Central Florida / Florida Roundups / Parks & Forests

5 Things to Do in Ocala National Forest

Ocala National Forest is full of fun: Springs, hikes, camping and more

~ Encompassing more than 600 square miles in North Central Florida, Ocala National Forest is bursting with adventure.

Hike the Florida Trail, camp in the deep woods, spend a lazy day at a cool, bubbling spring, paddle a spring run, a lake or a river.

Even if you are just out for a Sunday drive, Ocala National Forest will satisfy the urge to explore new destinations. Ramble the forest roads, stop anywhere and take a hike.

From vast Florida sand pine flatlands and cypress-studded wetland prairies to densely wooded oak hammocks and colorful palm-shaded sub-tropical oases, the variety of eco-systems to explore is mind-blowing.

There are things to do every day of the year in Ocala National Forest.

Swim in a cool spring

Juniper Spring in Ocala National Forest

Juniper Spring

There are several springs accessible to visitors in Ocala National Forest, the most popular of which may be Juniper Springs off State Road 40, which crosses the forest below Lake George, and Alexander Springs on Lake County Road 445, which is nine miles east of Jupiter Springs off State Road 40.

With a constant temperature of 72 degrees year around, the forest’s springs are magnets for people in summer and manatees in winter.

Snorkeling is permitted at both springs, but only Alexander Springs allows scuba diving. Scuba diving is only permitted in the large spring boil and valid proof of certification is required.

The Salt Springs Recreation Area is another popular spring in the forest, although a bit more remote. Take U.S. 19 north from State Road 40 (about 4.5 miles east of Juniper Springs). Minerals carried to the surface from underground aquifers provide a level of salinity not found in the other springs, giving Salt Springs its name.

Day use activities in the Juniper Springs Recreation Area include picnicking, swimming, snorkeling, bird watching, hiking, and paddling a spectacular spring run that runs through a shady sub-tropical forest. Both Alexander Springs and Salt Springs offer similar recreational opportunities.

On the western edge of the forest, consider Silver Springs State Park.

Related article: The Yearling: Eat like a cracker at restaurant near Ocala

Paddle a spring run

Juniper Springs has a scenic spring run, and the 4.5-mile Salt Springs Run is considered one of the best paddle trails in the state. Both abound in lush vegetation and bountiful wildlife. Be forewarned, though, that there is no take-out at the end, so you will have to paddle back against the current to the launch point at the Salt Springs Marina in the Salt Spring Recreation Area.

Salt Springs Run in Ocala National Forest

Salt Springs Run

Salt Springs Run dumps its mineral-infused water into Lake George, second-largest lake in Florida and part of the St. John’s River system. If you’ve paddled this far, then you should paddle a little further north into Salt Springs Cove and enjoy its magnificent shoreline.

Like Juniper Springs and Salt Springs, the Alexander Springs Run is also an attractive destination for paddlers. The launch is just below the springhead, which is roped off for swimmers. The concessionaire rents canoes and kayaks, and they provide a shuttle service for those who bring their own boats. The take-out is seven miles below the launch point.

All three springs have concessions where you can rent canoes and kayaks.

Take a hike

hiking in ocala national forestA 66-mile segment of the Florida Scenic Trail twists its way through the Ocala National Forest, and there are numerous trailheads, including access points in the Salt Springs Recreation Area and the Juniper Springs Recreation Area. To find additional trailheads, access this interactive map for one that suits you best. Another good source for trail information is Florida Hikes!

All three of the previously mentioned recreation areas at Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs and Salt Springs have nature trails, boardwalks and trails that wander into the deeper woods.

While most of the forest is wide open to hikers and backpackers, we would suggest that you stick to the designated trails. This is, after all, the largest pine woods forest in the world.

Here are some of the more popular trails. You can click through the highlighted text to download PDF maps of the individual trails:

Related Florida Rambler article: Great Escape: Backpacking to a primitive camp in Ocala National Forest

Hiking, biking and camping may be restricted during hunting season, so you should check with the ranger station before venturing off into the wild. Call 352-625-2520 or visit a ranger station or visitor center.

Ride your bike

Although bicyclists can ride any of the hundreds of miles of forest roads, the only designated off-road trail in the Ocala National Forest is the challenging Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail, a 22-mile single-track loop through the deep woods and rolling hills.

Trailheads are at Alexander Springs and Clearwater Lake.

The trail is typical for Florida scrub and sandhill environments, with stretches of deep soft sand in places, which may make going difficult.

Marked with yellow diamonds, it intermittently intersects the hiking-only orange-blazed Florida Trail. Blue-blazed connector trails connect the loop with both the Alexander Springs and Clearwater Lake trailheads.

There are two interconnected loops – the Alexander Loop (11 miles) and the Clearwater Loop (11 miles). No designated rest areas exist.

Because this trail is not paved, bicycles need to be suited for rough terrain. Mountain bikes are ideal.

Ride a horse

There are more than 100 miles of equestrian trails running through Ocala National Forest, the most popular of which are the One Hundred Mile Trail and the Lake/Alachua/Marion County (LAM) trail, which is 34 miles long.

With nearby Ocala being the center of Florida’s horse industry and ranches, it’s only natural that you would have a place to ride in the forest.

riding the LAM Trail in Ocala National Forest

The LAM Equestrian Trail

The One-Hundred Mile Trail is divided into three loops: the 38-mile Flatwoods Riding Loop, the 38-mile Prairie Riding Loop, and the 19-mile Baptist Riding Loop.

The LAM Trail stretches 34 miles from Doe Lake almost to Eureka, along the Ocklawaha River.

The beauty of the Ocala National Forest is that you don’t have to stick to the trails if you don’t want to. You can pull your trailer over to the side of any forest road, as long as you leave room enough for other vehicles to pass.

Many equestrians park along forest roads where they intersect with the trails.

There is designated trailer parking available for both the LAM Trail and the One Hundred Mile Horse Trail at the forest’s Swim Pond Trail Head, where you will also find primitive campgrounds.

Swim Pond is to the east of Doe Lake Recreation Area and the west of Big Scrub Campground, accessed from the same entrance off FR 14 as Trout Pond.

If you don’t have a horse, check out Cactus Jack’s Trail Rides for information about riding Ocala National Forest and the Cross-Florida Greenway Trail.

ocala nationa forest map

Visitor Centers

Pittman Visitor Center
45621 State Road 19
Altoona, FL  32702
(352) 669-7495

 

Ranger Stations

Lake George Ranger District
17147 E. State Road 40
Silver Springs, FL 34488
352-625-2520

Seminole Ranger District
40929 State Road 19
Umatilla, FL 32784
352- 669-3153

 

Camping in Ocala National Forest

Primitive campers have the run of the forest. You can camp along any trail, even off the trail if you find a suitable site. Of course, whatever you bring into the forest, you must bring out.

campsite at Juniper Springs, Ocala National Forest

Campsite at Juniper Springs

Tents and RV’s are also welcome at these forest campgrounds:

Juniper Springs Recreation Area. 79 sites for tents and RVs, including 59 with electric hookups and 19 tent sites without electricity. Pets OK.

Salt Springs Recreation Area. 163 back-in sites for tents and RVs, including some with electric, water and sewer hook-ups. There are 57 tent sites without hookups. Pets OK.

Big Scrub Campground. 62 sites without hookups. This campground is popular with off-road vehicle enthusiasts.

Silver Springs State Park. 9 cabins and 52 RV/tent sites with electric and water hookups. Pets OK.

Alexander Springs Recreation Area. 68 sites without hookups. Pets OK.

Rodman Campground. 60 sites, including 34 RV or tent sites with electric and water hookups. Another 26 sites without hookups for tents.

Related article: Checklist for tent camping

Lodging options from BedandBreakfast.com and Hotels.com:

Hotels in Ocala (West of the forest)

Hotels in DeLand (East of the forest)

Hotels in Eustis (South of the forest)

Hotels in Palatka (North of the forest)

Seasonal note: Cut-your-own holiday Christmas tree in Ocala National Forest.

Ocala National Forest is one of the few places in Florida where you hike into the woods and cut down a Christmas tree.

You must obtain a $7 permit for each sand-pine tree you plan to harvest. Rangers will direct permit-holders to one of three designated areas at the time you receive you permit.

Trees cannot be harvested before Nov. 21 or after Dec. 24, 2016.

Request a permit by mail or obtain one in person at the Lake George Ranger District Office, 17147 E. State Road 40, Silver Springs, FL 34488, or the Seminole Ranger District Office, 40929 State Road 19, Umatilla, Fla. 32784.

A personal check or money order should be made payable to USDA Forest Service.

Unlike tree farms, these trees have not been treated for bugs, so small beetles may crawl out once the tree is in your home. Sand pine trees are the only native Florida Christmas tree. They’re not commercially sold because the branches are too weak for heavy ornaments.

Call (352) 625-2520 for more information.

Here’s a YouTube video of someone cutting one down.

 

 

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7 Comments

  1. Luci Rich says:

    Any hills to hike around Ocala?

  2. Phillip Davis says:

    12.5.2016 This forest is neglected at best…its a disaster….no signs for the trails…Bass Lake is dried up as are all water locations…downed trees are all over….its hard to believe any federal employee has seen the forest in years….the service road has no speed limits…saw hunters driving trucks 35 mph…whoever is employed here should be fired before the end of the year…I was there on 12.4.16,

    • National forests are natural environments, and the forest service lets nature take its course. If a tree falls, it stays where it lies unless it’s blocking a forest access road needed by rangers.

      As for speed limits, the forest service defers to state law. In Florida, state speed limits on unpaved roads in rural areas is 35 mph. You are expected to know and abide by state law, even if there is no signage.

      As for the lake, if it’s dry, it stays dry until replenished by natural occurrences.

      The forest service does not maintain trails with the possible exception of a few nature trails within designated recreation areas. Otherwise, trails are marked and maintained by volunteers, usually trail organizations such as the Florida Trail Association.

      In my opinion, the true beauty of state forests is their natural state, warts and all.

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  4. Ruth Lawler says:

    Two of the three visitor centers listed are no longer open. Only Pittman visitor center on 19 is open.

  5. Don Ayotte says:

    Security in the Salt Springs community is excellent to outstanding. As a resident of Salt Spring for the past 12 years I believe that I have found my piece of heaven. The area has many more campgrounds with full hook-up for big rigs then you mentioned in your article. The Springs all have great snorkeling without gators because they do not like the cool waters. Bass fishing in lake Kerr, SS run, lake rodman etc and many more is great.
    Thanks for your coverage of the area. You did a great job with the limited column space…
    Thanks again

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