Our region is blessed by close proximity to Ocala National Forest only three miles east of the city of Ocala. It is the largest National Forest in Florida and the oldest one east of the Mississippi River.
With the standard combination of oaks, laurels, scrub pines, and towering conifers, Ocala National Forest is an outstanding example of the landmark beauty of southern forests. The Forest provides thousands of acres of habitat for Florida wildlife, too. According to Explore Ocala, “the state’s largest populations of Florida black bears and scrub jays” call Ocala National Forest home, along with “alligators, white-tailed deer and numerous small animals—foxes, raccoons, river otters, skunks, squirrels, bats, gopher tortoises, armadillos and more.”
But visitors don’t just visit Ocala National Forest for the trees: bubbling aquamarine springs, glittering lakes, blackwater rivers, and bald cypress swamps are some of the top attractions of the park. The over 600 water features of Ocala National Forest serve as the biggest sources of water for the Floridian Aquifer, which runs under nearly the entire state of Florida, as well as parts of South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. These scenic streams, rivers, and lakes also provide exceptional opportunities for recreation, from pontoon boating to kayaking, fishing to birdwatching, and of course, getting out of the Florida heat for quick dip in the cool spring-fed pools. If you haven’t taken a trip to Ocala National Forest yet, read on to find out what you’ve been missing!
What to Do in the Forest
If you’re visiting Ocala National Forest, most activities revolve around immersing yourself in the wild. You don’t have to be an experienced outdoorsperson to enjoy the forest, though. There are hundreds of recreational options for everyone, but below you’ll find an overview of the top things to do.
Explore the Trails
Whether you are a hiker or biker, off-roader or horseback rider, or just an evening stroller, Ocala National Forest has hundreds of miles of trails for outdoor enthusiasts to explore.
Hiking Trails and Boardwalks
Hiking is one of the best ways to experience the wildlife of Ocala, especially blackbear, deer, foxes, and tortoises. There are dozens of trails available for hikers, from portions of the 1500-mile Florida Trail, to short, elevated boardwalk jaunts.
A complete list of day-hikes can be found here. If you’re not sure where to start, here a few highlights to consider:
• Easy: The Timucuan Trail at Alexander Springs, a .9 mile loop that exhibits both tranquil springs and magnolia forests, as well as historical information about the Indigenous tribes that for millennia called Florida home. Partially wheelchair accessible.
• Medium: The Yearling Trail, a 5.5 mile loop on Pat’s Island, features “a variety of historic structures, including an old cattle dip vat, a cistern, the remains of several homestead sites, and the Long family cemetery.”
• More Difficult: Popular with overnight backpackers, Ocala has nearly 90 miles of the Florida Trail within its boundaries, and these areas tend to be less-frequented and more remote than other park trails. Because many of the sections are out-and-back hikes (not loops), an 8 or 10 mile segment will double if you choose to complete the entire section. Taking two vehicles and parking one at each end of a section can make them more manageable for day hiking. Be sure to bring lots of water if you choose to hike a section of the Florida Trail, as there are few places to replenish.
It’s no wonder that there’s a special place for horseback riders in Ocala National Park, given the popularity of the activity in the surrounding areas. The piece-de-resistance of Ocala’s equestrian trails is the One Hundred Mile Horse Trail, comprised of three shorter loops (Baptist Lake, Prairie, and Flatwoods), with opportunities for tent camping. Another option, the LAM (Lake/Alachua/Marion) Trail is a 34 miles stretch that begins in Doe Lake, stopping just outside of Eureka before continuing towards Paynes Prairie. Some trails may be closed due to COVID-19, so be sure to check before loading your horses up in the trailer.
Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) and Four-Wheel Drive Trails
If you’re an off-road enthusiast, from motorcycles to ATVs to four-wheel drive vehicles, there are lots of roads and trails designated just for you. Ocala National Forest has three OHV-exclusive trails: Ocala North OHV Trail System, Ocala Centennial Trail and Wandering Wiregrass Trail. Camping facilities (and even vehicle storage!) are available, but for the safety of riders and conservation of the park, you are required to obtain a permit before using one of these trails. Off-roaders can also check out the 81-mile Tread Lightly! Four Wheel Drive Way, which is accessible to licensed and high-clearance off-road-capable vehicles. The drive way is also available to motorcyclists–with a permit.
Paisley Woods Off-Road Bicycle Trail is your go-to destination for mountain biking in Ocala. A 22-mile loop, it winds through Florida scrub in the South-eastern portion of the park. The trail connects the Clearwater Lake and Alexander Springs Recreation Areas.
Over 600 bodies of water make for a lot of opportunities for water recreation from fishing and boating to swimming in lakes and springs. According to the CDC, water-activities seem to offer little risk for contracting COVID, but be sure to check with any given destination for closure before you head out.
Ocala has opportunities for both motorized boats and jet-skis as well as their quieter cousins, including kayaks and canoes. With about two-dozen lakes and rivers with boat launches to choose from, including the stunning St. Johns River and the Ocklawaha River, there are endless hours of exploration ahead for jet skiers and boaters with outboard or trolling motors.
More nimble paddle boats such as kayaks or canoes have additional options of exploring smaller and protected waterways, including the six-mile Alexander Run, located at the breath-taking Alexander Springs Recreation Area. Many popular destinations, including Alexander Run, also offer canoe and kayak rentals (though check for availability in advance).
Suffice it to say, there are plenty of places to fish in Ocala National Forest. They’ve even published a hundred-page Fishing Guide to help would-be anglers find the perfect spot and understand their guidelines and restrictions. The park divides their fishing options into two categories: Lake and Pond Fishing and River and Stream Fishing.
Which kind you choose to pursue will largely be based on what kind of fish you hope to catch, and whether or not you want to fish from a boat or from land. If bass is your game, check out Lake George or Lake Kerr, as well as Ocklawaha River. Smaller ponds like Beakman Lake are great for panfishing and sunfish love the waters of Cowpen Lake.
Note, you need to obtain a fishing license before you head out if you want to do any freshwater fishing in the park.
Swimming in Springs and Lakes
It’s hard to consider water recreation at Ocala National Forest without thinking of the sublime freshwater springs. In fact, The Florida Rambler recommends visiting them as the number one thing to do in Ocala. With a cool, consistent temperature of 72 degrees and crystal-clear aqua-colored waters, the springs can take the heat out of the hottest Florida days. Alexander Springs offers both swimming and scuba-diving, or meandering along the boardwalk trail beside the bubbling Juniper Run to the tranquil Juniper Springs in its stone-edged CCC-built pool. Salt Springs and Silver Glen Springs offer additional spring swimming opportunities.
Where to Stay
If you’re coming from far away or want to experience the Florida stars in the great outdoors, there are lots of ways to vacation in the forest–in both public and private facilities.
Campgrounds and Camping
Camping is by-and-large the most economical way to stay in the forest, with sites including amenities going for about $20-$30 per night. Most campgrounds have a combination of walk-up and reserved sites for both RVs and tents, though reservations through Recreation.gov are always recommended during busy times. If you do go camping, you need to be careful to stow away all food in designated bear lockers to avoid any unwanted encounters.
A complete list of campgrounds can be found here, but it’s often best to first consider what you want to do when you visit before making plans. Ocala National Forest is huge, and there are often campgrounds close to designated activities like Horse and OHV Trails, lake and river launches, and swimming springs–some with special options and amenities for those activities, too.
If you want to partake in several different activities, consider a central campground. Alexander Springs Campground, central to the southern half of the park, is not only adjacent to its gorgeous springs, but also has several nearby trails and canoe rentals. To the north, Salt Springs campground, which is the only campground with full-service hookups, offers swimming, hiking trails including the Salt Springs Observation Trail, and lies in close proximity to Lake Kerr (and not far from Lake George, too!).
Beyond the campgrounds, campers are welcome to do pack-in, pack-out back-country or dispersed camping anywhere in the park, outside of deer season. During deer season, Davenport Landing and Little Lake Bryant are specially-designated spots for dispersed camping.
Cabins and Vacation Rentals
If you are looking for a few more amenities, Ocala National Forest does have a few Cabin Rental options, but be sure to plan ahead as reservations fill up quickly. In fact, the Sweetwater Spring Cabin is part of a lottery system, which is already closed for the 2021 season. Lake Dorr Cabin, which sleeps up to 10, is also known to be booked well in advance. Expect to pay over $800 per week for either option, plus tax and a security deposit.
Many private vacation rentals can also be arranged within the boundaries of the forest. Airbnb and Vrbo are great places to start your search.
Why Not Call Ocala National Forest Home?
Camping isn’t for everyone and good vacation rentals can be expensive of hard to come by in high tourist season. If you love visiting and wish you could spend more time there, consider buying a home or vacation property in or around Ocala National Forest. Despite the preservation status of most of the land within its boundaries, there are thousands of homes located in or adjacent to the forest, and dozens of properties in all budgets currently for sale–from vacation cabins to multi-acre tracts of land perfect for starting your dream equestrian farm.
Nobody knows the lands of Central Florida, from its rolling hills to whispering pine flats, like our team at Showcases Properties. Interested in finding out more about how to make Ocala National Forest your new home–or home away from home? Reach out to us today and see what we can do for you!