Ocala National Forest is full of fun things to do
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. There are more than 600 springs, lakes and ponds in this forest.
Even if you are just out for a Sunday drive, Ocala National Forest will satisfy the urge to explore new destinations. Ramble 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 subtropical 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.
1.) Swim in a cool spring
Several springs are easily 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 County Road 445, nine miles west 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 limited the large spring boil, and valid proof of certification is required.
For adult swimmers, Alexander Springs may be 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).
Salt Springs gets its name from minerals carried to the surface from underground aquifers, providing a level of salinity not found in the other springs.
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.
2.) Paddle a spring run
There are several springs you an paddle in Ocala National Forest.
Alexander Springs has crystal clear water and a great swimming hole that snorkelers will enjoy. You can rent canoes and kayaks for an easy, scenic two- to four-hour paddle where you are likely to see lots of wildlife. Brings hats and sunscreen: The river is in full sun.
Here’s a Florida Rambler story on paddling Alexander Springs. You do not need a shuttle service; this trip is an out-and-back paddle.
Nearby, Juniper Springs has a scenic spring run, a narrow, twisty 7-mile paddle trail through an amazingly scenic sub-tropical forest. It is the shadiest of the Ocala spring runs and the best in the summer heat and humidity. It requires shuttle service, which has been closed since 2020 (as of March 2022.) Here’s more on Kayaking Juniper Springs Run.
The 4.5-mile Salt Springs Run is a popular paddle trail. Be forewarned, though, that there is no take-out at the end, so you 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, you should paddle a little further north into Salt Springs Cove and enjoy its magnificent shoreline.
All three springs have concessions where you can rent canoes and kayaks.
On the western edge of the forest, consider Silver Springs State Park.
3.) Take a hike
A 66-mile segment of the Florida Scenic Trail winds its way through the Ocala National Forest with numerous trailheads, including access points in the Salt Springs Recreation Area and the Juniper Springs Recreation Area.
Recreation areas at Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs and Salt Springs all have nature trails, boardwalks, and trails that wander into the deeper woods.
The entire forest is wide open to hikers and backpackers. You can pull off to the side of any of the dozens of forest roads and blaze a trail through the woods. But unless you are an experienced hiker with the all the right equipment, we suggest 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
4.) Ride your bike in Ocala National Forest
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 occasional stretches of soft sand, 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.
Bicycles need to be built for rough terrain. Mountain bikes are ideal.
5.) Camp 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.
Both tents and RV’s are welcome at these developed forest campgrounds:
- Juniper Springs Recreation Area. 79 sites for tents and RVs. No hookups. Pets OK only in campground.
- 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 only in campground.
- 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 only in campground.
- Alexander Springs Recreation Area. 68 sites without hookups. Pets OK only in campground.
- Rodman Campground. 60 sites, including 34 RV or tent sites with electric and water hookups. Another 26 sites without hookups for tents. Pets OK.
Hiking, biking and camping may be restricted during the fire season (October to May) and during hunting season, so check with the ranger station before venturing off into the wild. Call 352-625-2520.
6.) 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.
Most 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 east of Doe Lake Recreation Area and the west of Big Scrub Campground, accessed from the same entrance off FR 14 as Trout Pond.
Ranger Stations in Ocala National Forest
As of March 2022, the ranger stations are still operating remotely.
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
Seasonal bonus: Cut-your-own holiday 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.
But you need a permit. Here are the details and deadlines.
A note from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip.
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 12 years ago.