Where can RVers walk from their campsite to take a dip in refreshingly
cool water in the summer, and swim in the same naturally heated pool any
day of the winter? Where can you leave your rig safely in bear and
big-gator country and in an hour’s drive find yourself at world-class
attractions? The answer is the southernmost national forest in the
contiguous United States — Ocala National Forest.
Made up of almost a half-million acres in north-central Florida, an hour
west of Daytona Beach and two hours north of Orlando, Ocala is a
veritable wonderland for those who enjoy nature in its pristine beauty.
Ocala has 19 campgrounds, three of which offer large spring-fed swimming
holes that stay 72 degrees F year-round and provide a great stop on the
way to better-known attractions in the Sunshine State — or a
destination of its own for those who like to hike, canoe and swim.
The waters at the three springs each have their own distinct
personalities. The pleasant swim basin at Juniper Spring was a mere seep
until the 1930s when it was dug out and enclosed in a concrete ring.
Alexander Springs, on the other hand, gushes, blowing out a large
caldron of sand and then produces a river rushing a dozen miles through
the forest until its clear waters merge into the tannic-laden,
coffee-colored waters of the St. Johns River. In years gone by, Salt
Spring was known for jetting up — fountain-like — above the level of
the waters, but modern demands on the water table have reduced it to a
modest flow. Silver Glen Spring is another beautiful spring and provides
a picnic and day-use area but no overnight camping.
The Ocala’s springs are not just for swimming. Bring your own
canoe or kayak or rent one at the Forest Service concessionaire and head
downstream. The most famous canoe trail is Juniper Run, a de rigeur
canoe trip for Florida naturalists. Going seven miles mostly through
cypress forest, the run is a pleasant jaunt year-round. The dense forest
provides heavy shade in the summer, with scarcely a ray penetrating the
forest floor. In the winter, when daytime temperatures may be a bit
cool, the trees drop their leaves, allowing for radiant heating by the
Alexander Spring Run flows through a salad bowl of reeds and
aquatic plants. The channel runs wide, shallow and without shade. During
all seasons but winter, the glare can make for a formidable challenge.
Float down Salt Springs Run to Lake George. Keep an eye peeled
for the many Florida wading birds: great blue herons, night herons,
bitterns, mixed flocks of white and glossy ibis, the occasional
spoonbill and egrets. In winter, coots can be spotted in flocks of
Warm days in late winter or early spring may yield a number of
alligators — some measuring up to 12 feet with the occasional monster
that is even bigger. Many have the unnerving habit of jumping in the
water and heading directly under a canoe; but do not fear, none has ever
been known to attack a paddle boat. Keep a sharp eye on the trees high
up along the banks of Lake George. It’s a favorite haunt of the bald
eagle. (Florida hosts the largest population of the national bird south
of Alaska.) Ospreys also can be seen roosting on high branches or
hovering over the swamp woods scanning for fish.
During the summer, scissor-tailed flycatchers are a common
sight. These graceful birds always come in pairs. If you see one, look
for a second, and often you’ll spot four or even six patrolling the sky.
Otters frolic in the spring runs, and night-loving raccoons can
occasionally be seen in the daytime along the banks.
The St. Johns River, in most places as broad as the Mississippi
but moving much slower, bounds the forest on the east. The river is one
of the great bass-fishing treasures of the country, but its registry of
species reads like a who’s who of American fish. Striped bass can be
found here, as can many other normally saltwater types such as croaker,
stingray, needle fish and mullet. You can even try your hand at trapping
blue crabs. Now and then the prized redfish are common enough to lure
saltwater fishermen to the river (you need a saltwater license to keep
them), and old-timers claim that bull sharks, known as man-eaters, are
caught from time to time. Don’t ask for an explanation for these
saltwater species, 75 miles upstream from the Atlantic, other than to
say it’s Florida where the rules are frequently different from the rest
of the country. And don’t be surprised if you reel in a pacu — a
fruit-eating relative of the piranha — or other exotics, such as an
A canoe or boat trip up the Silver River will give you a view
of exotic mammals. If you enter the forest from the west on State
Highway 40, cross over the Oklawaha River and then turn immediately left
into the park. Put your boat in and paddle up the perfectly clear
Silver River, issuing from Silver Spring. Keep an eye peeled on the
trees. Green leaves floating down are a good indication that one of the
several troops of rhesus macaques are foraging. Most likely, these
monkeys escaped from the zoological park at the spring head many years
ago, but local lore has it that the rhesus Adam and Eve were props in an
early Tarzan movie filmed there. From time to time the state threatens
to remove these monkeys from the wild. So far, howls of protests from
the public have prevented this.
A word of caution: Don’t press too close to the females in the
harem unless you want to see a bull monkey jump near (or in) your canoe.
It’s probably a good idea not to paddle directly beneath the monkeys,
For a completely different view of the forest, hike one of the
100 miles of trails. The signature footpath is the Florida National
Scenic Trail. From the south, the trail starts at Clearwater Lake off
County Highway 42A and exits the forest 65 miles later at Rodman Dam. In
days gone by, many Floridians paved the parking spaces in front of
their garages with the oak leaves and pine straw raked from the yard.
Today the Florida Trail is surfaced like those old-time driveways and
can be regarded as a yard-wide leaf-strewn sidewalk through the woods.
The leaf-littered pavement is replaced in swampy areas by boardwalks.
You are able to stroll through mixed cabbage palm and cypress swamps
without getting your feet wet.
When passing through marshy areas, known as prairies, be aware
of the Florida sandhill crane. These tall, graceful birds with a red
blaze on their heads may entertain you with a courtship dance or simply
delight you with their rather quizzical human-like strut. If you are an
angler, pack a fishing pole and wet a line at one of the many lakes the
trail passes. All bodies of water hold fish, and the fishing pressure in
the backwoods is minimal.
The literary-inclined hiker should drive to Silver Glen Springs
on State Highway 19 and turn into the forest. Park and stroll The
Yearling Trail, named for the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Pulitzer
Prize-winning novel The Yearling, which the author researched by
socializing with old-time residents. The Academy Award-winning movie
starring Gregory Peck was filmed on location along this spur trail. A
rustling in the dense undergrowth may signal the presence of the progeny
of another character of that literary creation, Old Slewfoot, a Florida
black bear. Adult bears will waste no time getting out of the vicinity.
Cubs, on the other hand, may climb a tree. It’s best not to hang around
for too long as an anxious she-bear mother is sure to be close by.
Of perhaps equal interest as you hike this trail is the colony
of Florida scrub jays that hang out here. Several of these curious
birds, which raise their families communally, will often follow for a
1/2-mile or more, flitting ahead and peering at you for a spell, flying
off and then coming back.
The Ocala Forest offers a 22-mile mountain bike trail, starting
at Clearwater Lake. Although the modest hills pose little threat, the
miles of open-sand track can be challenging. Hundreds of miles of
unpaved and little-trafficked forest road also make for great bicycling.
Campgrounds on the Ocala provide different levels of amenities.
Some are quite primitive, although almost all have hosts. Others, like
the grounds near the springs, provide asphalt roads and pads, running
water for filling your tank, hot showers and flush toilets. Very large
Class A rigs may have difficulty negotiating most of the loops of the
public campgrounds, none of which provide hookups. But there are private
campgrounds aplenty in the forest towns of Astor, Astor Park and
Volusia. These camping spots have almost the same access to the woods as
the public campgrounds, and they have even better access to the St.
Johns River. Pontoon and fishing boats with or without guides can be
rented at these towns.
The Ocala Forest makes for perfect year-round camping; even in
the dead of winter the highs range about 70 degrees F and the lows are
in the upper 40s. Every now and then a cold snap will come along. That’s
when the Florida nature-lover is in real luck. Drive to Blue Spring
State Park in Orange City and check out the manatees. On brisk mornings,
sometimes as many as a hundred of these sea cows will crowd into the
clear spring waters, warming up before heading out for an afternoon of
grazing in the river.