Don't overlook Ocala National Forest when near Orlando, Florida.
Established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, Ocala National Forest encompasses 600 square miles north of Orlando and is home to one of Florida’s most distinctive ecosystems known as the Big Scrub.
This unique ecosystem is what is left of a chain of islands before the sea retreated 25 million years ago and is the largest continuous sand pine forest, created from ancient sand dunes capped with vegetation adapted to a lack of water.
Today these “islands” of sand pine are surrounded by other forest types such as pine fatwoods and oak hammocks, instead of water.
Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway
The roads of FL-19 and FL-40 bisecting through the national forest are known as the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway.
This byway has evolved into an ecotourism educational byway to help Florida wildlife “get to the other side safely”, advocating for wildlife crossings on all byway roads that will undergo construction in the future.
There are presently two wildlife crossings and more are in future plans to be constructed.
When you’re hiking and enjoying the wilderness, remember that the Florida black bear is at its highest population density in this region. So, be sure to review What You Need to Know About Camping in Bear Country.
Because black bear habitat is intersected with highways and roads, these ambassadors of the byway are often close to the road, so watch out for them when you’re driving though!
The Best Things to Do at Ocala National Forest
Due to its proximity to the many tourist attractions that Orlando has to offer, Ocala National Forest is often overlooked by people visiting Florida (although the locals certainly make good use of it!)
With a variety of ecosystems and more than 600 lakes, rivers, and springs – there is a lot to explore and discover here!
There are a number of spectacular springs scattered throughout Ocala National Forest which will be the focus of the time we spend here.
Salt Springs Recreation Area
Our first stop is the Salt Springs Recreation Area. The main attraction is an ancient subterranean spring that flows year-round at a constant temperature of 72 degrees. It pumps approximately 53 million gallons of crystal-clear water per day.
The presence of potassium, magnesium, and sodium salts in the ground gives the waters in the spring a slight salinity. Hence the name Salt Springs. The springs are home to an abundance of fish and marine life including striped bass, mullet, and blue crabs.
The water is shallow enough to stand in most places and there are schools of fish to see everywhere if you’re snorkeling!
Nearby the RV campground is the Bear Swamp Trail which is a nice, flat 1.5-mile loop for hiking.
Salt Springs Observation Trail
If you can only do one trail here, drive about a mile and a half down US-19 S where you’ll find the trailhead for the Salt Springs Observation Trail.
This is a 1.9-mile loop trail that leads to an observation deck along the famed waterway.
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Silver Glen Springs Recreation Area
Further down FL-19 is the Silver Glen Springs Recreation Area. Silver Glen Springs is two hundred feet in diameter and one of Florida’s 33 first-magnitude springs.
It funnels and flows 3,300 feet into Lake George (the second largest lake in Florida behind Lake Okeechobee).
Once the site of a pre-Colombian Native American village, this area is one of the most important archaeological sites in the national forest. Here is an interesting video I found that the Forest Service did.
Lake George & Spring Boils Hiking Trails
There are two hiking trails here, the Lake George Trail and Spring Boils Trail.
Lake George Trail leaves from the day-use area and is a 2.4-mile out-and-back hike with great views of the lake. The shorter 0.4 mile Spring Boils Trail leads to a cove of tiny bubbling springs at the base of a hill, creating a waterway flowing into Silver Glen Run.
The Yearling Trail
Across the road from the Silver Glen Springs is the Yearling Trail, which has a fascinating history.
In the fall of 1876, Reuben and Sara Jane Long established a homestead on Pat’s Island, a high spot in the Big Scrub. Their son, Calvin, found and adopted a fawn he named Dogwood.
More than 50 years later, author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings spent time at the Long homestead and learned about the fawn.
It inspired her to write The Yearling, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. When the novel became a movie, Pat’s Island became a set for some of the scenes.
Today, this trail contains historical artifacts from the Long family waiting to be discovered with remains of homesteads, a cistern, a cattle dip vat, and the family frontier cemetery. There are two loop hiking trails here, a shorter 3.9-mile loop and a longer 5.5-mile loop.
Juniper Springs Recreation Area
Continuing on our spring-hopping adventure, head to the Juniper Springs Recreation Area.
An extremely popular camping spot situated beneath a dense canopy of palms and oaks, the springs are an oasis within the heart of the desert-like Big Scrub ecosystem. An old mill sits at the outflow of the basin, which once provided electricity for the campground.
There’s a one-mile out-and-back nature trail here which follows along Juniper Spring Run to the picturesque Fern Hammock Springs.
If you’re staying for more than a day, rent a canoe from the concessionaire and take a 4 hour, 7-mile journey down Juniper Run which was named one of the top 25 canoe runs in America!
More Great Things to Do in the Area
Thirty minutes east is the Alexander Springs Recreation Area with a campground, first-magnitude spring, and a 6-mile canoe run.
Take some time to wander and explore all the special places that Ocala National Forest has to offer.
Have You Been to Ocala National Forest?
We'd love to hear about your experience! Please share in the comments what you recommend when visiting Ocala National Forest.
We RVers may wander far and wide but it’s true for most of us that we end up with some favorite “Go-To” places – places that draw us back again and again.
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