About the Forest
Established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 to protect the Big Scrub, the world’s largest sand pine scrub forest, the Ocala National Forest is the oldest National Forest east of the Mississippi River.
Like many National Forests, it surrounds existing communities, including some of the oldest settlements in Marion County. SR 40, SR 19, CR 314, and CR 316 are the major paved highways through the forest.
These provide access to a massive spiderweb of unpaved forest roads stretching from Palatka to Astor, Paisley, and Silver Springs.
Land Manager: U.S. Forest Service
Seminole Ranger District: 40929 SR 19, Umatilla FL 32784. 352-669-3153
Lake George Ranger District: 17147 E SR 40, Silver Springs FL 34488. 352-625-2520
Both ranger stations are open 7-4 weekdays.
Pittman Visitor Center: 45621 SR 19, Altoona FL 32702. 352-669-7495
The visitor center is open sporadically. Best to call ahead.
Fees: Day use fees are charged at all established recreation areas inside the Ocala National Forest. Camping fees are charged at all campgrounds.
You can use your National Parks Pass to waive fees except at the springs, which are run by a concessionaire who sells their own pass to visit the springs.
Trailheads that are not within an established recreation area have free parking. ATV users must visit a ranger station and obtain a permit before using the ATV trail system.
Springs of the Ocala National Forest
What distinguishes the Ocala National Forest from the other two National Forests in Florida is the sheer number of first-magnitude springs inside its borders.
Thanks to their setting, being surrounded by sand pine scrub instead of subdivisions, these springs remain some of the more pristine in Florida.
Each is within a recreation area, for which there is a day use fee. With the exception of Silver Glen Springs, these recreation areas also have campgrounds. Dogs are not permitted at the springs.
Camping in the Ocala National Forest
In addition to the popular campgrounds at the springs, there are additional recreation areas with campgrounds that have restrooms and water. Most of these also have dump stations available for an additional fee.
Camping fees start at $20 per night. Salt Springs is the only campground that can handle larger RVs. Click any of the campgrounds below to jump to the reservations page (Fore Lake and Lake Dorr are walk-ins).
Developed campgrounds include Alexander Springs, Big Scrub, Clearwater Lake, Fore Lake, Juniper Springs, Lake Dorr, and Salt Springs.
Some of the more rustic campgrounds have only a vault toilet and no access to potable water. These include Big Bass,
Hopkins Prairie, Lake Delancy (East and West), Lake Eaton, and Shanty Pond. Camping fees start at $12 per night.
Campsites at most developed campgrounds in the Ocala National Forest must be reserved through Recreation.gov or by phone at 1-877-444-6777.
Certain recreation areas have been set aside for group camping. What this means is you have to rent the entire campground on a per-night basis, no matter how many people join you to camp.
These include Buck Lake, Doe Lake, Mill Dam, and River Forest. Group campsites in the Ocala National Forest must be reserved through Recreation.gov or by phone at 1-877-444-6777.
Click any of the campgrounds below to jump to the reservations page.
Except during general gun season (deer hunting) in the Ocala National Forest in the fall, random primitive camping is permitted anywhere in the forest other than places that are designated campgrounds or are signposted No Camping.
Vehicles must stay along established forest roads. Backpackers may camp where they please. During hunting season, all campers – backpackers included – must use developed campgrounds that charge a fee for camping.
Hiking the Ocala National Forest
The Florida Trail
In 1966, a newly-minted group of Florida Trail Association volunteers gathered to paint blazes north from Clearwater Lake across the Ocala National Forest.
As acknowledged by a state historic marker, this is the birthplace of our National Scenic Trail in Florida.
The 72-mile Ocala section of the Florida Trail remains the most popular destination for backpackers in Florida, since it is unbroken across the forest and traverses dry habitats.
Designated campsites along the Florida Trail are limited to fee areas. During fall hunting season, designated campsites must be used, or random camp within Juniper Prairie Wilderness during hunts.
Other than the fall hunting season, random camping is permitted anywhere along the trail that is not posted otherwise. No permits or fees apply. Bear bagging or bear canister use is required.
There is also a second branch of the Florida Trail across the forest called the Western Connector. It leads southwest from Salt Springs to the Cross Florida Greenway in Silver Springs.
A trailhead off CR 314 near Lake Eaton provides access to this segment of trail. It is part of the Western Corridor of the Florida Trail, which extends down through Ocala and Inverness to the Green Swamp.
IMPORTANT: Break-ins and vandalism of cars left overnight has been reported at trailheads in the Ocala National Forest.
It is best to leave your car behind the gates of one of the recreation areas with a camp host, even though a nightly fee will be charged.
Florida Trail Day Hikes
In addition to backpacking the entire Florida Trail across the Ocala National Forest, you can tackle it in pieces as day hikes, thanks to the many trailheads and access points along the route.
Other Day Hikes
Forest rangers and FTA volunteers also created other day hiking trails in the Ocala National Forest. These ones can be freely accessed from established trailheads.
These day hikes are inside recreation areas, so a fee applies if you want to hike them.
Biking the Ocala National Forest
Hundreds of miles of forest roads are open to cyclists throughout the Ocala National Forest. Only one dedicated off-road trail exists: the Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail.
Marked with yellow diamonds, it makes a 22 mile loop between Clearwater Lake and Alexander Springs through sand pine scrub and longleaf pine forest, with soft sand in places. There is a crossover to shorten your ride.
The Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail shares a trailhead at Clearwater Lake with the Florida Trail. The Florida Trail is not open to cyclist use in the Ocala National Forest.
Paddling the Ocala National Forest
Several waterways draw paddlers to the Ocala National Forest. The most popular is Juniper Run, following the outflow of Juniper Springs through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness.
An outfitter based at Juniper Springs Recreation Area can take care of all the details for you, or you can work with a friend to leave a car at the end.
There is an established take-out point along SR 19 north of SR 40. Start inside the recreation area, where you pay for access and to launch.
Juniper Run is one of Florida’s more beautiful paddling trips. The waterway makes sharp twists and turns for much of its length before broadening out close to the take-out.
It can take 4-6 hours, depending on how much you just go with the flow.
Disposables, including water bottles and plastic bags, are not permitted on the run and will be taken from you if you try to launch with them. Pack your lunch and water in reusable containers.
Following the outflow of Alexander Springs is also a popular paddle. While narrow in a few spots, it broadens rapidly. The current is strong.
Locals usually stage a vehicle at the take-out point, which is down a side road off FR 538 between the springs and Paisley.
While rentals are available at the recreation area, shuttles aren’t offered. You can only paddle out and back if you rent.
Another popular destination for paddlers is the Ocklawaha River. Used by narrow steamships in the 1800s, the Ocklawaha River winds through or along a swamp forest for much of its length.
Taking on the full course of the river through the forest would be a multi-day trip.
Due to the creation of the Rodman Reservoir in the 1960s, the river is broken into two parts. For the upper Ocklawaha, put-ins include the SR 19 boat ramp and the Rodman Recreation Area, below the dam.
Along the lower section, put-ins are at Eureka below the dam, Gore’s Landing, and Ray Wayside Park. The latter two are county parks on the west side of the river that both charge a day use fee.
Eureka West and Rodman Recreation Areas also provide launches for the Rodman Reservoir. When drawdowns of the reservoir occur, paddlers flock to this area.
You’ll find springs that are exposed when the river’s normal flow towards the St. Johns is temporarily restored.
Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost, an outfitter at Eureka, can assist with rentals and shuttles. They also have cabin rentals on site. Learn more.
Salt Springs Run
A launch within Salt Springs Recreation Area lets you paddle down this broad waterway that William Bartram explored in 1773. His colorful descriptions of Salt Springs inspired poets and artists of that period.
You will encounter boat traffic on this waterway, as boaters can launch at the Salt Springs Marina. The marina rents canoes for use on this six-mile run. It’s an out-and-back paddle.
Silver Glen Springs
Canoe rentals enable you to get into this crystalline spring run and paddle around. It’s a very short journey down the run to the St. Johns River.
The river broadens into a body of water called Lake George at this point, usually too choppy for paddling. Best to stick to the spring and spring run for an out-and-back paddle.
With its trailhead at Swim Pond on FR 573, the Ocala One Hundred Mile Horse Trail loops through the Big Scrub.
Stop by the Pittman Visitor Center for a map of the route, which includes the 40-mile Flatwoods Trail, the 40-mile Prairie Trail, and the 20-mile Baptist Lake Trail.
ATV and ORV Trails
An established network of ATV trails courses through the forest in its northwest corner, with major trailheads off SR 19, CR 316, at Salt Springs, Rodman, and at Lake Delancy West.
A second network of ATV and ORV trails centers on Big Scrub Recreation Area in the southwest corner of the forest.
Off-road vehicles like Jeeps are welcome to use any of the forest roads designated as ORV trails.
Review the annual Ocala National Forest Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) to determine where you can and can’t go with your vehicle. Download a copy (PDF).
Other Recreation Areas
At the Kirkpatrick Dam, Rodman Recreation Area has access for anglers to the spillway, plus flush toilets. Free.
Wildcat Lake along SR 40 just west of SR 19, has a picnic area with vault toilet and a boat launch. Fee.
Farles Prairie offers a picnic area, launch, and vault toilet along beautiful Farles Lake. Fee.
With dozens of lakes plenty big enough for a boat – and even more that paddlers can ply – there are many boat launches throughout the Ocala National Forest.
Many are only known to locals, very primitive affairs down very bumpy dirt roads.
A few boat launches are off of major highways, and several have improved surfaces. Improved launches are generally inside or near the recreation areas and campgrounds, such as Lake Dorr, Lake Eaton, Mill Dam, and Salt Springs.
A concessionaire runs the Salt Springs Marina, the best place in the forest to launch to access the St. Johns River via Salt Springs Run. Fees apply for improved launches.
The Fort Gates Ferry
One of the last car ferries in Florida, the Fort Gates Ferry has been around before vehicles were invented. The first ferryman carried riders and their horses across in 1856.
It crosses a narrows in the St. Johns River north of Salt Springs. Follow road signs from the SR 19 / CR 316 intersection in Salt Springs to reach the ferry.
On our last trip across, it was $10 cash, and well worth the unique experience. It run 7-5:30 daily except Tuesdays, reaching Mount Royal, south of Welaka, on the eastern shore.
Since they were closed due to hurricane damage to their docks, call ahead on their status: 386-467-2411
If they are running, pull up to the landing and honk or flash your lights if you don’t see the ferry on the river. They are based at Gateway Fish Camp on the eastern shore, and will come across to get you.
Almost all of the Ocala National Forest is administered as a wildlife management area by Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
General gun season – also known as deer season – in the fall is also joined by seasons for archery, muzzleloading, and using dogs for deer hunting. There are a spring turkey season and small game hunting seasons as well.
Learn about hunting seasons and permits required for hunting in the Ocala National Forest
There are camping areas exclusively set aside for hunters during established seasons. The FWC also manages the Ocala Outdoor Adventure Camp on Lake Eaton, which offers outdoor skills classes for youth.
Towns in the Ocala National Forest
These communities in and along the edges the Ocala National Forest are where you head to pick up supplies for camping, do your laundry, or grab a good meal. These are a few of our favorite eateries.
Astor and Salt Springs have lodging as well as commercial campgrounds.
Paisley has a restaurant and resupply stops, as does Forest Corners. You’ll find hotels in Palatka and Silver Springs.
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