I usually enjoy heading west for riding adventures. However, last fall, I decided to look closer to home for a riding excursion. After all, I do live in Marion County, the heart of Florida’s Horse Country, where we’re blessed with an abundance of excellent trails.
My search for a quality destination led me to Golden Acres Foxtrotter Ranch Rest N’ Ride (352/817-2862; www.goldenacresfoxtrotterranch.com), which opened in 2007 and has been visited by guests from across the United States and Canada.
Located just south of Ocala and an hour from my own farm, Golden Acres borders the expansive Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, which features 110 miles of trails — 40 of which are devoted strictly to equestrian use, 40 for hikers, and 70 miles to nonmotorized mountain bikers.
I recruited a great riding friend, Jan McDougald, and her trusty mount, Shiloh, who just happens to be a Missouri Fox Trotter, and made reservations to “rest and ride” at Golden Acres.
Jan has ridden the Greenway trails dozens of times, both staying at Golden Acres and parking at the Land Bridge trailhead for a day ride. She can’t say enough good things about the area.
“Whether you stay there for a weekend or just a day, the thing I like best is the people you meet and the friendships you make through riding,” says Jan. “The bonus is the beautiful trails. Another plus is that the trails seem to stay pretty dry even when we’ve had rain.”
Owner Peggy Litt met us as we pulled into Golden Acres. We were soon parked and unloading our horses. The haul was short, and our mounts were rested, so we wasted no time saddling up and getting ready to hit the trails. There’d be time to unpack and settle into the cabin later.
The Greenway trail system covers some of the most scenic land in the entire state, but it’s a twist of fate that it’s even available for public use.
The best part of staying at Golden Acres is that you have a private entrance leading to unlimited access of the Greenway trails. “I’ve been riding these trails for 15 years now, and I’m still not tired of them,” says Peggy, who purchased the farm specifically because of its location.
From the farm, you can head out and ride anywhere from 45 minutes to as long as you have daylight, or about eight hours.
“It’s not just one long trail — there are many trails to ride,” notes Peggy. “A guest would probably need a week before they rode the same trail twice.”
Peggy adds that during the riding season, there are neither bugs, nor motorized vehicles, nor hunting.
Golden Acres lies just east of Interstate 75; you can see it from the ranch, actually. The trail system is divided into East and West, with I-75 being the dividing line. You can access both sides from the ranch. The terrain varies significantly, depending which trails you take.
One of the more popular options is the Land Bridge trail, very close to the ranch. The most unique feature of this particular trail is that equestrians actually ride over a bridge that spans the interstate below.
The bridge trail is covered with dirt footing and has shrubbery planted along the tall railings, so it’s quite safe and doesn’t have that “hollow bridge” feel when you ride over it. Most horses don’t even realize they’re crossing over a bustling highway.
After you cross the Land Bridge and head west, the trails offer more variation in terrain, but we saved that for another day.
The first day, we struck out to explore trails on the East side. If you’re looking for classic central Florida riding, it’s hard to beat the scenery. Trails meander through dense hammocks of trees, including enormous century-old oaks, many of which are draped with sweeping veils of silvery Spanish moss.
If you’re game for a little more adventurous riding and prefer trails that have definite ups and downs, head for the West side. In my opinion, the trails at Shangri-La and Utopia feature some of the best hills and varying terrain.
From the ranch, it’ll take you three to six hours by horseback to reach these areas, depending on your pace. Some trails pass by ponds, depending on the season and how much rain has fallen.
Some trails have designated picnic areas; it’s fun to pack a lunch so you can stop along the way and enjoy a longer ride. There are water troughs at some points and even places where you can hose off your horse.
If you have any questions at all about how long a specific trail will take to cover, Peggy can provide answers. There are also maps at the ranch you can study so you’ll know where you’re going before you head out.
And be sure to visit the Florida State Parks website. To learn more about each trail, click on the trail buttons on the left-hand side. For example, Shangri-La trail information is under the button “Cross Florida Greenway - CR 484 to 49th Ave.”
Trails are clearly marked throughout the Greenway. For safety reasons, there are separate trails for equestrians, hikers, and mountain bikers.
There are several excellent options to rest up between rides at Golden Acres. For those with living-quarters trailers, Golden Acres offers eight 30-amp electrical hookups, two 110-amp electrical hookups, and fresh water.
Guests may also use the barn’s restroom facilities, shower, and small kitchen with microwave, coffeemaker and refrigerator.
There’s also a three-bedroom/two bath cabin, which sleeps eight people. This comfortably furnished manufactured home is complete with all the amenities you’ll need, plus satellite TV. (While the kitchen is fully equipped, you’ll need to bring your own food.)
The décor is equine-themed and homey. There’s a spacious wood deck with a grand view of the neighboring Thoroughbred farm, where you can watch future racehorses gallop in the mornings.
The deck is also a perfect spot to relax with a book, take a nap in the sunshine, or fire up the Weber grill to fix something for dinner.
Note that there’s two-night minimum stay for the cabin.
When it comes to stabling, there are 12 individual turnout pens and a four-stall barn available for a modest nightly fee per horse. These all have individual automatic waterers, which are cleaned and disinfected between every visiting horse.
At the barn, there are wash racks with crossties, as well as hitching posts with rubber mats, where you can rinse off your horse after riding. (There’s cold and hot water!) As many as six horses can be hosed off at one time. You can use the barn’s saddle and bridle racks, as well.
‘My Favorite Place’
“Golden Acres Rest N’ Ride is my favorite place to camp,” says horse owner and avid trail rider Christine Francis, who lives near Bushnell, Florida.
“I’ve ridden there quite a bit over the past four years and camp there at least a half dozen times a year. I usually take two horses, sometimes three, for myself and a friend to ride.”
Christine stays in her trailer’s living quarters and uses Golden Acres’ electrical hookups. She rents outside turnouts for her horses; she prefers these pens over the barn stalls.
“It’s a really nice facility, and the staff is helpful and accommodating,” she adds. “Everything is clean, and you have your privacy, but if you need something, it’s right there. It’s great to know you can have a good time, relax, and enjoy your ride and your camping experience.”
From October through June, the ranch can fill up on weekends. If you’re able to come during the week, it’s usually easier to book a spot.
From July through September, guest numbers are lighter, simply because of Florida’s heat and humidity.
Reservations will ensure a space for you and your horse, so call ahead. There’s a two-night minimum stay on weekends. Be sure to bring Coggins papers for your horse.
One thing is certain: You can “rest and ride” at Golden Acres and get your fill of great riding.
Cynthia McFarland is a seasoned trail rider and full-time freelance writer based in Central Florida. She regularly contributes to national equine magazines and is the author of eight books.