Last updated on October 8th, 2020 at 02:17 pm

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


alexander springs swimming 6 Things to Do in Ocala National Forest

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

Juniper Run in Ocala National Forest. (Photo: Richard Barrett.)
Juniper Run in Ocala National Forest. (Photo: Richard Barrett.)

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.

Read more: Kayaking Juniper Springs Run. 

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 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.

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 Sprins Run 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.

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

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

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


campsite at Juniper Springs, Ocala National Forest
Campsite at Juniper Springs

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:

Read more

15 Campgrounds for exploring Ocala National Forest

Dispersed camping in Ocala National Forest

Checklist for tent camping

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

riding the LAM Trail in Ocala National Forest
The LAM Equestrian Trail (Photo courtesy National Forest Service)

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 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 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.

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


Ranger Stations in Ocala National Forest

Note: In 2020, the visitor center and ranger stations were closed due to the pandemic. For more information, call the numbers below.

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


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.

10 Comments

  1. Pingback: Wekiva Falls: Fabulous spring, campground and best river | Florida Rambler

  2. Regarding the comment above by Phillip Davis, most folks are so used to urban areas (or even rural for that matter) that they don’t know what true “wilderness” looks like anymore. Thankfully nearly sixty years ago, my parents adored getting off paved roads and into National Forests and driving the fire trails & forest service roads in Michigan. I did the same while living in Colorado. Florida’s subtropical landscape is vastly different and when we are out in the forest during winter, the area can seem dry as a desert. National Forests are all left to nature with the exception of prescribed burns in order to contain the naturally occurring wildfires that pop up every year, and of course access roads into the woods. I prefer it that way – feels more like God & Nature intended it to be. <3 🙂

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  4. Any hills to hike around Ocala?

    • Although there are no true hills to hike in the Ocala area, there is some pleasant small “hill” hiking. Parts of the Greenway have long sections of berms remaining from the days of the defunct Cross Florida Canal construction that are traversed by hiking trails. Some of the berms became eroded before the forest grew back making the hiking even better.