The Ocala National Forest (ONF) covers 607 square miles (383,000 acres) of central Florida. Established in 1908, it is the oldest national forest east of the Mississippi River and the southernmost national forest in the continental U.S. The word Ocala is thought to be a Timucuan Indian term meaning "fair land" or "big hammock"
Boardwalk through a Floodplain Forest
The ONF is the most visited national forest in Florida with millions of people entering it annually to partake of just about every type of recreational activity known to man including hiking, camping, mountain biking, swimming in the springs, horseback riding, ATV trail riding, canoeing/kayaking, and motor boating. Just to show that almost anything is allowed in national forests, the navy's Pinecastle Bombing Range is located in the ONF. The range is a fenced 5,760 acres area, with its eastern edge located about 2 miles west of state road 19 and the Camp Ocala campgrounds, and one-half mile west of the Farles Lake campground. The Navy drops nearly 20,000 bombs a year at the site, a few hundred of which are live. Jet fighters and other aircraft take off from the naval air station in Jacksonville or from aircraft carriers
off the Florida coast, fly low over the forest, and drop their bombs in the middle 450 acres of the range.
Although much of the ONF is quite dry, it contains over 600 natural lakes, ponds, swamps, and springs and a number of streams and rivers. The St. Johns River forms the eastern boundary of the forest and widens out to form Lake George. The Ocklawaha River forms the western boundary and in the north where it is blocked by the Rodman dam, serves as the ONF’s northern boundary. Several large springs emanate from limestone that underlies the sand hills and these are the source of streams known as spring runs that flow to the St. Johns River. The rivers support dense floodplain forests of bald cypress and swamp tupelo along their banks.
The geology of Florida has been largely shaped over the past 20 million years by large fluctuations in sea level. During high sea-level stands, most of the state was inundated and during low stands, the coast of Florida was located 100 miles west of where it is today. The Mount Dora Ridge in the ONF consists of a number of large sandhills that trend northwest/southeast. It is actually an ancient shoreline created during a high sea-level stand. The sandhills are very dry because as rain falls on the land, it drains through the porus sands and sinkholes to the underlying limestone of the Floridan aquifer. This is why you'll notice very few streams of any size as you hike through the ONF on the Florida Trail. The many prairie
ponds you encounter are sinkholes formed as the underlying limestone dissolved causing the sands to slump down to form a depression.
The highlight of the ONF for many people is its many spectacular springs, three of which are known as first magnitude because they discharge more than 100 cubic feet per second (60 million gallons per day). Once water seeps into the aquifer through the porus sands and sinkholes, it flows for many miles through natural conduits in the limestone, where it eventually emerges as springs. The crystal-clear water and the year round 72-degree temperature draws hordes of heat-weary Floridians during the long summers. The water that emerges from the springs forms streams known as spring runs that eventually reach the St. John’s River. The abundance of water at each spring and spring run creates a Tarzan-like jungle of floodplain hardwood forests that are like oases in the midst of the dry, open pine woods that dominate much of the ONF.
The ONF is dominated by dry and open longleaf pine and sand pine scrub forests that cover gently rolling sandhills. The largest concentration of sand pine in the world as well as some of the best remaining stands of longleaf pine in central Florida are located here. Fire is critical to maintaining these forests, and without it, oak hammocks, small stands of thick evergreen oaks, would quickly become dominant. The ONF has a wide variety of wildlife including a large population of black bear. Other animals include alligator, white-tailed deer, wild boar, squirrels, bats, coyote, gray fox, red fox,
Alexander Springs opossum, raccoon, river otter, southeastern pocket gopher and the gopher tortise.
The Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest
The Florida Trail in the ONF crosses the forest’s southern boundary at Clearwater Lake, where construction on the first segment of the Florida Trail was begun in 1966. The trail leaves the forest at the Rodman Trail head, a distance of 65.7 miles. The highlights of the hike are Alexander Springs, Juniper Springs, and Salt Springs, each of which has a top-notch campground. The entire trail is open during hunting season but hikers should wear blaze orange. Camping is permitted anywhere along the trail except during general gun hunting season (mid November through mid January). Camping during this period is permitted only at developed campgrounds along the trail including Clearwater Lake, Alexander Springs, Buck Lake, Farles Prairie, Juniper Springs, Hopkins Prairie, Salt Springs, and Lake Delancy. All food and scented items should be bagged and suspended high off the ground due to the presence of bears.
Maps and Trail Guides
Maps of sections of the Florida Trail and a trail guidebook are available for purchase from the Florida Trail Association (floridatrail.org). These are excellent maps and are indispensable when hiking any section of the Florida Trail. Maps of the trail in the ONF include #19 Ocala North, Hopkins Campground to Buckman Lock, and #20, Ocala South, County Road 42 to Hopkins Campground.
Carl Dunlap, (352) 427-2990