Ocala National Forest Activity Guides:
Ocala National Forest Trails:
Ocala National Forest
Ocala National Forest Overview
The word Ocala is thought to be a derivative of a Timucuan Indian term meaning fair land or big hammock. The lush Ocala National Forest lives up to its name: Towering palms, large live oaks, and scrubby sand pines dominate the forest's scrub oak ecosystem. The Ocala's sand pine scrub ecosystem is the world's largest continuous forest of its type. But that's not all. Between the river boundaries of this forest lie central highlands, coastal lowlands, swamps, springs and hundreds of lakes and ponds.
It's the lakes and ponds that make the Ocala exceptional. The forest is riddled with slow-moving rivers and wet "prairies." In the Florida and south Georgia, the word prairie refers to submerged flatlands, not the rolling grasslands of America's midwests. They are sunny, shallow expanses of water, usually ringed by cypress trees and filled with water lilies and other aquatic plants. The wonderful rivers and wetlands make Ocala probably the most famous canoeing destination in Florida outside of the Everglades.
Like most of the rest of Florida, the Ocala is low elevation and generally flat. No far-reaching views here. Because the Ocala is just north of Orlando, it's the most heavily visited of the three national forests in Florida. Its lushness and topographical evenness offer a real benefit. Despite its popularity, the forest provides an extraordinary sense of solitude. If you can't see the forest for the trees, you can't see the people for the forest.
The Ocala climate is characterized by long, warm, humid summers and mild, dry winters. So when the chilly wind blows, head for Florida. But bypass the mouse for a dose of real adventure. Who needs a high-tech carnival ride when reality is so much better?
Hike the Florida Trail
The Florida National Scenic Trail is a 1,300-mile hiker's trail that wanders from Gulf Island Seashore near Pensacola to the Big Cypress National Preserve near Miami. The part that crosses the Ocala is one of its best. In the south, the trail passes through forests of yellow longleaf pine, skirting many prairies. The northern part of the forest is drier and more open. And is an important habitat for wildlife such as deer, fox squirrels, and the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers.
Canoe Juniper Creek
Juniper Prairie Wilderness is the largest wilderness in the Ocala and is considered by some to be the most pristine wetlands area in Florida. The canoe trip from Juniper Springs Recreation Area to the Highway 19 bridge is about 7 miles long and flows through the heart of the Juniper Prairie Wilderness. You will be surrounded by a lush tropical forest comprised of palms, cypress and many kinds of southern hardwoods. The first 2 1/2 miles of this creek are narrow and winding, with a channel scarcely wider than 6 feet. Below Half-Way Landing, the stream broadens out and becomes shallow and slow moving.
Bike Paisley Wood
Riders can enjoy a 22-mile winding trail through towering longleaf pines and stately live oak domes. At the north end of the trail visitors will find Alexander Springs Recreation Area. Alexander Springs gushes approximately 80 million gallons of crystal clear water per day, at a year-round temperature of 72. The surrounding subtropical vegetation of palms, hardwood swamp, and sandpine ridges make this campground a special place. Snorkeling and scuba diving in Alexander Springs are excellent ways to enjoy the abundant fish and swaying underwater vegetation. Clearwater Lake can be found at the south end of the trail, where camping and swimming are just as popular as hiking along the nearby Florida National Scenic Trail.
Camp Alexander Springs
And you can camp at Alexander Springs too! If you want to hang out, this is an above-par campground with a modest (for Florida) 65 sites. You'll find a handy 7-mile canoe run, hiking and biking trails, fishing, and of course, snorkeling is crystal clear Alexander Springs. There is also an amphitheater and limited groceries at the beach.
Spot a Burrowing Owl
The moist and warm Ocala is jungle-like in its profusion of vegetation and creatures. More than 400 species of birds live within or visit the forest, and a lucky visitor might spot the rarely seen tiny Ocala Deer or Florida Panther. The forest supports more than 20,000 whitetail deer, the largest herd in Florida. And there's an excellent chance you will spot bobcat tracks. The part of the forest known as Big Scrub supports many species of wildlife, such as the burrowing owl and the vinegaroon, a type of scorpion. Development has wiped out this habitat in most of the rest of Florida, making the Ocala a kind of last holdout, a place to savor and treasure.
Ocala has over 100 miles of horseback riding trail. Riding here is nice and easy, with flat trails and pleasant forest. And this is a real trail-riding region. You'll find lots of support services in the area, including horse rentals. The Doe Lake Horsecamp in the Seminole District is set up for access to these trails. You can rent horses in the area.
from $435USDfor 8 daysOperated by Sierra Club Outings