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6 things to do in Ocala National Forest


Last updated on July 5th, 2024 at 10:01 am

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 exceptional.

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

1.) Swim in a cool spring

The swimming area at Alexander Springs in Ocala National Forest is excellent -- if you like 72 degree water. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The swimming area at Alexander Springs in Ocala National Forest is excellent — if you like 72 degree water. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Several springs are easily accessible to visitors in Ocala National Forest, the most popular being Juniper Springs off State Road 40, which crosses the forest below Lake George, and Alexander Springs on County Road 445, nine miles west of Juniper 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 can paddle in Ocala National Forest.

Alexander Springs in Ocala National Forest is a wide, slow-moving stream with extremely clear, clean water. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Alexander Springs in Ocala National Forest is a wide, slow-moving stream with extremely clear, clean water. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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 2- to 4-hour paddle where you are likely to see lots of wildlife. Brings hats and sunscreen: The river is in full sun.

You do not need a shuttle service; this trip is an out-and-back paddle.

Read more: Alexander Springs: Easy scenic paddling; lots of wildlife

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.

Suspended since the pandemic and restored in Fall 2023, the shuttle service for privately owned kayaks has resumed, a cause for celebration among paddlers. Kayak rentals are also available.

Here’s more about 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 a mild 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.

Read more: Four great rivers to kayak near Ocala National Forest.

3.) Take a hike

hiking in ocala national forest
Hiking the Florida Scenic Trail in Ocala National Forest. (c) Can Stock Photo

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.

For additional trailheads, access this interactive map for one that suits you best. Another excellent source for trail information is Florida Hikes!

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:

4.) Ride your bike in Ocala National Forest

ocala national forest ocala forest bicycle 6 things to do in Ocala National Forest
Riding a trail in Ocala National Forest (USDA Photo)

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.

You’ll find trailheads at the Alexander Springs and Clearwater Lake recreation areas.

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

ocala national forest campsite at Juniper Springs, Ocala National Forest
Campsite at Juniper Springs in Ocala National Forest (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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 campgrounds:

Read more

Hiking, biking and camping may be restricted in remote areas during the fire season (October to May) and during hunting season (November to January), so check with the ranger station before venturing off into the wild. Call 352-625-2520.

6.) Ride a horse

ocala national forest horse trail ocala national forest 6 things to do in Ocala National Forest
Riding the Hundred Mile Equestrian Trail (National Forest Service photo)

There are more than 100 miles of equestrian trails running through Ocala National Forest, the most popular being 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 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.

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 camping.

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.

If you don’t have your own horse, consider a guided trail ride with Cactus Jack’s Trail Rides in Ocala for information about riding Ocala National Forest and the Cross-Florida Greenway Trail.

On the north side of the forest in Fort McCoy, you can hitch a ride with Makin’ Tracks Trail Rides. One of their offerings takes riders to swim with their horses in the Ocklawaha River.

Ranger Stations in Ocala National Forest

Visitor Center

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

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

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.

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  • Kathy says:

    Are the canoe rentals still closed?

  • K. Salem says:

    You can only primitive camp in the summer. Most of the primitive spots are closed due to hunters starting in November. I’m here (Nov.29th) and have been told I can only camp at official campgrounds.

  • Will says:

    My wife is coming to Florida for a conference in October 2022. We are from Texas and love to hike. What trails do you recommend where there is not so much traffic. We cannot camp out because my wife is diabetic and we need a refrigerator for her medication.

  • Jill says:

    What do you recommend for exploring Ocala National forest in the summer. As a Florida resident, I know the heat, mosquitos, and summer rain play a big part in what is fun to do in the summer. Is horseback riding good in the summer?

    • Bob Rountree says:

      Depends on your tolerance for heat and humidity. Personally, I’d stick to swimming in Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs, Silver Springs or Salt Springs. But arrive early because everybody else has the same idea. :-)

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