When picturing a national forest, you’re likely imagining lush green trees and mossy forest floors covered in leaves with a cool mist rising above the treeline.
If so, then Ocala National Forest will turn that expectation upside down. Millions visit North Florida’s last remaining traces of wild land to discover why Ocala National Forest breaks the mold.
Keep reading to learn more about Ocala National Forest and why it should be next on your list of camping destinations!
About Ocala National Forest
Ocala National Forest is the second largest nationally protected forest in Florida, encompassing 607 square miles in the northern part of the state.
It’s the southernmost national forest in the country, evidenced by its consistently warm temperatures and marshy ecosystems.
The name Ocala is thought to be a term from the language of the early indigenous community of Florida, the Timucua people, meaning “fair land.”
Ocala National Forest Camping
No matter your camping preference, Ocala National Forest has you covered.
From dispersed and developed campsites to cabins to rent to RV hookups, there’s no doubt you’ll find your nook in the great outdoors!
1. Reserve One of the Best Ocala National Forest Camping Spots
It’s hard to narrow down the best Ocala National Forest camping spots since there are so many fabulous options to choose from.
But, of all of the developed camping areas, Juniper Springs takes the cake.
Surrounded by bubbling springs and miles of hiking trails, Juniper Springs is an excellent spot for families keen to take some nature walks and end the day with a dip in the crisp spring water.
Another fan-favorite Ocala National Forest camping spot is Clearwater Lake, where amenities are plentiful, and the water is clear and refreshing.
Other Camping Spots
2. Choose Among the Types of Ocala National Forest Camping
Of the 14 developed Ocala National Forest camping areas, only Salt Springs offers full RV hookups. However, Alexander Springs, Big Bass, Big Scrub, and Juniper Springs all have partial hookups.
The other Ocala National Forest camping sites, amenities vary from hot showers, wifi, and dump stations to total off-the-grid living.
The dispersed camping areas are available for folks looking to rough it in their own private corner of the forest.
However, dispersed camping comes with six tenents campers are implored to follow: leave no trace, be bear aware, minimize waste, camp considerately, control your campfire, and know the rules.
Group sites are also available for folks looking to celebrate birthdays, holidays, or family reunions out in nature.
In Ocala National Forest, you can camp all year round for up to 14 days at a time at one site. Price ranges from totally free to $20 a night, depending on the level of services offered.
Camping tip: Unlike many other national forests around the country, Ocala National Forest has cabin rentals available at Lake Dorr and Sweetwater recreation sites for a more stress-free, luxurious camping experience.
Things To Do At Ocala National Forest
Florida’s reputation for weather proceeds itself. The winters are mild enough for family camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities in Ocala National Forest, only dropping to 50 °F on average.
When summer temperatures roll around, water sports, swimming, or just hanging out on the beach is a great way to cool off in the hot, humid weather.
If you aren’t used to this climate, don’t worry! All it means is that you can enjoy Ocala National Forest camping all year long.
Oh, and that you should probably pack a few different swimsuits and a wide-brimmed hat.
3. Visit Sightseeing Destinations
Talking about the sights to see in a place as beautiful as Ocala National Forest seems redundant. Isn’t just being there sightseeing?
Well, sure. But there are a few standout spots you’ll want to hit in and around Ocala National Forest.
If you’re a fan of old westerns, you’ll be happy to hear that The Yearling was filmed right in Ocala!
In fact, The Yearling Trail near Juniper Springs is open for hiking and allows folks to travel the same paths the characters took.
For folks with an affinity for the paranormal, Kerr City is a ghost town located within the forest off the banks of Lake Kerr.
Kerr City once flourished as an orange-growing after the civil war, but the freeze of 1894 forced the community to abandon the town completely.
Now, it sits empty and supposedly haunted, serving as a well-preserved snapshot into centuries past.
Another sight you certainly don’t wait to miss is the natural hot springs of Silver Glen. The crystal clear water maintains a temperature of 73°F year round.
The last but not the least Ocala National Forest sightseeing recommendation to check out on your camping trip is the Juniper Springs Millhouse.
The millhouse was built in 1935 by the now-disbanded Civilian Conservation Corps to generate electricity while retaining the forest’s natural beauty.
The CCCs was a group created by President Roosevelt to provide work programs to young men to improve America’s public lands, forests, and parks.
The Juniper Springs Millhouse is now a historic landmark of Ocala National Forest, a testament to early America’s tenacity and innovation.
4. Enjoy the Available Activities
On the Water
In and around the Ocala National Forest camping areas, there are over 600 different natural lakes, ponds, streams, and springs to enjoy.
Whether you’re a seasoned sportsman or you want to try something new, there is an activity in the water you can enjoy.
The waters of Ocala are known for their excellent bass fishing. But remember, the forest is a wildlife management area, so the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manages hunting and fishing activities.
If fishing isn’t your cup of tea, try your hand at canoeing, boating, water skiing, snorkeling, scuba diving, and swimming!
There are even boat ramps where you can bring and use your personal watercraft.
You won’t want to miss out on the warm, clear waters of Ocala National Forest, so be sure to toss some goggles and flippers in your daypack!
Hit the Trails
Out of the water, Ocala National Forest offers miles and miles of trails for campers to take advantage of.
The Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail is a 22-mile loop around the southern part of the forest, from Alexander Springs to Clearwater Lake.
It’s a tough ride, but it is a significant diamond in the rough for mountain bikers looking for new adventures!
If motorized vehicles are more your style, Ocala National Forest has two well-equipped trail systems to ride off-highway vehicles.
The Ocala North OHV Trail System is the area’s top dog of OHV trails. It boasts 125 miles worth of trail loops for an all-day OHV experience.
Or, take on the Ocala North trail piece by piece, stopping at some camping areas along the way!
The second trail system, the Wandering Wiregrass OHV Trail, is a much shorter loop, totaling 17 miles.
This trail is perfect for beginners or folks looking to survey all the outdoor activities that Ocala National Forest has to offer.
For the equestrians in your group, there are several trails open for horseback riding throughout the forest, as well as designated equestrian Ocala National Forest camping sites.
The Ocala 100 Mile Horse Trail is a popular way to travel for more advanced riders, while the LAM (Lake Alachua Marion) Trail is perfect for a quick trip.
On foot, there are dozens of day hiking destinations alongside the longer, multi-day hikes that wind through the forest.
Almost 100 miles of the National Scenic Florida Trail run through Ocala National Forest, making it a hotspot for backpacking!
Camping tip: Some recreational activities require a pass or permit, so make sure you check the Forest Service website to see what you need!
Wildlife of Ocala National Forest
5. Learn About Types of Wildlife and Vegetation
As the acreage of wild spaces in Florida dwindles, the Ocala National Forest has become a haven for animals and animal lovers.
The population of endangered Florida black bears is at its highest concentration here in the forest, along with lots of larger mammals, including coyotes, foxes, possums, armadillos, otters, bobcats, and skunks!
But, there are two animals that Florida is most notorious for, and both are plentiful here in Ocala National Forest: alligators and manatees.
Ocala National Forest is home to many endangered or protected species, most notably, the blue Calamintha bee.
This bee species is extraordinarily rare, only having been spotted in Ocala in the last four field seasons. Conservation efforts have since ramped up to keep this special critter thriving.
The vegetation that feeds and supports the blue Calamintha bee are themselves rare.
Both the Ashe’s calamint and false rosemary are extremely rare to come across but are home to the blue Calamintha and can be found in Ocala National Forest.
The forest is made up of two ecoregions: southeastern conifer forests and the Florida sand pine scrub.
Additionally, four wilderness areas belonging to the National Wilderness Preservation System can be found in Ocala National Forest: Alexander Springs Wilderness, Billies Bay Wilderness, Juniper Prairie Wilderness, and Little Lake George Wilderness.
Camping tip: Ocala National Forest is the world’s largest contiguous scrub forest, so don’t miss out on the chance to observe all the botanical wonders the forest holds!
6. Safely Observe the Wildlife
Ocala National Forest is prime real estate for wildlife observation, especially bird watching!
Florida scrub jays and red-cockaded woodpeckers call the forest home, species that have watched their habitat rapidly shrink throughout the rest of the state.
If bird watching isn’t your thing, there are 17 other areas designated for safe wildlife viewing throughout the forest, where park service staff are available for support and education.
Plan Your Ocala National Forest Camping Trip!
Ocala National Forest camping is a truly unique opportunity to explore national forests from a new angle.
In Ocala, forest meets swampland to create a sanctuary for endangered flora and fauna, curious campers, and eager sportsmen alike.
After reading our camping guide, you’re ready to experience the wonder for yourself!
For more on other great national forests to vacation in, visit our Campground Guides page.