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OCALA NATIONAL FOREST: An (Epic) Guide to Florida’s Hidden Gem

The Ocala National Forest features breathtaking natural springs, a wide array of diverse wildlife, and majestic old forests.

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A Primeval Forest in the Wild Heart of Florida – Ocala National Forest

Ocala National Forest
Ocala National Forest, Florida

If you think you have a handle on what America’s national forests are supposed to look like, the Ocala National Forest will have you thinking again. In the wild heart of Florida lies this primeval forest teeming with rare birds, alligators, manatees, and jaw-droppingly beautiful natural springs.

That’s right, the oldest national forest in the eastern United States is found here in the untamed bottom lands of Florida and it’s a must-visit.

So, to properly capture this other-worldly destination, we partnered with the Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau to create a breathtaking film on the forest.

The results are pretty stunning if I do say so.

Our Ocala National Forest video

About Our Travels to Ocala National Forest

ocala national forest trail
Jim Pattiz taking in the forest view from a boardwalk | Ocala National Forest

I traveled to Ocala in July of 2021 with my brother Will to make our film on the forest and we were blown away by the immense beauty of the place. The forests are teeming with birds and all manners of wildlife and ribbons and pools of water shape this unique and wonderful wild place.

No you won’t find the mountain peaks and valleys commonly associated with other national forests here. Instead you’ll enter a dense world of quiet beauty, where sandy longleaf pines sway and old oaks bend, where toads croak and birds chirp, and where alligators swim and manatees play.

Yes there’s a quiet, intimate beauty to be found in the Ocala National Forest and it’s sure to amaze you if you let it.

Keep on reading to explore this magical place.

Ocala National Forest Guide

About the Ocala National Forest

Ocala National Forest, Florida

Situated in north central Florida, the Ocala National Forest comprises 430,447 acres of immense beauty. Here visitors can discover a primeval forest teeming with rare birds, alligators, manatees, and jaw-droppingly beautiful natural springs.

Recreational Opportunities

  • Horseback Riding
  • Fishing
  • Hunting
  • OHV Driving (ATVs, Dirt bikes, etc)
  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Boating (kayaking, canoeing, motors, etc)
  • and so much more

Things to Know Before You Visit

Map: We use this one.

Downloadable Visitor Guide (courtesy USFS)

Entrance Fees: There are no entrance fees to get into Ocala National Forest. This is pretty typical for national forests. Some areas are designated fee areas, such as the popular springs in the forest, but no fees are required in the rest of the forest. If you’d like to be on the safe side you can purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks or online here). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee (annual pass).

Sunscreen: For many of us visiting national forests in the summer means lots of sun. Seriously, some of these parks can zap you if you don’t wear sunscreen. We happen to like this one because it works AND it’s not full of a bunch of chemicals.

Leave No Trace: We’re big fans of Leave No Trace, here at MTJP. Want to learn more? Read about the seven principals of Leave No Trace here.

Insect Repellent: You hope not to need it, but you want to have it. We typically bring an Eco-Friendly Insect Repellent with us just in case.

Dogs are allowed on national forests including Ocala.

Details About Ocala National Forest

Location: North Central Florida

Closest City: Ocala, Florida

Established: 1908

Size: 430,447 acres

Entrance Fees: Free

Ocala National Forest Map

ocala national forest map
Ocala National Forest Map

Where is Ocala National Forest?

The Ocala National Forest is located in North Central Florida next to the city of Ocala, Florida.

Getting to the Ocala National Forest – Directions & Location

With several major airports within easy driving distance and plenty of nearby conveniences, getting to the Ocala National Forest is no trouble.

Closest Airport (Daytona Beach): DAB – Daytona Beach International Airport (distance – less than 50 miles from the forest or about an hour driving)

2nd Closest Airport (Orlando): MCO – Orlando International Airport (distance – about 70 miles from the forest or an hour and fifteen minutes driving)

3rd Closest Airport (Jacksonville): JAX – Jacksonville International Airport (distance – about 100 miles from the forest or 2 hours driving)

The best way to get to the Ocala National Forest is by flying into any one of the nearby major airports and then driving the short distance to the forest.

Ocala Video

OCALA National Forest Film by More Than Just Parks

About the Ocala Video

This film was created by the team at More Than Just Parks in partnership with the Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau in an attempt to capture the beauty of the Ocala National Forest in a short film.

RELATED: 14 BREATHTAKING National Park Videos to Inspire Your Next Trip

Ocala Seasons & Weather

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A partly cloudy day on the Ocala

The weather in the Ocala National Forest can vary quite a bit, but visitors can count on a very mild winter, which can make the area particularly inviting during those months.

Spring tends to be hot and wet with plenty of biting insects, summer turns up the heat even more and adds frequent thunderstorms, fall is still quite hot with highs regularly in the upper 80’s, winter sees tings cool down and become a bit less humid.

Best Time to Visit the Ocala

The best time to visit the Ocala National Forest is during the Winter when the temperatures are mild and pleasant (high’s in the mid 70’s), crowd sizes are down, and the year-round constant temperature of the natural springs can continue to be enjoyed.

Ocala National Forest Seasons

Spring on the Ocala National Forest

Ocala in Spring

Spring is hot and humid in the Ocala National Forest and is also prime time for biting insects. That said, it’s not as hot as summer and the waters of the springs stay the same pleasant temperatures year round making for the perfect place to cool off.

Summer on the Ocala National Forest

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Ocala in Summer

Summer sees tourists and locals flock to the forests’ famed natural springs, with the most popular ones seeing cars lined up for nearly a mile in the morning before opening. The summer also brings soaring temperatures in this humid part of the country and no relief from biting insects.

Don’t let the high temps and potential crowds scare you off though. The forests trails are still relatively empty and I found that Juniper Springs was actually not crowded at all compared to the more popular Silver Glen Springs. Plus the natural springs offer the perfect place to cool off on those hot summer days.

Fall on the Ocala National Forest

blue egret, birds, wildlife ocala national forest
Ocala National Forest in Fall

Fall is a great time of year to visit the Ocala National Forest. Temperatures, while still very warm, are down from their scorching highs and most of the crowds have died down from the summer frenzy.

RELATED: 10+ Must See National Parks This Fall (A Stunning Guide)

Winter on the Ocala National Forest

alligator ocala national forest
Alligator in Ocala National Forest

Winter is the best time of year to visit the Ocala National Forest. Temperatures are pleasant with highs in the low 70’s and lows in the low 50’s. The summer crowds are long gone and so are the biting insects that can be so bothersome in the warmer months.

If you can go anytime, I recommend enjoying a nice respite from the cold in this underrated outdoor destination.

Best Things to Do On The Ocala National Forest

1. Soak in the Natural Springs

ocala swimming
Swimming in Silver Glen Springs

The most popular and iconic activity in the Ocala National Forest is swimming in the forest’s many natural springs. The crystal clear waters of these immaculate springs have been marveled upon by humans for thousands of years and are sure to blow you away when you visit.

The springs, especially Silver Glen, can get quite crowded in the summer months so we recommend the fall or winter if you want to soak in the beauty of the springs without the crowds.

2. Go Boating!

Silver Glen Springs | Ocala

Boating, whether it’s kayaking, canoeing, or motorized, is a terrific way to explore Ocala National Forest. With plenty of lakes, rivers, and places to rent boats, why not take one out for a spin?

Fishing is another popular activity on the Ocala and renting a boat is a great way to enjoy a day of fishing.

NOTE: Manatees are present in some areas of the forest and can be injured or killed by motorized boats if drivers aren’t careful. If you see a manatee it’s best to give them plenty of space.

If you want to observe them cut your motor and enjoy them from a distance (at least 50 ft away). For more information on manatee safety check out this helpful guide.

3. Explore the Forest Trails and Boardwalks

ocala national forest trail
Hiker in Ocala National Forest

There are numerous great hiking trails in the forest that provide visitors with an opportunity to enjoy the forest on a more intimate basis. Interpretive signs explain the flora and fauna around you and boardwalks offer opportunities to walk amidst marshlands and old cypress trees.

Note: Biting insects including ticks are abundant in the spring and summer months so if you plan on hiking then be sure to use tick repellent and take precautions to protect yourself.

We recommend Sawyer Products Picardin Repellent on your skin and Sawyer Products Permethrin Repellent to treat your clothes, especially your pants and boots. Both are proven highly effective against mosquitoes and ticks for 12 hours and are approved as safe to use by the EPA.

4. Go Wheeling

ATV at sunset | Ocala

4-wheeling, ATV riding, quad biking, or just plain wheeling is a popular past time in the Ocala National Forest. With miles of OHV trails and muddy terrain, there’s plenty of fun to be had behind the wheel of a ATV in Ocala.

5. Look for Wildlife

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Manatee | Ocala National Forest

Yes the Ocala National Forest is home to the gentle giants known as Manatees, but it’s also home to alligators, black bears, and countless rare and beautiful bird species.

Hiking trails, boating, and driving the forest roads are a great way to spot wildlife throughout the forest. You’re likely to see numerous woodpeckers, cranes, herons, and many other exciting bird species.

Note: Alligators are present throughout the forest and should never be approached. Attacks are rare but can be fatal. Stay vigilant and avoid startling or provoking alligators in any way.

Where to Stay – Camping & Lodging

Ocala Camping & Campgrounds

ocala national forest camping
Camping in the Ocala National Forest

The Ocala National Forest is home to 14 developed campgrounds and two cabins that can be rented.

Ocala Campgrounds

For more about camping on the Ocala visit the USFS camping page.

Ocala Cabins


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Rustic Cabin | Ocala

There are numerous affordable lodging options in nearby Ocala to suit any need.

Driving in Ocala National Forest

ocala florida
Ocala Roads & Driving

The Ocala National Forest has an interesting patchwork of paved and unpaved roads that take travelers to different areas of the forest. The main attractions, including the popular springs, are all accessible via paved roads.

Many unpaved roads in the forest can get washed out and easily flooded during rains so be sure to drive with caution and always be prepared.

Ocala National Forest Photos

Photos of the Ocala

Nearby Attractions

Summary | Leave us a Comment!

That’s a wrap folks! Hopefully I’ve given you enough of a nudge to check out this spectacular and underrated outdoor destination. Please leave me a comment below and let me know if you have any questions or comments.

Hope to see you on the trails sometime soon!

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Jim Pattiz

Co-Founder of More Than Just Parks. Filmmaker, Conservationist, Public Lands Enthusiast

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