The Ocala National Forest lies just above Orlando, west of Daytona Beach in central Florida. Ocala is 430,447 acres (607 sq miles) of longleaf pine sandhills and shrublands with both coniferous and evergreen oak species. This is the kind of forest that thrives on the controlled burns that have replaced Florida’s historically common natural fires.
Ocala National Forest: Thriving on Fire
Fires remove forest floor debris and leave behind fertile soil for native species to germinate their seeds, and also keep the balance of shade-loving species in check with the sun-loving ones (areas that don’t have controlled burns can become overrun with species that thrive in the shade and choke out the species that require more open habitat.)
Fires have historically occurred naturally in Florida via lightning storms, causing the ecology of the area to center around the constant cycle of burn and regrowth, which is why Florida has to prescribe more controlled burns than any other state in the country. Every tier of the food chain is affected by the presence of fire in the ecosystem, such as woodpeckers and scrub jays who build their homes in plants that only thrive after a fire.
The forest gets its name from the Timucuan word for “fair land” or “big hammock”.
Word of the Day:
“Hammock” doesn’t always mean “a swing you set up between two trees”. This article is using the other meaning of the word, the one that refers to a small section of hardwood forest surrounded by another ecosystem. Specifically, a slightly raised island of trees amid wetlands in Florida.
These little sections of woods are their own ecosystems, being unsupported by the surrounding wetland, which is a completely different kind of ecosystem. You may also see this word spelled “hummock.” There are different kinds of hammocks, such as tropical hardwood hammocks, shell mound hammocks, temperate hardwood hammocks, and maritime hammocks.
Timucuan Native Americans inhabited about 19,200 sq miles in Southern Georgia and Northern Florida, including the Ocala Forest. The tribe’s population was estimated at 200,000 people spread across about 35 chiefdoms. Many of these spoke different dialects of the Timucuan language. The various groups of Timucuans under different chiefdoms were not particularly united in any political way and so stayed only loosely affiliated with one another, each having unique cultural practices.
Tragically, these native Floridians did not fare well against the new diseases brought over by Europeans. By the year 1700, only about 1,000 Timucuans remained. Not many years after, the tribe went entirely extinct as the battle against disease was directly compounded by literal battles against white settlers.
Recreation in Ocala National Forest
Ocala Forest invites you to enjoy snorkeling, swimming, fishing, canoeing, and boating in any of its 600+ lakes and rivers. This forest features every kind of recreation you can think of, from OHV trails to shooting ranges.
Hunters and fishers, hikers and bikers, naturalists and photographers, everyone from everywhere can find something to do in Ocala. In a lush, green land inhabited by friendly manatees, songbirds, and some of the world’s rarest flowers, how could you possibly not feel the soothing effects of nature?
Ocala is full of fantastic equestrian opportunities as well. There is nothing quite like exploring a jungle-like forest on horseback. These horses are used to their Florida forest and are good travel companions for even novice riders. Let your noble steed walk you through the dense woodlands and open scrublands, under the canopy and through spring-fed waters, as you keep your eyes peeled for wildlife.
The forest is perhaps best known for its 100-mile horse trail (completely free to use). The forest also features horse campsites ideal for riders who want to travel till nightfall and get right back on the horse the next day to continue their journey. Horse friendly areas include:
You can book a public or private ride online here. Tours range from trail journeys and camping trips to river rides! Volunteer opportunities for horse lovers are also available.
OHV Rides and Camps
Would you rather travel on four wheels rather than four hooves? Because Ocala is the number one destination for off-roading in the entire state of Florida! There are about 200 miles of ATV and motorcycle-friendly trails. There are also sections for jeeps and other 4WD vehicles to romp and play. Looking for a nice OHV savvy campground? Ocala has those too.
Big Scrub Campground features 47 individual sites in the south-central section of the forest. This campground includes a restroom with hot showers. This site, like all others, is subject to closures, so always double-check the area status before you go. Lake Delancy West leads to numerous OHV trails along the famous Florida Trail. This campground comes with the standard amenities of a developed campground.
Trout Lake Nature Center is more than just a building of books and granola bars, it’s an entire destination in and of itself. Located 5 miles outside of Ocala Forest in the town of Eustis, Trout Lake Nature Center is a 230-acre accessible network of dog-friendly trails that wind through highland and wetland habitats. In addition to the nature center itself, the property also includes a museum, a turtle habitat, and a boardwalk leading to Trout Lake itself.
This site has its own Instagram and Facebook pages. Give them a lookup if you’re interested you would like to see what volunteers get to do and see on a daily basis! This nonprofit relies on the dedication of volunteers, so new recruits are always welcome.
Wildlife in Ocala National Forest
Ocala is an absolute hub for amazing wildlife. You might just see bobcat, alligator, manatee, coyote, deer, boar, gopher, tortoise, otters, snake, and bat! Seriously, its one of the most biodiverse forests in the United States. The following trails are particularly good places to spot wildlife: ● Alexander Run● Clearwater Lake Nature Trail● Juniper Run● Lake Eaton Trail● Bear Swamp Trail● Salt Springs Run
Know Before You Go
The forest service would like all visitors to have fun but also be aware of important safety measures specific to the region. Flash floods are common in Ocala. According to the USDA, it takes only about 24 inches of water to carry away most vehicles. There are no sirens to warn you of the danger in the middle of the forest. It’s up to you to understand the implications of severe rain and climb to higher ground as soon as possible. And of course, don’t attempt to drive through deep waters.
One of the most helpful things you can do for yourself before visiting the forest is to check this Alerts and Notices page before your trip. The USDA updates this page regularly with special warnings about Ocala’s weather conditions, trail conditions, road closures, safety measures, permit requirements, events, and so on.
Enjoying learning about America’s national forests? Save The National Forests.com to your home page so you’ll always be in touch with America’s wildlands!
Have fun, be safe, and leave no trace!
-by Heaven Morrow