Hiking Florida’s Ocala National Forest during Thanksgiving holidays turned into consistently sunny days in some of Florida’s beautiful natural terrain. The weather felt like an Indian Summer in Michigan. And not a single mosquito, which makes me think around Thanksgiving to Christmas is some of the best times to hike in Florida.
Ocala National Forest is big! I did some research before hand and mainly targeted near its center. But there are plenty of places to hike throughout. You see these mostly through road signs, not on the Web.
I was able to hop on the Florida Trail at Juniper Springs. I just used their parking lot and was able to walk from my car to the trail, just before the gate. Parking admission was about $5. Juniper Springs is near the center of Ocala National Forest. It’s just off the main east-west highway, FL-40 (Fort Brooks Road) about 5-10 miles west of FL-19.
Juniper Springs is mainly for visitors of the natural springs and camping, both inside the park. There is also a very long wooden walkway that goes throughout the springs and is definitely worth seeing. It takes you through deep foliage following along the springs creek. It takes about 15-30 minutes to walk to its end where another large natural springs is located with a bunch of alligator-warning signs.
I was outside Juniper Springs, so people traffic turned out to be great. I only saw two other people throughout the entire day. I headed north on the Florida Trail, and only early into the evening, on my way back, walked the trail for a few miles going south from the gate. Heading north seems to be the better trail, which doesn’t cross FL-40, as the south trail does. I timed about an 8-10 hour hike, considering time to get back because the trail is not a loop but basically goes through most of Florida north-south.
The trail was immaculate at the beginning, surrounded by short evergreen trees and hard-packed sand. With the sun beating down from a beautiful blue sky, a real novelty, like almost amusement-park like. The trail eventually let into deeper, more natural forests, with nice canopy foliage. Very easy to walk through and plenty of eye candy with the sun intensely highlighting everything with bright light and clear, dark shadows. Several tunnel-like foliage from short trees mixed up the trail. And the trail stayed consistently hard-packed sand. Some Florida trails can be pretty wet having a lot of large pools of water directly on the trail. This trail was very dry and covered more with lots of dried-up evergreen needles.
The trail later opens up into a sandy brushland and eventually leads to an official-looking sign: “Juniper Prairie Wilderness”. Another older, broken and battered sign was below it stating a bunch of warnings like “falling tree limbs”. This turned out to be a good warning. There were many half-blown down or extreme bending sand pines surrounded the trail, just barely ready to fall. But most of the area was like a worn-torn battlefield with mostly collapsed sand pines surrounded by subtropical brush. This devastation was probably due to a past hurricane.
The open terrain made the hike more interesting and gave me a chance to see far distances. Tall sand pines, palms and other foliage dotted throughout the open savanna. Little fields of straw also dotted throughout the hike. These fields were once ponds and little lakes, but now were just dried up fields of golden waist-high straw. The shallow base base was just dried-hardened clay, which made it easy to walk through and gave me a chance to see other areas off the trail.
Camping out in any area you think would be good seems to be permitted and there are plenty of naturally prepared campgrounds if you don’t want to bother clearing an area. Some were immaculate, including one thinly surrounded by very tall sand pines. There dried-up needles thickly covered the whole area like an outdoor carpet. Spots like this could easily accommodate several tents. This one in particular was obviously used having a decent size fire pit and nice sitting log.
I could have continued hiking north but knew I’d eventually run out of daytime, and I eventually needed to head back to my car. The trail per Google Maps, continues to pass many more dried-up lakes and ponds (see “First-Day Hiking” map). So much so, that I think I hadn’t seen nearly as many natural great camping sites. On my way back, I saw two different tent-size campgrounds and the only two people throughout the day. They were pitching their tents deeper in the trees and foliage. I saw signs for this type of camping (not in designated areas), but don’t remember the details. See official website for fees and ways to pay. Make sure not to confuse the Juniper Springs campgrounds with camping on the Florida Trail. It’s probably best to call Juniper Springs and just ask if they know the details or can direct you to where you pay.
The next day, I hiked again on the Florida Trail (see “Day 2 Hiking” map), but from a spot about 10-15 miles southeast of Juniper Springs. Per Google maps (which was wrong), I first entered from FL-19, the main north-south highway going through the national forest. From here, Google Maps takes you to what appears to be an old entrance but is no longer in use. In fact, there is a locked gate you have to climb over and then cross someone’s backyard, which is not cool. But I didn’t want to go back to my car and drive the long road back to FL-19, only to pick up the trail from another entrance off of FL-19.
The trail’s location turned out to be pretty confusing, having to first pass through back roads before getting to where the trail actually picks up. The trail itself turned out to be really nice, though. I passed mostly through deep forests with some beautifully carved trails.