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Ocala/Marion County may be best known for its sprawling horse farms and crystal-clear springs, but it’s also home to the southernmost national forest in the continental US.
Located not far from Ocala’s thriving downtown district, the Ocala National Forest is the picture-perfect setting for a variety of outdoor activities that will make you feel miles from civilization. Here’s how to get the most out of your visit.
The Ocala National Forest boasts approximately 387,000 acres of varied terrain, from highlands to coastal lowlands. It’s also dotted with more than 600 swamps, lakes, rivers and springs. Ocala’s mild winters make the forest an ideal spot for camping, and there’s no better way to relax on a warm summer day than paddling down a cool, tree-lined river.
The forest is also home to a wide range of flora and fauna, including the state’s largest populations of Florida black bears and scrub jays. Alligators, white-tailed deer and numerous small animals—foxes, raccoons, river otters, skunks, squirrels, bats, gopher tortoises, armadillos and more—also live here among the wooded oak hammocks, palm trees and cypress-studded wetland prairies.
In addition to being a popular spot for camping and on-the-water leisure, the Ocala National Forest has a few interesting claims to fame. The movie The Yearling was filmed at the Yearling Trail near the Juniper Prairie Wilderness and Juniper Springs. The US Navy does live impact training at its Pinecastle Bombing Range in the forest, and visitors can often see F/A-18 Hornet jet fighters and other aircraft flying low over the trees before dropping their bombs in the designated range a safe distance away. The ghost town of Kerr City—the second town in Marion County, platted in 1884—is also located in the forest, having been deserted after the freezes of 1894 and 1895.
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.
Those who wish to hunt in the Ocala National Forest must abide by all regulations outlined by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Use of hunt camps is limited to hunting season, and hunters must obtain a special permit for hunt camp use. A valid Florida hunting license is also required.
A range of campsites is available in the Ocala National Forest. If you’re looking for more creature comforts, the developed campgrounds offer showers, restrooms, picnic tables, charcoal grills, drinking water, trash receptacles and sanitation facilities. If you like roughing it and don’t need such facilities, the many dispersed tent camping sites will make you feel like you’re completely off the grid!
We recommend reviewing the USDA’s Camping Safety webpage before your excursion. The Ocala National Forest is a natural habitat for Florida black bears, so be sure to follow bear safety precautions when camping, including using proper food storage and disposal procedures. Most importantly, never hike in the dark.
However you like to “get away from it all,” there’s no better place to do it than the Ocala National Forest!