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Ocala National Forest: A Hidden Gem

The Ocala National Forest is located in the center of Florida and is the third-largest national forest in the country. This forest is a hidden gem in Florida that many people don't know about. Yet, it's one of the most extensive national forests in America. It's a great place to enjoy outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, horseback riding, and kayaking.

The forest has abundant natural resources, including plants and animals that are rarely found anywhere else. This 387,000-acre forest is filled with more than 180 wildlife species, including the Florida panther. A concrete observation platform provides deer, turkey, alligators, a handful of other native Florida wildlife.

Adventure Awaits

The best way to experience Ocala National Forest is to go on a hike. With more than 1,600 miles of trails that straddle most of the forest, there are plenty of options for every level of hiker.

Look for a popular trail with information and parking at the Forest Service headquarters, located at 222 N.E. Sixth St. in Ocala.

Once there, ask about the trail to Bruce's Spring and for the one to the Taft Trail. Both trails feature an abundance of vegetation and wildlife. You will also find information about the Hi-Way 90 Trail, which offers a 4-mile hike.

Getting There

Families can opt for the scenic, four-mile Ocala National Forest Loop, a paved, gravel roadway. Hidden away in the Pkwy Exit #121, a short walk from the entrance leads to the Ocala National Forest entrance. This parking area is open during the day.

Ocala Silver Glen Springs Sign

Why You Should Go

This forest is the largest urban national forest in the U.S. It has been declared an International Dark Sky Park. The only U.S. national park or national forest designated as an International Dark Sky Park, this forest is a magnet for stargazers and nature lovers.

Scenic (with free site and water) and Streamside, the two theme campsites, offer a more laid-back camping experience.

What to Do?


A seven-mile loop can take you along forest roads, over bridges, and around waterways. Deep into the forest are cypress-studded Florida sand pine flatlands. Along the way, you'll come across sandhills and dunes, oaks and oak trees, palms and hardwoods. Walk in the swampy flatlands along the St. Johns River. You'll want to stop to explore the red-bellied slider turtles and other reptiles along the river banks.


Try canoeing on the winding St. Johns River. You'll paddle on an 89-mile stretch of the beautiful St. Johns River from Fort McCoy to Dunnellon.

Find a place along this historic river that flows straight through the middle of Central Florida. Boat campsites are scattered along the river. Grab a paddle, a fishing pole and go fishing.


Central Florida has some excellent state parks, and the Ocala National Forest has plenty of private campgrounds to choose from. Hikers, bicyclists, and picnickers will find plenty of spots to pitch a tent and set up camp.

Some private campgrounds offer the option of taking a boat to a private lake. Many private campgrounds offer boating, although only a few allow electric motors.

Most private campgrounds allow tents and pop-up trailers, but not grills. The larger tree campsites allow R.V.s.


Most private campgrounds have swimming pools, picnic tables, and campfire grills. Some are entirely self-contained.

There are some public and some private boat ramps. This wilderness area can feel like a backcountry island at only 20 miles from the bustling Ocala City.


If you love a great hike, head to the Ocklawaha River Trail. The nearly two-mile trail hugs the Ocklawaha River and connects to paved public bike trails that can take you further along the river.

The Ocklawaha is relatively short, winding from between the lakes Thea and Wolf on its way to the St. Johns River. A great place to end your hike is McPherson Preserve, a nature preserve near Grayling Springs.

Another good trail option is the 10-mile Ocala Canoe Trail. This river access is about two miles from the parking lot for Ocala's Air Park and less than two miles from the Ocklawaha Boat Launch in the village of Ocklawaha.

This site offers a place to rent canoes and kayaks for recreation and fishing lessons for those who want to try their hand at kayaking.

Wooden boardwalk in the recreation area in the Ocala National Forest Florida

What to Bring

Let's start with the driving — some parts of Ocala National Forest are not road-accessible, so a four-wheel-drive vehicle is a must, as well as top-quality tires. A map or GPS is a must, too.

This is Florida, so it can get very hot and very cold in a short amount of time, especially on the southern tip of the forest, where the warm-temperate rainforest meets the Gulf of Mexico.

Before setting out, make sure you have proper hiking shoes. There are hundreds of springs, waterfalls, ponds, and trails that lead to water. Even those not going on a trip can take a dip or a canoe.

Attractions to Visit

  • Aquatic center - The Dunes Water Park offers a splash pad with four spray features that run continuously throughout the day. With a zero-entry area that boasts 6,000 gallons of water, this water park features three water slides, a splash pad, slides, and tube rides.

  • Natures Trail - Located in the Great Ocala National Forest, the Natures Trail at Saddlebrook Resort is an easy 1.6-mile loop with numerous observation areas that offer panoramic views of the landscape. Saddlebrook Resort also provides the Giant Kaleidoscope Mini-Golf Course.

  • Cold springs - Ocala National Forest has a wide range of springs. They include stalactites, stalagmites, and hot springs that resemble trickling waterfalls.


Do you need a plan for the weekend? If you are looking for a place with an abundance of wildlife, natural beauty, and old-fashioned country living, then Ocala National Forest is the perfect spot for you.

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