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Florida's Pristine Parks: Ocala National Forest

Get more out of your Ocala National Forest visit by exploring must-see parks, preserves, and refuges nearby.

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A camper laces up to explore the sand pine landscape of Ocala National Forest.

The Ocala National Forest, north of Orlando, is the world's largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest at nearly 383,000 acres. That means that a sand ridge of dunes, which were once a chain of islands before the sea retreated 25 million years ago, runs through an area primarily populated by sand pines. But while the land has an ancient feel, the wonder here is water. Ocala is home to four major springs—Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs, Salt Springs, and Silver Glen Springs—as well as more than 600 lakes, rivers, and waterways. Best Bet: Rent a canoe on-site and hit Juniper Run, picked as a top 25 canoe run in the U.S. by ReserveAmerica. From Juniper Springs, paddle under a canopy of old-growth forest as the narrow waterway winds seven miles to the take-out off FL-19.

When to Go: Hours vary by season at the Pittman Visitor Center, campgrounds, and recreation areas. Spring and fall are popular for the temperate weather. Inside Tip: Fall is hunting season, so follow posted warning signs and take extra precautions when hiking in the forest.

Must Dos: Swim in a spring. Ocala is home to first-magnitude springs (each discharging at least 64.6 million gallons per day), including one of the most accessible in the state, Alexander Springs. To take a dip, dive, or snorkel, stop by the Alexander Springs Recreation Area (use fee: $5.50 per person.) Best Bet: Salt Springs Campground, the largest overnight spot in the forest, is the only camping area with full RV hookups (106 sites), plus capacity for up to 54 tents.

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Fun Fact: Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings got the idea for The Yearling (1938, reprint by Aladdin, 2001) while staying with the last two inhabitants of Pat’s Island in the forest in 1933. See the setting that inspired Rawlings by hiking the island’s Yearling Trail.

Nearby Nature

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The birthplace of the glass-bottom boat, Silver Springs State Park also offers kayak and canoe rentals for exploring the Silver River.

Photograph by Matt Moyer, National Geographic Travel

Rice Creek Conservation Area

Rice Creek Conservation Area covers 5,061 acres along Rice Creek, about eight miles west of Palatka. In the 18th century, the parcel was developed as an indigo and rice plantation and later became lands for pine-timber harvesting. Seventy percent of the conservation area is covered by Rice Creek Swamp, but trails and simple boardwalks (only for agile and able walkers) provide pathways for hikers, bikers, horseback riders, and campers. Inside Tip: Bring, wear, and be ready to reapply insect repellent. Mosquitoes and other biting bugs are a given in the swamp.

Haw Creek Preserve State Park

The bulk of 1,005-acre Haw Creek Preserve State Park near Bunnell is only accessible by a boat, kayak, or canoe launched at Russell Landing in western Flagler County. Paddle the creek named for the haw tree, a flowering shrub that grows along the water and produces apple-like fruit often used to make jelly. Did You Know? Within the preserve lands, it is said Seminole Chief Halleck-Tustenuggee and his 35 Miccosukee warriors set up camp and used it as a base for attacking settlers. On January 25, 1842, the camp was found by a detachment of the Second Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army. A battle broke out, but the chief and his warriors were able to escape.

Silver Springs State Park

Silver Springs State Park in Silver Springs was the birthplace of the glass-bottom boat in the 1870s. Today, glass-bottom boat tours remain the biggest draw for visitors to this 4,666-acre park. Take the narrated tour or rent a kayak or canoe to explore the crystal-clear 5.4-mile Silver River, fed by one of only 33 first-magnitude springs in Florida. Inside Tip: Camping is available, but starting in April 2015 facilities are undergoing construction and are unavailable through ReserveAmerica. During this time, some campsites and cabins may be open for rent on a first-come, first-served basis. The day before your arrival, call the park at +1 352 236 7148 to check availability or to find out when construction is finished.

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