6 things to do in Ocala National Forest (2024)

Ocala National Forest is full of fun things to do

Encompassing more than 600 square miles in North-Central Florida, Ocala National Forest is bursting with adventure.

Hike the Florida Trail, camp in the deep woods, spend a lazy day at a cool, bubbling spring, paddle a spring run, a lake or a river. There are more than 600 springs, lakes and ponds in this forest.

Even if you are just out for a Sunday drive, Ocala National Forest will satisfy theurge to explore new destinations. Ramble forest roads, stop anywhere and take a hike.

From vast Florida sand pine flatlands and cypress-studded wetland prairies to densely wooded oak hammocks and colorful palm-shaded subtropical oases, the variety of eco-systems to explore is exceptional.

There are things to do every day of the year in Ocala National Forest.

1.) Swim in a cool spring

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Several springsare easily accessible to visitors in Ocala National Forest, the most popular being Juniper Springs off State Road 40, which crosses the forest below Lake George, and Alexander Springs on CountyRoad 445, nine miles west of Juniper Springs off State Road 40.

With a constant temperature of 72 degrees year around, the forest’s springs are magnets for people in summer.

Snorkeling is permitted at both springs, but only Alexander Springs allows scuba diving.Scuba diving is limited the large spring boil, and valid proof of certification is required.

For adult swimmers, Alexander Springs may be the top choice. The spring creates a large, shallow sandy-bottom natural pool ideal for swimming. Where the spring emerges from the bottom, snorkelers and scuba divers enjoy exploring the limestone rocks and boulders in the spring boil. (You can rent snorkel gear here too.)

The Salt Springs Recreation Area is another popular spring in the forest, although a bit more remote. Take U.S. 19north fromState Road 40(about 4.5 miles east of Juniper Springs).

Salt Springs gets its name from minerals carried to the surface fromunderground aquifers, providinga level of salinity not found inthe other springs.

Day use activities in theJuniper Springs Recreation Area include picnicking, swimming, snorkeling, bird watching, hiking, and paddling a spectacular spring run that runs through a shady sub-tropical forest. Both Alexander Springs and Salt Springs offer similar recreational opportunities.

2.) Paddle a spring run

There are several springs you can paddle in Ocala National Forest.

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Alexander Springs has crystal clear water and a great swimming hole that snorkelers will enjoy. You can rent canoes and kayaks for an easy, scenic 2- to 4-hour paddle where you are likely to see lots of wildlife. Brings hats and sunscreen: The river is in full sun.

You do not need a shuttle service; this trip is an out-and-back paddle.

Read more: Alexander Springs: Easy scenic paddling; lots of wildlife

Nearby Juniper Springs has a scenicspring run, a narrow, twisty 7-mile paddle trail through an amazingly scenic sub-tropical forest. It is the shadiest of the Ocala spring runs and the best in the summer heat and humidity.

Suspended since the pandemic and restored in Fall 2023, the shuttle service for privately owned kayaks has resumed, a cause for celebration among paddlers. Kayak rentals are also available.

Here’s more about Kayaking Juniper Springs Run.

The 4.5-mileSalt Springs Run is a popular paddle trail. Be forewarned, though, that there is no take-out at the end, so you have to paddle back against a mild current to the launch point at the Salt Springs Marina in the Salt Spring Recreation Area.

Salt Springs, unlike Alexander and Juniper, has power-boat traffic.

Salt Springs Run dumps its mineral-infused water into Lake George, second-largest lake in Florida andpart of the St. John’s River system. If you’ve paddled this far, you should paddle a little further north into Salt Springs Cove and enjoy its magnificent shoreline.

All three springs have concessions where you can rent canoes and kayaks.

On the western edge of the forest, consider Silver Springs State Park.

Read more: Four great rivers to kayak near Ocala National Forest.

3.) Take a hike

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A 66-mile segment of the Florida Scenic Trail winds its way through the Ocala National Forest with numerous trailheads, includingaccess points in the SaltSprings Recreation Area and the Juniper Springs Recreation Area.

Foradditional trailheads, access this interactive map for one that suits you best. Another excellent source for trail information is Florida Hikes!

Recreation areas at Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs and Salt Springs all have nature trails, boardwalks, and trails that wander into the deeper woods.

The entire forest is wide open to hikers and backpackers. You can pull off to the side of any of the dozens of forest roads and blaze a trail through the woods. But unless you are an experienced hiker with the all the right equipment, we suggest you stick to the designated trails. This is, after all, the largest pine woods forest in the world.

Here are some of the more popular trails. You can click through the highlighted text to download PDF maps of the individual trails:

4.) Ride your bike in Ocala National Forest

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Although bicyclists can ride any of the hundreds of miles of forest roads, the only designated off-road trail in the Ocala National Forest is thechallenging Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail, a 22-mile single-trackloopthrough the deep woods and rolling hills.

You’ll find trailheads at the Alexander Springs and Clearwater Lakerecreation areas.

The trail is typical for Florida scrub and sandhill environments, with occasional stretches of soft sand, which may make going difficult.

Marked with yellow diamonds, it intermittently intersects the hiking-only (orange-blazed) Florida Trail. Blue-blazed connector trails connect the loop with both the Alexander Springs and Clearwater Lake trailheads.

There are two interconnected loops – the Alexander Loop (11 miles) and the Clearwater Loop (11 miles). No designated rest areas exist.

Bicycles need to be built for rough terrain. Mountain bikes are ideal.

5.) Camp in Ocala National Forest

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Primitive campers have the run of the forest. You can camp along any trail, even off the trail if you find a suitable site. Of course, whatever you bring into the forest, you must bring out.

Both tents and RV’s are welcome at these developed campgrounds:

Read more
  • Ultimate guide to Ocala National Forest camping
  • Dispersed camping in Ocala National Forest
  • Checklist for tent camping

Hiking, biking and camping may be restricted in remote areas during the fire season (October to May) and during hunting season (November to January), so check with the ranger station before venturing off into the wild. Call 352-625-2520.

6.) Ride a horse

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There are more than 100 miles of equestrian trails running through Ocala National Forest, the most popular being the One Hundred Mile Trail and the Lake/Alachua/Marion County (LAM) Trail, which is 34 miles long.

With nearby Ocalabeing the center of Florida’s horse industry and ranches, it’s only natural that you would have a place to ride in the forest.

The One-Hundred Mile Trail is divided into three loops: the 38-mile Flatwoods Riding Loop, the 38-mile Prairie Riding Loop, and the 19-mile Baptist Riding Loop.

The LAM Trail stretches 34 miles from Doe Lake almost to Eureka, along the Ocklawaha River.

The beauty of the Ocala National Forest is that you don’t have to stick to the trails if you don’t want to. You can pull your trailer over to the side of any forest road, as long as you leave room enough for other vehicles to pass.

Most equestrians park along forest roads where they intersect with the trails.

There is designated trailer parking availablefor both the LAM Trail and the One Hundred Mile Horse Trail at the forest’s Swim Pond Trail Head, where you will also find primitive camping.

Swim Pond is east of Doe Lake Recreation Area and the west of Big Scrub Campground, accessed from the same entrance off FR 14 as Trout Pond.

If you don’t have your own horse, consider a guided trail ride with Cactus Jack’s Trail Ridesin Ocala for information about riding Ocala National Forest and the Cross-Florida Greenway Trail.

On the north side of the forest in Fort McCoy, you can hitch a ride with Makin’ Tracks Trail Rides. One of their offerings takes riders to swim with their horses in the Ocklawaha River.

  • Cactus Jack’s Trail Rides, 11100 SW 16th Ave, Ocala, FL 34476. Reservations: Book online or send an e-mail to [emailprotected]
  • Makin’ Tracks Trail Rides, 15901 NE 137 Court, Fort Mc Coy, FL32134. Reservations: Book online. Call or text 352-342-8891 or send an e-mail to [emailprotected]

Ranger Stations in Ocala National Forest

Visitor Center

Pittman Visitor Center
45621 State Road 19
Altoona, FL 32702
(352) 669-7495

Ranger Stations

Lake George Ranger District
17147 E. State Road 40
Silver Springs, FL 34488

Seminole Ranger District
40929 State Road 19
Umatilla, FL 32784
352- 669-3153

Cut-your-own holiday tree in Ocala National Forest

Ocala National Forest is one of the few places in Florida where you hike into the woods and cut down a Christmas tree. But you need a permit. Here are the details and deadlines.

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Bob Rountree

Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 14 years ago.

6 things to do in Ocala National Forest (2024)


What are some interesting facts about the Ocala National Forest? ›

Covering about 387,000 acres, the Ocala is the southernmost forest in the continental United States and protects the world's largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest. The Ocala is home to one-quarter of the world's threatened Florida scrub-jay population.

How do you explore the Ocala National Forest? ›

Boating, hiking, horseback riding, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking… the ways to explore the Ocala National Forest are plentiful. Multiple trail systems are in place to guide visitors through the forest's varied terrain.

Is Ocala National Forest worth it? ›

In the wild heart of Florida lies this primeval forest teeming with rare birds, alligators, manatees, and jaw-droppingly beautiful natural springs. That's right, the oldest national forest in the eastern United States is found here in the untamed bottom lands of Florida and it's a must-visit.

Can you swim in Ocala National Forest? ›

Alexander Springs is one of the best swimming holes in the Ocala National Forest, with a gently sloped beach leading into the gently sloped spring basin.

Why is Ocala famous? ›

Home to over 400 thoroughbred farms and training centers, Ocala is considered the "Horse Capital of the World". Notable attractions include the Ocala National Forest, Silver Springs State Park, Rainbow Springs State Park, the College of Central Florida, and the World Equestrian Center.

Where is the best place to see wildlife in Ocala National Forest? ›

Top trails (19)
  • Pat's Island to Hidden Lake via Florida Trail. ...
  • Buck Lake Loop via Florida Trail. ...
  • Salt Springs Observation Trail. ...
  • Bear Swamp Trail. ...
  • Alexander Springs Loop. ...
  • Clearwater Lake Loop. ...
  • Highway 40 to Hopkins Prairie via Florida Trail. Moderate• 4.5(73) ...
  • Hopkins Prairie via Florida Trail. Moderate• 4.7(97)

Does anyone live in the Ocala National Forest? ›

There are approximately 45,000 people live within the borders of the Ocala National Forest, the second oldest and second largest forest in the United States, established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.

What is the best drive through Ocala National Forest? ›

Providing more than 60 miles of exploration by car, the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway - a National Scenic Byway- is a network of scenic roads between Silver Springs and Ormond Beach, including SR 40 through the heart of the Ocala National Forest.

What is the sinkhole in Ocala National Forest? ›

Overview. High in the sand pine/scrub oak forest is the Lake Eaton Sinkhole Trail, winding through palmetto and deer moss to a dry sinkhole about 80 feet deep and 450 feet wide.

Can you drive a car through Ocala National Forest? ›

Providing more than 60 miles of exploration by car, the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway - a National Scenic Byway- is a network of scenic roads between Silver Springs and Ormond Beach, including SR 40 through the heart of the Ocala National Forest. The Byway traverses some of Florida's most pristine ecosystems.

How many lakes are in Ocala National Forest? ›

There are approximately 600 natural lakes in the Ocala National Forest with lakes Bryant, Mill Dam, Kerr, Crooked, Wildcat, Lou Echo, Grasshopper, Eaton and Quarry Fish Pond being the most popular.

Why is blue sink closed? ›

“Blue sink was closed by the agency due to safety,” said Carrie Sekerak, acting district ranger of the Ocala National Forest. Sekerak, a veteran of the Ocala, has seen years of degradation brought about by irresponsible users, and Forest Service efforts to restore Blue Sink destroyed.

Can you see manatees in Ocala? ›

In Ocala/Marion County, located just an hour north of Orlando, a visit to the natural springs often means a visit with the manatees. During the cooler winter months, manatee sightings are frequent, as they take a liking to the springs' warmer waters.

Can you drink alcohol at Ocala National Forest? ›

While visiting the Ocala National Forest please remember the following rules and safety information: n Many recreation areas prohibit the use of alcohol. Signs are posted where alcohol is prohibited. n Pets are allowed in all campgrounds and on trails, but must be on leashes no longer than six feet.

How old is the Ocala National Forest? ›

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Ocala National Forest into existence as the third national forest east of the Mississippi (only the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota and El Yunque National Forest in Roosevelt's beloved Puerto Rico are older).

How many bears are in the Ocala forest? ›

Florida officials would like you to stop feeding trash to bears. "We estimate that more than 1,000 bears live on the Ocala National Forest," says district ranger Carl Bauer.

How big is the Ocala National Forest? ›

Florida National Forests. THE Ocala National Forest has a gross area of 441,925 acres and is the most southern of the four national forests in Florida, being the only one within the peninsular portion of the State. It lies between the cities of Ocala and Daytona Beach.

How many deer are in Ocala National Forest? ›

Since the restrictions were imposed in 1982, the herd has increased annually. In 1983, biologists estimated there were 4,450 huntable deer in the forest, excluding those in refuges where hunting is prohibited. This year, in those same hunting areas, there are an estimated 5,850 animals.


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