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Ocala, Florida - Ocala National Forest
So Much To Do & See
The Ocala National Forest is a unique and fascinating forest that offers an accommodating climate for year round recreating. The mild winters are fine for family camping while a summer canoe trip down a palm-lined stream is a cool way to spend an August day. The temperatures for the dry months of November through February range from a daily average of 50 F to a high of 72 F. The summer season is much warmer and wetter. Short afternoon thundershowers often raise the humidity to about 90% while the temperatures range from 80 F to 95 F. The average rainfall is approximately 55 inches per year.
Water plays an important part in a variety of recreational opportunities on the forest. There are huge springs, twisting streams and lakes for fishing and water skiing. Many of the scenic lakes were formed when limestone bedrock dissolved, permitting the surface layer to slump and fill with water. The cool crystal-clear water of Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs, Salt Springs and Silver Glen Springs entice many visitors to take a cool dip. Snorkelers frequently find a thrilling underwater view of fish, swaying vegetation and cavernous springs. No wonder the Ocala National Forest is one of the most heavily used National Forests in the United States. Some recreational activities require a pass or permit. Please see Passes & Permits for more information.
Be Bear Aware! You are in Bear Country.
- Bears are naturally shy of people. If you see a bear, enjoy it from a safe distance.
- Keeps dogs and children close to you. Loose dogs may agitate bears.
- NEVER approach a bear!
- Make noise so the bear knows you are there.
- If a bear approaches, DO NOT RUN. Back away SLOWLY.
Alligators are present in this forest. They are an important part of Florida’s ecology and may be found wherever there is a body of water. They have a natural fear of man, but may lose that fear by being around people especially if they are fed. When this happens alligators can be dangerous. For this reason alligators should not be fed or molested in any way.
Camping can be enjoyed during all seasons on the Ocala. Visitors are welcome to stay as long as fourteen days in most campgrounds and even longer in other campgrounds, depending on the season. The majority of camping is on a first-come, first-serve basis. Salt Springs, Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs and Clearwater Lake now take reservations through ReserveUSA, in addition to a first-come, first-serve basis. You may make reservations online or by telephone, toll free: 877 444-6777. All of the group campgrounds and cabins are by reservation only.
Camping can be divided into three classes based on the type of facilities offered and fees charged; developed campgrounds, primitive campsites and dispersed tent camping. Developed campgrounds provide a variety of amenities including; showers, restrooms, picnic tables, charcoal grills, fire rings, lantern holders, drinking water, sanitation facilities and trash receptacles. Primitive campsites provide very few if any of these amenities. Dispersed tent camping is for the adventurous that prefer no facilities at all and is permitted throughout the general forest area.
Fees at developed areas range from $4.00 to $20.00, while primitive and dispersed camping is free. Camping permits and discount passports for senior and disabled U.S. citizens are available. Please see Passes & Permits for more information.
Be Bear Aware!
Never feed a bear! Bears that are fed by humans, either on purpose or by accident, learn to associate people with food and lose their natural fear of humans. Bears that show no fear of humans may be dangerous and may have to be destroyed.
Please take care not to accidentally feed bears:
- Store all food in tightly sealed containers. Do not leave food in your tent.
- Clean cookware and grills immediately after meals.
- Do not leave garbage out.
- If garbage cans are full, notify an attendant immediately; do not leave garbage next to the trash bins.
- Please, do not let your carelessness lead to the injury or death of a person or bear!
Large families and small groups will enjoy a cabin either at Lake Dorr or Sweetwater Spring. The Lake Dorr cabin is nestled on the south end of Lake Dorr and can accommodate 10 persons. Sweetwater Spring cabin can accommodate 12 people and is situated on a freshwater spring that flows into Juniper Run.
These cabins are very secluded in the general forest area and have their own secured entrances. Guests have the exclusive use of the cabins for a week. Both of these facilities are managed by Recreation Resource Management, a concessionaire contracted by the Forest Service. Since availability is limited, a lottery drawing for dates is held annually for the following year. Long range planning is necessary for these two gems of the forest. For more details call: (352) 625-0546.
The word Ocala is thought to be a derivative of a Timucuan Indian term meaning “fair land” or “big hammock”. The Ocala’s vegetation lives up to its name, as you will discover towering palms, huge live oaks and scrubby sand pines. Developed campgrounds in the Ocala are nestled in each of these settings. Of the twenty developed campgrounds, only Salt Springs offers full hook-up service. However, several campgrounds have dump stations and shower facilities. The remaining campgrounds offer fewer amenities. All of Ocala’s campgrounds allow pets, but they must be kept on a leash no longer than six feet and are not permitted in designated swimming and picnicking areas. Many swimming areas also prohibit alcohol.
An annual pass is available for several of the campgrounds. Because these campgrounds have fewer amenities, the proceeds from the sales of the passes go towards improvements. These annual passes are part of the fee demo program and are sold at Ocala’s visitor centers and ranger stations.
Use the following chart to find the best area for your camping experience.
Accessible campsites, restrooms, showers and walkways are available throughout various campgrounds in the Ocal National Forest. Call the appropriate district to determine if the facility you have chosen will suit your needs. Contact information is located on the Contact Us page of this website.
Primitive and Dispersed Camping
The “Leave No Trace” ethic is a consideration for all visitors whether they are dispersed camping, primitive camping or developed camping. To leave no trace of ourselves each time we use the Forest can be challenging, but every effort to maintain the natural state of the area will contribute to protecting it from overuse. Remember to remove all garbage and trash, “pack it in, pack it out”. Leave vegetation intact, replace sticks and logs that were moved to clear areas for tents and campfires, and preserve water systems. Erasing evidence of our presence will keep each individual’s impact on the Forest at a minimum.
Primitive campsites, can be used by individuals camping with tents or any motorized vehicle. These are specific areas in the forest that offer little or no facilities. Some of these campsites are also hunt camps and may be open year round. Those that are not hunt camps will be closed during the established hunting season. While any motorized vehicle is permitted in these primitive campsites, not all areas are accessible by all types of vehicles. Sandy and narrow woods roads may make navigation difficult or impossible for some vehicles. Visitors should treat these roads with cautious respect. Click here to see the map of primitive campsites.
Dispersed Tent Camping
General forest areas may be used for tent camping only. Motor homes, RVs, campers, trailers, and pop-ups are not permitted outside of designated areas. Access to dispersed camping areas is permitted by several means of transportation; including foot, horseback, ATVs, and vehicles, however, cross country travel, damaging natural resources and blocking traffic is prohibited. As in primitive camping, visitors should use caution when exploring woods roads and during the hunting season, all camping is restricted to designated areas. A detailed map of the Ocala National Forest is recommended to persons planning to camp in the general forest area. Click here for a map of the Ocala National Forest or purchase a detailed map by phone at Ocklawaha Visitor Center: (352) 236-0288.
Groups of various sizes are sure to appreciate one of the 4 group campgrounds available. These areas offer exclusive use, varying amenities and are used by reservation only.
Lake Shore Group Campground
Lake Shore Group Campground is a favorite for scouts, church and civic groups, as well as large families and family reunions. A new bathhouse and shelter were constructed here in 2003. A maximum of 50 persons are allowed at this exclusive campground on Fore Lake, where your group may swim and fish. You may bring your own canoe or small boat (electric motors only) for boating activities. Reservations may be made through the Lake George Ranger District, 352-625-2520. Fees are currently $75.00 per night and require a two night minimum. Included in this fee is a $25 non-refundable deposit. Reservations and payment must be made no later than 20 working days in advance.
River Forest Group Campground
The River Forest Group Campground is used regularly by groups such as RV clubs, family reunions and weddings. The use of a concrete block dining hall and surrounding grounds is the main attraction for this facility. The dining hall is complete with a kitchen at one end and restrooms, including showers, at the other end. While the building is not heated or air conditioned, a cozy fireplace can warm your winter stay or sliding glass doors opening out to a large screened porch can help cool off your visit during the summer. The vast grassy field shaded by huge oak trees offers lots of space for many activities, like softball, volleyball and horseshoes. Grills and picnic tables complete the outdoor experience of this facility bounded by the St. Johns River. A maximum of 125 people are permitted at River Forest. There are no campsites established, so camping is primitive among the trees. While RVs are welcome, there are no hook-ups and all vehicles must remain in the designated parking area. Reservations may be made 365 days in advance, but no later than 14 days in advance. The fee is $150.00 per night, with no maximum or minimum stay and reservations may be made through the Seminole Ranger District, (352) 669-3153.
Mill Dam Group Campground
Mill Dam Group Campground is available for overnight stay as well as those desiring only day use rental. It is available for reservations October 1 – March 15. (The remainder of the year, Mill Dam is a swimming and picnic area, open to all.) Groups up to 150 people may reserve the area on a first come, first serve basis by calling the Lake George Ranger Station at (352) 625-2520. Mill Dam is located on the 168 acre Mill Dam Lake. Water play is popular here and campers bring their boats for easy access to lake activities. A large swimming beach adjoins the area and is accessible by wheelchair. A new restroom facility was constructed in 2003. Other amenities include a picnic shelter, group grills, picnic tables, flush toilets and a 70 car parking lot. The fees for this area depend upon the number of people in a group. Up to 99 people is $50/night with a two night minimum. For 100-150 people, the fees are $75/night with a two night minimum. Included in this fee is a $25 non-refundable deposit. Reservations and payment must be made no later than 20 working days in advance.
Doe Lake Recreation Area
The Doe Lake Recreation Area is an old Civilian Conservation Corps dining hall that has been historically restored. This beautiful building sits atop a grassy hill overlooking the clear waters of Doe Lake. Restoration efforts are the result of an agreement between the Friends of Doe Lake and the Forest Service. Recently, a bath house, including showers, was built in the same architectural style. Reservations are made yearly from October 1st to September 30th on a first come, first serve basis by calling the Seminole Ranger District at (352) 669-3153. Letters of requests are accepted for the following fiscal year and brought to an annual meeting in September for placement on the calendar. Letters should be addressed to: District Ranger, Seminole Ranger District, 40929 State Road 19, Umatilla, FL 32784. A general liability insurance policy (minimum $300,000.00 combined single limits) is required to use the area. The maximum number of people allowed at one time is 250. The camping is primitive among the trees, like at River Forest. RVs and horse trailers are allowed, but limited to specific areas which also do not offer any hook ups.
Camp Ocala 4-H Center
Camp Ocala 4-H Center is a modern camping and environmental complex located on Sellers Lake. Operating under a permit from the Forest Service, Camp Ocala 4-H Center offers the community many unique opportunities including:
- Overnight accommodations for up to 225 in climate controlled cabins with private baths
- Conference rooms seating 15 - 250
- Dining Hall with climate control
- High and low ropes courses
- Outdoor pavilion with barbeque grill
- Campfire circle
- Hiking, canoeing, and nature trails
- Waterfront facilities with canoes
- Indoor gym with basketball court
- Tennis courts
- Beach volleyball
- Sports equipment
Let Camp Ocala’s relaxed natural atmosphere be the setting for your group’s next meeting, retreat, training session, reunion or picnic. The staff at Camp Ocala will help make your event a success by customizing programs to suit your professional, educational or personal needs. Programs can be tailored for groups of any age or size. For more information write to: Camp Ocala 4-H Center, 18533 NFS 535, Altoona, FL 32702 or call: (352) 759-2288.
Swimming & Picnicking
Day Use Areas are among the many recreational opportunities in the Ocala National Forest. Swimming and picnicking areas are available in almost all of the campgrounds shown on the recreation and trails map. In each area, day use fees can be unique from or the same as a camping fee or parking fee. It is wise to check a recreation schedule to determine what kind of fee is applicable in each recreational area. Many boat ramp areas in the Ocala National Forest incorporate swimming and picnicking also.
Florida National Scenic Trail
The Ocala portion of the Florida National Scenic Trail traverses the forest north to south, winding through multiple ecosystems. Hikers can experience rolling hills in the open longleaf pine forest, vast prairies, wooden boardwalks through swamps, thick scrub oak – sand pine, and oak hammocks. The Trail meanders approximately 67 miles through the Ocala National Forest, making it an excellent choice for backpacking. Hikers may primitive camp while backpacking as long as campsites are at least 200 feet from the trail. Those who prefer not to rough it as much will encounter a spur trail to a developed campground about every 10 or 12 miles. These developed sites offer varying levels of facilities. Descriptions for these campgrounds may be found in the developed recreation and trails map. Backpackers are not required to have a permit nor register with the ranger station prior to their outing, although filing a hiking plan with family and friends is highly recommended. Primitive camping in the general forest area is prohibited during the general gun deer hunting season, which is November 8, 2003 to January 4, 2003. The only exception to this regulation allows primitive camping within the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, which is closed to all hunting.
Many shorter loop trails are available for hikers looking for a less arduous experience. The Salt Springs Trail, Lake Eaton Sinkhole and Lake Eaton Loop Trails are among these, while the St. Francis Trail provides 2 loops 3 and 8.5 miles long.
The Salt Springs Observation TrailThe Salt Springs run provides habitat to many species of wading birds such as; limpkin, little blue heron, great blue heron, snowy egret, and American egret. Eagles and Osprey are frequently seen along the run as are alligators. The Salt Springs Trail winds down to the run where an observation platform has been built. The trail is approximately 2 miles long, depending upon which route you choose, and has benches along the way.
Lake Eaton Sinkhole Trail
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. A choice of 3 different routes lead to the rim of the sinkhole, where an observation deck allows you to take in the magnitude of this geological feature. An interpretive board offers an explanation of the formation of sinkholes and a boardwalk and stairs allow you to walk down into the sinkhole. Here, at the bottom, the vegetation is similar to that of an oak hammock, featuring magnolias, live oak, dogwood, loblolly pine and the sabal palm. The total length of the Lake Eaton Sinkhole trail varies from 1 to 2 miles.
Lake Eaton Loop Trail
Across the road from the Lake Eaton Sinkhole Trail begins the Lake Eaton Loop Trail. This trail wanders through several plant communities down to the lake itself, where an observation deck takes you out to the water’s edge. A little more than 2 miles of walking takes hikers through the fire-dependent sand pine scrub down to the hardwoods found along Lake Eaton’s shore. In mature sand pine scrub, the lower story contains scrub oaks, including sand live oak, myrtle oak and Chapman’s oak. Also found under the sand pine are rusty lyonia, known as crooked wood, and silk bay. Small balls of deer moss can also be found dotting the ground’s surface. In contrast to the sand pine scrub, red maples, cypress, water oak, loblolly bay and laurel oak flourish in the area surrounding the lake. Wax myrtle and button bush are among the many shrubs that live in the under story of these hardwoods.
St. Francis Trail
For an historical adventure through the forest, hikers may enjoy walking the grounds of an old pioneer town on the bank of the St. Johns River. Originally known as “Old Town”, St. Francis was founded in 1887 and thrived as a shipping community for north Lake County. But the advent of railroads and the devastating freeze of 1894 spelled the doom of the small town. The St. Francis Trail is an 8.5 mile experience through riverine swamp and bayhead swamp to open flatwoods and oak hammock. The site of St. Francis is at the bank of the St. Johns River, however, the buildings no longer remain. Hikers can experience hiking along an old logging railroad bed or exploring an old levee, built to flood an area for rice cultivation. A small trail leads up to a natural spring and back around to the main trail, giving enthusiasts the option of a shorter trail or an additional trail for more avid hikers.
The Yearling Trail
Pats Island is one of the most popular historic attractions on the Ocala National Forest. The area was named after it's first postmaster Patrick Smith who settled there in the 1840's and the unique relationship of two ecosystems, long leaf pine and sand pine scrub.
Much of the land bounded by the St. Johns and Ocklawaha rivers consists of the largest concentration of sand pine scrub in the world. Within this vast area there are oases of fertile soils and moisture that support growth of longleaf pine, wiregrass, turkey oak and other trees and plants not found in the surrounding arid scrub. Pioneers who settled in these areas called them islands because a sea of scrub surrounded them.
The Reuben Long family came to the area around 1872 and individual family members applied for and were granted homestead acres that they worked and lived on for many years. Human habitation on the island peaked before the turn of the 20th century when about a dozen families sought to eke out a living on the 1400-acre island. A living was made from farming, running woods cattle and hogs, hunting, fishing, making moonshine whisky, and trading with boat travel on the St. Johns River.
There is an ecological uniqueness of this of a longleaf pine island surrounded by scrub pine, which creates a single community isolated from the mainstream of central Florida life. The imposed remoteness contributed to a community essentially untouched by outside forces. The community had its own church, school, post office and self-appointed lay ministers.
Life was hard on the island and after the big back-to-back freezes of 1894 and 1895 the population began to decline. Most of the settlers had sold or leased their homesteads before the Ocala National Forest was formed in 1908. Outside forces were slowly bringing life as it had been on the island to an end. In 1935 the island was abandoned by man and surrendered back to the elements after less than 100 years of human occupation.
The natural beauty of the area and the colorful life style of these rugged people fascinated the author, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. She stayed with the last two inhabitants of the island, Calvin and Mary Long in October 1933. During this and other visits she recorded many stories told by the Longs. Calvin's childhood story of nursing a deer from a fawn gave her the idea for the Pulitzer Prize winning novel "The Yearling". The book was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman and Claude Jarman, Jr. and was filmed on location in the early 1940's.
Today you too can visit Pat's Island via the Yearling Trail. The trailhead is located on SR 19 across from the Silver Glen Springs entrance. From there you can hike up to 6 miles visiting various sites of historical significance and enjoy the natural beauty of the island.
Pats Island is located in Juniper Prairie Wilderness where natural processes are the primary influences and human activity is limited. Forest Service management of Pat's Island preserves and protects its physical and biological characteristics and allows us to experience this treasure without intention to disturb or destroy natural processes. As wilderness, the island is closed to motorized equipment and bicycles.
As you circle the island, stop and notice the sites where the residents once lived. When you once again see the sand pine scrub, you will be arriving back at the trailhead. Perhaps you may want to complete your trip with a visit to Silver Glen Springs. Snacking at a shaded picnic table or swimming in crystal clear 72 degrees year around water is a great way to top off the day. You may want to visit the Boils Trail at the glen where Jody (of The Yearling) built a "flutter mill" with palmetto leaf and sticks. It was here that he nodded off to sleep when he was supposed to be home attending his chores. The Lake George Trail from the Silver Glen Springs Recreation Area to Lake George also offers another hiking adventure.
The Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail is a challenging 22 mile long ride through live oak domes, grassy prairies and stands of pines. Since the trail is in a figure eight shape, shorter loops can be made at the halfway point. Because this trail is not paved, bicycles need to be suited for rough terrain. Mountain bikes are ideal. There is no fee to ride the trail and there is free parking available at the trailhead at Clearwater Lake and the parking area of FR 538. Alexander Springs is located at the north end of the trail and Clearwater Lake is located at the south end. Water, showers and flush toilets are available at both locations, but please note there is a fee to use these facilities. Water is not available along the trail, so be sure to bring plenty of water. The trail is marked with yellow diamonds and arrows and posts at road crossings. Click here for a link to the International Mountain Bicycling Association website.
Recreational opportunities abound on the many water bodies of the Ocala National Forest as well as on land. Activities range from canoeing, boating, skiing, to use of personal watercraft. All visitors engaging in water sports should keep safety first and foremost. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) regulates water vessels and should be consulted for safety requirements, registration and other regulations. Click here to link to the FWC website.
The Ocala National Forest Visitor Centers offer a book, Fishing Opportunities in the Ocala National Forest, which lists and describes boat ramps that are available in the forest. Lake descriptions, sport fishing information, specific regulations, recreation facilities, and lake access are also included in this handy guide. Copies of this book may be purchased at all three Visitor Centers for the Ocala National Forest.
View the developed recreation sites/trails map below.