, isn’t that why we ride?

Enjoy the video:



  1. Nice.... I've had some good riding in Florida too. It's definitely a different feel without massive climbs and descents.... it puts you in a different mindset.

    My only question -- why did you play the whole video in slow-motion? :)

    1. Which area are you in when you do to see D's family? I think the world just slows down for you whenever you have to stare at Dave's ass for four minutes.

    2. 5 hours of new england riding would feel a lot more flow-y if you spent more time riding and less time eating scoobie treats.

    3. Not all of us can wrestle in Kate Moss's weight class.

  2. Nice write up - almost makes me miss living in FLA. No skiing there, though, but this week feels like the south here in Mass.

    1. It should only take one visit to Ocala in July to cure you of that nostalgia. For the record, FLA does have skiing ala water-skiing. complete with gators, water moccasins, and warm water parameciums. Talk about no-fall zones.