If you want to spend some time in Florida but aren’t interested in the people-saturated tourist areas, you have some great options. Those willing to pull themselves off the beach and away from the theme parks will have the much less crowded experience of exploring some of Florida’s natural beauty. Today we will look at Ocala National Forest and what it has to offer.
Where Is Ocala National Forest?
Ocala National Forest is in central Florida, about an hour and a half north of Orlando. You’ll find it just shy of two hours southwest of Jacksonville if you come from the north. Due to its location in the state’s center, you can reach either coast in around an hour.
What Is Ocala National Forest Known For?
Ocala National Forest has over 600 lakes, springs, and rivers within its borders. It has an abundance of water formations, and it also protects the world’s largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest. This beautiful national forest provides an outstanding balance of water features and wooded areas providing excellent animal habitats and fun recreation opportunities.
What Animals Live in Ocala National Forest?
You’ll see plenty of wildlife in Ocala National Forest. While visiting the area, you’ll have the opportunity to see alligators, deer, wild boar, coyotes, and bears. The forest has the largest concentration of black bears in the state of Florida. You’ll also find smaller animals such as squirrels, gopher tortoises, river otters, bats, and bobcats.
The Best Things to Do in Ocala National Forest
You’ll have plenty to keep you busy while exploring Ocala National Forest. Let’s check out a few of the top features in the forest.
Many travelers enjoy hiking, and Ocala National Forest provides plenty of great options. Trails sprawl the area with a perfect combination of waterways and tree coverage. Check with a ranger to find a hike that will suit your needs.
The Florida Trail encompasses 67.1 miles. While you won’t have any significant climbs along the trail, the length makes it quite strenuous. Hikers can choose to day hike the entire trail tackling various sections over several days, or simply jump onto the path from a few miles doing how much they like in a single day.
St. Francis Trail
The St. Francis Trail is a moderate 7.8-mile trail. The river along this trail provides opportunities for viewing wildlife. You’ll also cross some log bridges and some uneven terrain. During periods of high rain, the path can become a bit swampy, requiring waders.
Juniper Springs Recreation Area Trail
Juniper Springs Recreation Area Trail is a great fit for those looking for a shorter hike that falls more into the stroll category. This 1.3-mile easy hike is great for all skill levels. The boardwalk makes it easy for families to enjoy and those with limited abilities. You can go back and forth between the two springs via the boardwalk.
Swim and Canoe at Gorgeous Natural Springs
If you want swimming and water recreation, you’ll find it in Ocala National Forest. The beautiful clear springs can keep you cool on those hot Florida days.
Alexander Springs maintains its refreshing 72 degrees year-round. The gently sloped spring has very clear water and provides endless hours of relaxation and play. The forest surrounds the spring, providing a bit of shade. Plus, you can rent kayaks and canoes in the spring.
You can visit Juniper Springs, one of the best-known and oldest springs. The area around this spring, developed in the 1930s, includes camping and trails. Many people enjoy canoeing in this area, and you can rent one if you do not have your own. Swimming is also a fan-favorite activity here.
If you want a spring where you can easily spend all day, Silver Springs fits the bill. You’ll find beautiful water, and the surrounding area has ample picnicking opportunities. The spring itself is excellent for swimming and boating, where you can easily spot schools of fish.
The sapphire blue water at Rainbow Springs is hard to beat. The depth of water in the swimming area averages between 5 and 18 ft. You can see many fish and turtles at this fantastic snorkeling spot. Because humans have been exploring this area for over 10,000 years, you might even find some artifacts.
The natural mineral water of Salt Springs is a great place to spend the day. Visitors find themselves swimming in the springs, fishing, snorkeling, hiking, and boating. The largest campground in the national forest is here as well. This makes the spring very accessible for those camping nearby.
Camp in and Around Ocala National Forest
If you don’t think just one day exploring the Ocala National Forest is enough, you are in luck! Some great camping areas are ready for you to call home while you dip your toes in the clear springs.
Juniper Springs Recreation Area
Those camping in the Juniper Springs area can choose between one of three campground loops. Sites sit near the creek and springs and have shade, a picnic table, a grill, a campfire ring, and a lantern post. Sites have no electricity or hookups, but the campground does have a dump station.
Salt Springs Recreation Area
Salt Springs Recreation Area works great for those looking for large sites and hookups. This is the only campground in the national forest that offers full hookup sites. The campground does have a dump station and tent-only sites. Those camping here will enjoy the springs, fishing, snorkeling, hiking, and boating.
Alexander Springs Recreation Area
This large campground has four popular camping loops. Alexander Springs Recreation Area does not provide hookups but does have showers and flushing toilets. It also has a dump station nearby. Those camping at Alexander Springs Recreation Area will enjoy the proximity to the springs, which provide great swimming and boating activities.
Plan Your Trip to Ocala National Forest
As you can see, a trip to Ocala National Forest won’t leave you disappointed. You can enjoy many refreshing springs year-round. Now you can plan a trip to this central Florida forest. When you visit Florida, do you prefer to stick to the tourist areas, or do you prefer to explore the lesser-visited gems that Florida offers?