|Lake Eaton, Ocala National Forest|
The Ocala National Forest in central Florida boasts a 65-mile stretch of the The Florida National Scenic Trail, and a guarantee to those backpackers who turn into couch potatoes as the winter solstice ticks past: no snow. It might get cold, and there can occasionally be some ground frost, but the last honest-to-goodness snow anyone remembers were a few flurries back in 1976.
This is the Sunshine State we're talking about, home to the contiguous states' only subtropical long-distance hiking trail. Not only is winter warmdaily temperatures average 50 degrees, but can climb as high as the low 70sit's also the dry season. This is a region that was made to be hiked in winter. (Unfortunately, winter is also deer-hunting season, so bring your orange vests. Or head for the Forest's Juniper Prairie Wilderness, where hunting is prohibited.)
The Ocala boasts a stunning amount of diversity. Bounded by rivers, the edges of the forest tend to be subtropical wetlands of swamp, spring, and coastal lowland ecosystems so wet that trails often follow a series of boardwalks. There are lush, subtropical flowers and Spanish-moss-draped creeks; hundreds of ponds, cypress swamps, and gum swamps; and a spring so large and clear that scuba divers use it for their certification tests!
But in the middle of the forest, the land gains a smidgen of elevation (that's all it can gain: this is Florida, a state whose highest point is 345 feet). The ecosystem changes to sand pine flats, sometimes described as a "desert with rain" because of the combination of porous sandy soil (left over from the great sand dunes that covered the region during the last ice age) and heavy rains.
While the Florida Trail is the Ocala's major hiking thoroughfare, visitors interested in exploring the park's biodiversity can take advantage of a number of shorter trails, including several interpretive nature trails.
Snowbird stats: With daytime temperatures in the 50s and 60s, this is the most consistently warm of our snowbird destinations, and one of the few places that can guarantee a snow-free hike.
Information: Seminole Ranger District, Ocala National Forest, 40929 State Rd 19, Umatella, FL 32784, (352)669-3153. Visitors map is $5.50 including postage and handling. For information about the Florida Trail, call the Florida Trail Association, PO Box 13708, Gainesville, FL 32604, (1-800-343-1882).
Getting there: The Ocala National Forest is located smack in the middle of Florida between Gainesville and Orlando. From Ocala, Highway 40 goes through the center of the forest.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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