Use a canoe or kayak to explore the beauty of central Florida’s Ocala National Forest.
By Gordon and Janet Groene, F47266
Oceans are dazzling, but travelers who venture beyond Florida’s beaches into its heartland will find that the state is strung on skeins of water. It’s a good bet that your campsite in Ocala National Forest will be on or very near a creek, river, spring run, canal, or wetland that teems with wildlife. If you have seen only the beaches of the Sunshine State, take a closer look inland.
First, let’s get oriented. Ocala National Forest is several miles east of the city of Ocala. It’s even closer to Silver Springs, Florida’s oldest tourist attraction and still a stellar destination. Orlando is an hour to the south, Daytona Beach an hour east, and Jacksonville 1-1/2 hours north.
The mighty St. Johns River, which widens at one point to form Lake George, marks the eastern boundary of the national forest. It’s bordered on the south by State Route 42. State Route 19 is the main north-south path, and State Route 40 crosses it from east to west. The Ocklawaha River forms the northwest border.
It’s easy to drive all the way through the national forest without seeing anything remarkable. Unlike the awesome mountains, massive redwoods, and lush woodlands of other national forests, this one is flat and seemingly featureless, except for the occasional stand of ordinary-looking trees. It isn’t until you get out of the motorhome and let the forest come to you that you become aware of the strong, but subtle, dramas that are played out there.
No roads run parallel to the waterways that canoeists and kayakers use in this forest. They’re left in a primitive condition to let everyone enjoy an unspoiled environment. The canoe and kayak streams begin with clear, fresh springs that well up out of nowhere and ramble for miles, often through tunnels of cool greenery. The current does most of the work. Just paddle enough to stay on course while being wowed by one wildlife sighting after another. At wide places in the stream, leggy birds stalk small fish and turtles slumber in the sun on fallen logs. If a “log” has no turtles resting on it, look more closely. It may be an alligator, soaking up the sun. Please, don’t feed it.
Songbirds in the trees scold your passage. Far overhead, the sky swirls with life and sudden death. A hawk swoops to the ground and struggles skyward with a writhing snake in its talons. An osprey appears out of nowhere, plunges into a stream, and emerges with a plump fish that is promptly stolen, midair, by a bald eagle.
Prairies buzz with insects. Pine woods are a-skitter with small mammals. Squirrels are the most abundant, but deer, foxes, black bears, and even rare Florida panthers make their homes in the forest. Raccoons watch from behind their masks as you ghost by, then go back to washing whatever morsels they’ve found for dinner. You may even see a monkey, a descendent of those brought here in the 1930s and ’40s for the filming of Tarzan movies at Silver Springs.
Manatees prefer the springs, especially in winter when cold weather sends them out of the river and in search of water that stays a constant 72 degrees year-round.
In the silence of the forest, the only sound is the sibilant whisper of flowing water.
Canoe rentals are available at Salt Springs Marina, Alexander Springs, Silver Glen Springs, Juniper Springs, and Clearwater Lake. Paddles, personal flotation devices (life preservers), and return transportation are supplied. If you bring your own canoe or kayak, you can arrange to have your boat re-hauled (returned to the point of origin after your run) at Alexander Springs and Juniper Springs.
Each stream is different. Alexander Springs Creek begins as a broad, slow-moving stream that becomes more narrow and deep downstream. Juniper Creek begins narrow, then ends more than 100 feet wide. Salt Springs Run will take you five miles before it empties into Lake George. When traveling by canoe or kayak, we prefer to leave streams before they empty into larger rivers or lakes, where motorboat traffic or choppy waters can be a problem. The Salt Springs Run has a slow current that permits you to paddle back upstream to the marina, if you like. Powerboats are also rented at the Salt Springs marina, so you might share the run with them.
The upper and lower portions of the Ocklawaha River also are used for canoeing.
Whichever waterways you choose, be sure to get local advice about the route before you start out. Decide ahead of time where you will turn around, or how you will have the canoe returned to the marina. Ask about rules regarding food and drink and suggested pull-out sites for picnicking.
Consider taking your canoe excursion during the week, when you’re most likely to have the waterways to yourself.
When you pack your canoe, be prepared for capsizing by keeping cameras and other expensive gear in waterproof sacks. Wear a brimmed hat and socks under sturdy shoes. The shores of most canoe trails are tangles of trees, scrub, and bog “” not pleasant to bare feet. Protect your skin by using sunblock and wearing gloves to help prevent blisters during very long paddling sessions. Knee pads are also useful.
Be prepared for seasonal weather, too. In summer, afternoon thunderstorms are common; winter brings sudden wind shifts or cold fronts. Insects are a constant scourge, especially in summer.
If you’re a power boater, you can fish, ski, or cruise the St. Johns and Ocklawaha rivers and a number of lakes.
Nearby attractions in the town of Ocala also will make you want to linger in this area. Ocala offers good shopping at a big mall and elsewhere, and restaurants of all kinds. It’s also home to the Appleton Museum of Art, one of the South’s best art museums. The museum is open daily; general admission is $6, and $4 for those over 55. Phone (352) 236-7100 or visit www.appletonmuseum.org for more information.
If you’re headed for Walt Disney World in Orlando, you can get a jump start by stopping at the Disney welcome center located off Interstate 75 at Ocala to get tickets and information. And speaking of theme parks, Silver Springs is a major theme park that is worth at least a day’s visit. It is the original home of the glass-bottom boat. In addition to voyages to see the beauty of crystal-clear waters teeming with wildlife, the park also offers visitors trained bird shows; a jeep safari; and animal exhibits. You also can stroll the gardens, which change with each season. Don’t miss the historic exhibit to see clips from many movies (including several Tarzan films) and TV shows (such as “Sea Hunt”) that were filmed here from the 1930s through the 1970s. (The park is open daily; phone 352-236-2121 or visit www.silversprings.com for more information.)
Few parts of the nation are undergoing as intense a population explosion as central Florida. Thanks to Ocala National Forest, a vast wilderness will remain forever green.
Ocklawaha Visitors Center
County Road 315 and State Route 40 East
Silver Springs, FL 34488
The Ocala National Forest has approximately 20 campgrounds with water available, but Salt Springs campground is the only one with electrical hookups. Commercial campgrounds near the forest include a KOA at Silver Springs. For campground listings, check the FMC Business Directory, found in this issue and online at FMCA.com, or check your campground directory under Ocala, Palatka, Silver Springs, and Umatilla.
A map of Ocala National Forest may be purchased at visitors centers for $6 plus tax; or by phoning (352) 236-0288. User (entrance) fees are discounted with Golden Age and Golden Access passports. Hunting and fishing licenses are not available at the visitors centers and must be purchased from the state. Licenses may be purchased over the phone with a credit card; phone (888) 486-8356 to buy a hunting license and (888) 347-4356 for a fishing license.
Other activities available at the park include:
* Bicycling all or part of the 22-mile-long Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail. It is not paved but is suitable for mountain bikes.
* Hiking some of the area’s walking trails. The two-mile-long Salt Springs Observation Trail is good for spotting wading birds like herons and egrets. The Lake Eaton Sinkhole Trail leads through sand pine and scrub oak forest to a dry sinkhole that is 80 feet deep and 450 feet across. Descend the sinkhole to find a world of unusual plants. The Lake Eaton Loop Trail wanders through several plant communities. The St. Francis Trail passes the site of a pioneer railroad town along the St. Johns River. The Yearling Trail visits Pats Island, where moonshiners once conducted a brisk trade with passing riverboats.
* Horseback riding on more than 100 miles of available trails. Riders may bring their own horses. Guided trail rides are offered by local outfitters.