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
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.
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.
For adult swimmers, Alexander Springs is probably the top choice. The spring creates a large, shallow sandy-bottom natural pool ideal for swimming. Where the spring emerges from the bottom, snorkelers and scuba divers enjoy exploring the limestone rocks and boulders in the spring boil. (You can rent snorkel gear here too.)
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.
Related article: The Yearling: Eat like a cracker at restaurant near Ocala
Paddle a spring run
Juniper Springs has a scenic spring run, a narrow, twisty 7-mile canoe trail. It is the shadiest of the Ocala spring runs, and thus the best for summer weather. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on kayaking Juniper Springs.
The 4.5-mile Salt Springs Run is considered one of the best paddle trails in the state. 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, unlike Alexander and Juniper, has power-boat traffic.
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. Alexander is an easy two-to-four-hour paddle with abundant birds and wildlife. The paddle trail is in full sun and is an out-and-back paddle trip.
All three springs have concessions where you can rent canoes and kayaks.
On the western edge of the forest, consider Silver Springs State Park.
Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to four great rivers to kayak near Ocala National Forest.
Take a hike
A 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:
- Bear Swamp Trail
- Clearwater Lake Trail
- Davenport Landing Trail
- Juniper Springs Nature Trail
- Lake Eaton Trails
- Salt Springs Observation Trail
- Silver Glen Springs Trails
- Timucuan Trail
- Yearling Trail
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.
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.
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.
Pittman Visitor Center
45621 State Road 19
Altoona, FL 32702
Lake George Ranger District
17147 E. State Road 40
Silver Springs, FL 34488
Seminole Ranger District
40929 State Road 19
Umatilla, FL 32784
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.
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:
Cut-your-own holiday Christmas tree in Ocala National Forest.
INFORMATION UPDATED FOR 2018 SEASON
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 designated areas at the time you receive you permit.
Permits must be purchased by Dec. 22 and tree harvesting ends Dec 24.
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, FL, 32784.
In person, you must visit between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. You can pay by cash, check or credit card.
You also can order your permit by snail mail with a $7 check made out to the USDA Forest Service. If you do that, you need to include all the information that goes on the from: Name, address, drivers license number and expiration date plus vehicle info: the year, make model, state and license plate number.
When you receive your permit, you get a map to the sites where you can cut your tree.
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.