Once considered a dusty Central Florida cow town, Ocala is an adventurer’s paradise with rolling hills, horse farms, the Ocala National Forest, and one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions, Silver Springs State Park. It may not fit with your idea of a typical Florida vacation spot lined with beaches and palm trees. However, Ocala will pleasantly surprise you when visiting this charming destination packed with natural beauty and fun.
Silver Springs State Park
Northwest of Orlando and south of Gainesville, Ocala is surrounded by acres and acres of fenced-lined horse pastures. Known as the “horse capital of the world,” more than 700 horse farms dot the Marion County landscape ranging from small two-acre farms to the largest spread of 4,500 acres. This area is also home to the Ocala National Forest, the second-largest national forest in the U.S. with hiking, biking, kayaking, crystal clear springs, lakes, and rivers. Not far from the horse farms and the pine forests you’ll also find one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions, Silver Springs State Park. These amenities along with easy access and reasonably priced accommodations and restaurants, make Ocala an ideal getaway.
Silver Springs State Park
Silver Springs State Park
Launch your visit with a nostalgic tour of “old Florida” by cruising in a vintage glass-bottom boat at the Silver Springs State Park. The boat captain touts the history and ecological features as visitors peer down at the bubbly springs and wonders below. Fish and turtles glide through the seagrass while an occasional alligator, or manatee, swims below.
Glass bottom boat, Silver Springs
Glass bottom boats peer into the wonders below
Originally settled by Native Americans, the area has been excavated by archeologists who discovered artifacts! Some date back to 10,000 B.C., and others span history to the opening of the tourist attraction in the 1820s when paddlewheel steamboats brought tourists to the park. Giant overhanging oak trees draped in moss, tall cypress trees, and park gardens line the river that once created a perfect backdrop for old Hollywood films such as Tarzan and Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Silver River Museum
If you want to discover more about the area, its history, and geology, stop by the nearby Silver River Museum (at the Silver River State Park) featuring exhibits, displays, and a Florida Cracker Homestead (open weekends). Stroll through the exhibits demonstrating the wonder of the Florida aquifer, fossil displays including a huge mammoth skeleton, an ancient dugout canoe, and historical retrospectives that chronicle the earliest human settlements up to the present day.
Silver River Museum Florida Cracker Homestead
Outside, wander through an 1800’s rural frontier setting and Florida Cracker Homestead complete with a schoolhouse, church, a blacksmith shop, smokehouse, and cracker homes.
Ocala National Forest
Pine forest, Ocala National Forest
The Ocala National Forest is known as the “the big scrub” by virtue of its dense Florida sand pine scrub, which is considered one of the most endangered ecosystems in Florida.
Ocklawaha River, Ocala National Forest
Bordered by the Ocklawaha River on the west, and the St. Johns River on the east, the forest provides year-around recreation with nearly 400,000 acres, 600 lakes, rivers, and three first-magnitude springs. If you are seeking adventure by canoe or kayak, you are in for a wonderful paddle through spectacular scenery.
Ocala offers many opportunities for kayaking
This Forest is also considered one of the state’s best destinations for hiking. In fact, hikers can trek 73 miles along the Florida Trail through stunning Ocala wilderness. The Forest’s diverse ecosystems offer unique habitats for a wide variety of plants and animals. Threatened species such as the manatee, black bear (Ocala National Forest has the largest concentration in the U.S.), the Florida Scrub-Jay, and the gopher tortoise call it home.
Juniper Spring swim hole
Four major springs, referred to as the “jewels of the Ocala National Forest,” are the Juniper, Alexander, Silver Glen, and Salt Springs. They offer refreshing retreats during the summer when swimmers bathe in the cool 72-degree water.
Juniper Springs Run
This Florida treasure is located in the Juniper Springs Wilderness area where the vibrant turquoise blue headspring is surrounded by a swimming hole, historic Millhouse, and picnic area.
To appreciate this beauty, paddle a kayak or canoe down the Juniper Springs Run, a slow-moving, winding creek that will gently carry you through breathtaking scenery. You’ll paddle through twists and turns surrounded by pristine and lush forested hammocks; you’ll glide under fallen trees and past fields of colorful wildflowers. Shafts of sunlight will shine through overhanging branches illuminating crystal clear water and a shallow sandy bottom below. This one-way, four-hour trip will then wind through the park’s Prairie Wilderness Area eventually flowing to the Wayside Park.
Juniper Springs Run, a seven-mile kayak trip
Alexander Springs Timucuan Trail
A shallow pool and sandy beach surround the crystal blue Alexander Spring making it popular for family swimming and diving. The seven-mile Alexander Creek flows from the spring to the St. John’s River with easy access for boating. Adjacent to the spring, the Timucuan Trail is ideal for a short hike surrounded by semi-tropical vegetation. Interpretive signs share information about the indigenous Timucuan culture that once inhabited the area. They also identify live vegetation used by the natives in their diet.
Fed by nine vertical fissures rising out of the earth, Salt Springs, named for its slight salinity from various minerals and sodium salts, was believed to have medicinal value by early tourists. A boat ramp and marina provide easy access to Lake George, the second largest lake in Florida, with prime fishing, a spacious campground, and RV hookups.
Silver Glen Springs
Silver Glen Springs
Available for day use, this vibrant turquoise spring contrasts with the surrounding green oaks, cedar, and pine trees. Connected to Lake George, it attracts a mix of fresh and saltwater fish and during the winter manatees often congregate here seeking respite from the cooler St. John’s River.
Looking to learn even more about Florida’s natural springs? Check it out here!
There are many hiking trails in the Ocala Forest, but two provide contrasting views of the forest’s diverse beauty:
The Ocala National Forest has many trails for hiking
Across from the entrance to Silver Glen Springs is The Yearling Trail. It is situated in the midst of thousands of acres of scrub that once provided inspiration for writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s 1938 novel, The Yearling. The Pulitzer prize-winning story follows a real-life Florida family who homesteaded in this scrub in the 1870s. Hikers can see remnants of the homestead while enjoying the scrub terrain, pristine pine and hardwood forests.
Florida hammock, St. Francis Trail
The St. Francis Trail, located in the southeastern corner of the Ocala National Forest passes through six distinct Florida ecosystems including oak hammocks, swamps, river floodplains, hardwood forests, scrub, and pine Flatwoods. Keep an eye out for scrub jays, red-tailed hawks, pileated woodpeckers, and red-winged blackbirds. An added bonus is that the trail eventually leads to the remains of a turn-of-the-century port town on the St. John River floodplain. In the late 1800s, the town of St. Francis was a thriving port town where steamboats traveled from Jacksonville along with the St. Johns.
Ocala is a Florida horse country
Ocala is Florida’s horse country, and a drive through this world-class horse capital will quickly help you understand what drives this region. Some say it’s the nutrient-rich Florida limestone soil that creates healthier grass for stronger horses. Others believe it’s Ocala’s equestrian history and close-knit tradition that has nurtured a legacy of winners. No matter what the reason, during your visit you’re sure to learn more about horses and the “behind the fence” industry that drives it.
Ride the Greenway
BG Trail Rides, Florida Park, near the Greenway
The 110-mile corridor of the Florida Greenway extends across Florida from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. John’s River, running through Marion County and next to Ocala’s 500-acre Florida Horse Park. The Park sits next to the Greenway and is a major destination for equestrian riding and major events. Inside the Horse Park BG Trail Rides provides horses to help you saddle up and enjoy a ride along the Greenway, take in scenic views while breathing in the fresh air. Meander through miles of scrub, under shady trees, through green hammocks and oak forests. If you prefer hiking or bike riding, this is your place. BG Trail Rides offers a reasonably priced basic one-hour guided trail ride. You can also opt for the custom trail ride.
Sit in Comfort on a Carriage Ride
Horse Country Carriage Company tours guests through the countryside
If horseback riding is not your pleasure, try a more comfy horse-drawn carriage ride. Ocala’s Kimberden Farms, a premier training facility and home to the University of Florida Equestrian Team, is also where the Horse Country Carriage Company begins its tour. There you’ll board a carriage while equestrian riders walk, jump and groom their horses. Once you exit the farm gates, you’ll ride by some of Ocala’s most prestigious farms and through the rolling hills of Marion County past pastures speckled with horses. The friendly, personable guide is an encyclopedia of history, equestrian facts, and fun stories. The clip-clop of the horse’s hooves evokes a magical feeling as you ride riding under a canopy of shady trees. And best of all, your guide will bring you near the fence lines so that you can pat and admire the elegant horses that happily greet you.
Go with an Insider
For another unique “behind the gates” experience, try Farm Tours of Ocala. Owner Karen Grimes is a local expert and industry insider, who personally shuttles guests in her comfortable van while touring through horse country. She visits thoroughbred racehorse farms, sophisticated equine breeding farms, and event facilities that focus on sport horses.
Hope Hall Farm
Hope Hall Farm
If you only have time to visit one local farm, consider a stop at Hope Hall Farm. Here, German owners, Traudel Bongers and Thomas Stenebach train horses and riders for worldwide competitions. Majestic horses gallop through manicured pastures surrounded by shady oaks. This facility also serves as an equine quarantine facility for those animals entering the United States. Hope Hall also serves as a Bed & Breakfast Inn so to arrange a visit or plan a stay, call ahead.
More Places to Stay In Ocala
Both the Holiday Inn Conference Center Ocala and the Courtyard by Marriott offer easy access off of I-75. Accommodations are comfortable, clean and both have restaurants on the premises. Also, the BG Sun Plaza Motel is clean, retro-inspired with easy access to the Ocala National Forest.
Places to Dine
Walnut Shrimp, Sky Fusion restaurant
At the Holiday Inn Conference Center consider the Sky Fusion Restaurant, a Golden Spoon award winner, located on the top floor. An eclectic variety of Asian inspired cuisine ranges from Orange Chicken, Walnut Shrimp to Pan Seared Citrus Scallops dished up daily earning Golden Spoon Awards.
The Artisanal Dish (Blue Wagyu) is an organic fresh restaurant serving locally raised Blue Wagyu beef (a form of Kobe beef). Try any of the organic salads, the Wagyu Steak sandwich, and the Mile High Mac & Cheese.
The Horse and Hounds Restaurant is where Ocala locals lunch. Popular menu items include the Spinach Salad, BBQ Ribs (cooked in citrus mojo), and Shepard’s Pie while you enjoy the ambiance and equestrian decor.
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