Between the city of Ocala—known for its farms producing some of the world’s finest horses—and the eastern coast of Florida lies a vast forested region containing a variety of wildlands and natural delights. It’s Ocala National Forest, and it’s a place as diverse as it is large, with a history all its own but emblematic of the greater natural and social history of Florida and the entire South. One of the protected lands of the US Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture (and thus not related to the National Park Service which falls under the Department of the Interior), the Ocala National, established in 1908, is the oldest Forest Service property east of the Mississippi River and also the southernmost national forest.
Unlike the National Park Service, the US Forest Service properties often have private landholdings within them, and in the case of the Ocala National, a number of entire towns exist in the reaches of the forest. More than simply a land for wildlife preservation and recreation, it’s a string of small, tightly-knit communities and its history intersects with that of famed author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and other Florida luminaries. It is also the site of a small US Navy reservation, the Pinecastle Range, the only property on the east coast the Navy has where it can do live-fire bombing exercises from its aircraft. Even for so vast a land, it has an almost unbelievable amount of things going on within its borders.
Many visitors wonder why the Navy has a bombing range in the midst of a national protected land, but the range has not disturbed the recreational value of the rest of the Ocala National in the least—it’s far too isolated in the deepest heart of the forest for that. Also, it has been a fixture in the forest for decades, and takes its name of Pinecastle, not from the expected bounty of pine trees on its acres but because it was established as the bombing range for an Army Air Corps base south of Orlando by that same name. When the air base was closed (that air base is now Orlando International Airport, by the way) and no longer needed its remote range, the range passed to the Navy who did require it for their own pilot training missions. It’s easy to forget it’s even there, except now and then one will see an F/A-18 fighter jet zoom over the treetops on its way to Pinecastle.
Despite the name, not all of the Forest is even a forest: aside from towns such as Lynne and Astor within the forest, there are a number of freshwater springs, including four that can be visited for swimming and snorkeling: Juniper Springs, Salt Springs, Alexander Springs, and Silver Glen Springs. These springs have been provided with recreation areas by the Forest Service—the ones at Juniper, Salt Springs, and Alexander include bathrooms with running water, concessions, and other facilities, while Silver Glen is more primitive, with only the very basics.
Still, Silver Glen is one of the prettiest of all of Florida’s many beautiful springs and is renowned for its amazing numbers of fish which are often seen swimming in the springs early in the morning or later into sunny afternoons. This spring flows into Lake George, one of the largest lakes in Florida, which in turn flows into the St. Johns River, one of the most-important rivers in the state. Alexander Springs in contrast is secluded deep into the southern portion of the Forest and appears to the eye at first as a fairly shallow lagoon, but once you swim out to its center and dive down, a whole other world becomes apparent, with deep gullies and jagged rock formations providing clues to the karst formations from which Florida’s springs are formed.
At Juniper Springs a millhouse and spring-pond crafted out of local timber and stone by the Civilian Conservation Corps enclose the spring and protect it while its spring-run powers the mill’s wheel. The surrounding forest is very scenic and perfect for short hikes, with paths winding around to smaller springs where animals such as turtles, raccoons, and alligators may be seen. Black bears, often seen throughout the Ocala National, are especially common in this area, but with proper stewardship from rangers and ample respect from visitors (no feeding!), they are not dangerous. Family and youth group camping areas are provided at the Juniper Springs Recreation Area, and it has always been my personal favorite out of the many places to camp and visit within the Ocala National.
Just across the road from the entrance to Silver Glen Springs is the Yearling Trail’s trailhead. This trail leads hikers to where the rural homestead of the Longs once stood, a family farm in the middle of this forest where this hardy settler family raised cattle and grew crops for a humble but proud Florida Cracker life. Marjorie K. Rawlings knew the Long family and visited them a number of times, and on one visit the Long’s son had a yearling deer he’d found and was keeping as a pet, which inspired Rawlings’ now-famous work of Floridian literature, The Yearling.
While the Long’s house and barns are now long gone, the family cemetery is still extant as is a cattle dip trough used to dip cattle with insecticide to protect them against Florida’s relentless bugs. The description of the lay of the land and specifics of the hard life of early settlers detailed in The Yearling were taken from direct observation by Mrs. Rawlings here as well as her own experiences as a farmer at her home in Cross Creek.
While there are ample places one can find complete solitude in the Ocala National, the aforementioned towns—especially Astor and Lynne—offer necessary provisions and diversions. The Blackwater Inn, a local favorite, is not an inn actually but a seafood restaurant. In a style akin to such restaurants in decades past, it offers quality American cuisine with an emphasis on not only seafood but steak and items such as quail. Triggerfish, when in season down in the Florida Keys, is a specialty here and is hard to find in this part of Florida otherwise. Blackwater Inn’s smoked fish dip also is a favorite and very much worth getting no matter what else one orders, and their bar is also especially popular. Situated on the St. Johns River, the views are second-to-none as well.
Some communities in the Forest didn’t make it, however, and Kerr City, despite its urban name, is a very interesting case. A cotton plantation during the Civil War, the town was planned here in the 1880’s, since it was on the stagecoach route between the St. Johns River and Ocala, and a sawmill, post office, churches, and other trappings of society were constructed. However, aside from the sawmill, which processed local timber, the big business was to be citrus—which lasted about a decade until the bitter freeze of 1894-95 proved citrus to be too frail a crop for this far north in Florida (the same freeze took out citrus groves in Alachua County to the immediate north, as well, ending the rise of several small communities there). Today what’s left of Kerr City is on private land and the only means of exploring it is with express permission of the landowner, but a number of the old buildings remain intact. Kerr City is instrumental as an illustration of settlers’ efforts to make a living in what would later become the Ocala National Forest.
The Forest offers so much and such diversity to all who come to it: from families vacationing who wish to see wildlife or the famed springs to those who live in quiet Astor or Lynne to those who ply their boats up and down the St Johns or canoe the Okalawaha River. It’s one of the South’s great wildernesses and one that deserves even wider renown than it has gathered, and it welcomes visitors to see the true heart of Florida.
See More Mike Walker Photos of Ocala National Forest Here