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Best Things to Do at Ocala National Forest, FL

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.

Mike and Jennifer's RV Lifestyle hat collection

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Who needs a hat?

Who needs a hat? You do! Dad hats aren't just for dads. This comfy one's got a low profile with an adjustable strap and curved visor. Just the thing to wear on your next RV Lifestyle adventure.

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

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Spring Boils Trail

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

If you have a few extra days on your trip, you can go 45 minutes west to Silver Springs State Park, take a glass-bottom boat tour and visit the Silver River Museum.

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.

Mike and Jennifer's Favorite Places in Florida – all 3 ebooks!

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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.

Florida is one of those places for us. And we know it is for many RVers looking to get away and explore during the winter. 

That's why we've created three guides, covering Florida's Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the Keys. 

Each of these guides is a seven-day guided exploration of one of the coasts. And each stop is a curated view of the best things that we’ve enjoyed on this trip and want you to experience.

Altogether these guides are over 300 pages of content! 

FAQ's about Florida Gulf Coast beaches of interest to RVers

What is the weather like along Florida's Gulf Coast?

The weather along Florida's Gulf Coast can vary depending on the time of year and the specific location. In general, the area experiences hot, humid summers and mild, pleasant winters.
The Panhandle region can be quite cool in January. It is seldom below freezing, but daytime highs are typically in the 50s. It warms up about 10 degrees each month.
You can also generally add about 10 degrees for every 150 miles you travel south down the Florida peninsula.
By the time you hit Naples, daytime highs in January are in the comfortable 70s.

Did Hurricane Ian destroy many beach campgrounds on the Gulf Coast?

While it severely damaged almost two dozen RV parks and campgrounds, about 8-10 campgrounds in the Naples-Ft. Myers area were completely destroyed. Most of the damaged campgrounds have been repaired and reopened.
Check with the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds if you have questions or concerns.

Are there any websites that can help me get a reservation for a Florida beach campground?

One of the best resources we can recommend is called Campnab. This service monitors parks for cancelations and sends you an alert when an opening matches your criteria. That said, it isn’t magic. The app doesn’t create availabilities. 
The service works – but it is not free.
Campnab offers two ways to use the service. The first is individual pay-per-use scans. These watch for vacancies at a specific park for a specific date. These work well if you know exactly when and where you intend to camp. Pay-per-use scans cost $10 – $20, depending on how frequently you want them to check availability.
The second way to use the service is through a membership. These typically run monthly and are tailored to those who camp more frequently or are looking to maximize their chance of finding a site. Membership allows you to scan multiple parks and/or dates simultaneously. With memberships, you pay a monthly recurring fee ($10, $20, $30, or $50), depending on your needs.

Are there places in Florida where you can literally camp on the beach for free?

Not many. And they are very pricey. If you want to sleep directly on the sand in an RV, you'll have to stay at a developed commercial campground like Camp Gulf on the Emerald Coast or an RV resort like Big Pine Key Resort in the keys. Some state parks like the Gamble Rogers State Memorial Recreation Area in the Atlantic Coast or  Bahia Honda State Park in the keys or Fort Desto State Park near St. Petersburg have beachside sites, too.

But are there free, unrestricted RV beach camping spots in Florida?

Sorry, none that I know of that would work for RVs.
There is unrestricted camping on wild beaches on a couple of islands, but you need a boat to get there, and it is for tent camping only. If you want to sleep directly on the sand, there is Anclote Key offshore Tarpon Springs, and Shell Key in Pinellas County. Another favorite is Keewaydin Island between Naples and Marco Island but that area remains pretty devasted from Hurricane Ian.

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Mike Wendland

Published on 2021-09-03

Mike Wendland is an Emmy award-winning journalist, traveler, and producer of RV Podcast, the RV Lifestyle travel blog, and the RV Lifestyle Channel on YouTube. Mike, traveling with his wife Jennifer and their Norwegian Elkhound, Bo, has vast experience and a great passion for exploring North America, previously working as a long-time NBC-TV News Channel Technology Correspondent and now sharing his love for the RV lifestyle with millions. Mike is not only an adept RV life enthusiast but also a skillful storyteller, bringing to his channels stories from the road that perfectly capture the magic and hardships of this lifestyle.

2 Responses to “Best Things to Do at Ocala National Forest, FL”

September 03, 2021at7:53 am, Fernweh_Ric said:

I have lived in the Ocala area for the last 37 years. I’m a full time RVer and currently reside on a friend’s farm in my bus. I’m about 5 miles from Marjorie Rawlings State Park in Cross Creek. If you get a chance when in the area, eat at The Yearling Restaurant. So many great places to see in the Ocala National Forest.


September 03, 2021at7:38 am, Susan said:

I enjoy reading your blog and learning about different destinations. I travel some with my lab RoxZ and wonder how many of the places, trails, and such are dog friendly such as the trails you talk about in the Ocala National Forest.



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