The Ocala National Forest, (ONF), is the 2nd largest protected forest in central Florida. The Florida Everglades being the largest. The ONF was established in 1908, under President Theodore Roosevelt. It encompasses approximately 380 thousand acres (600 square miles), of land with many lakes, rivers, and springs. The Ocala National Forest offers a variety of activities for the outdoor adventurer. Some of these activities include but are not limited to backpacking, swimming, diving, and canoeing.
The Ocala National Forest has a very unique ecosystem consisting of a Sand Pine Scrub. Sand Pine Scrub is an area that has a white sandy soil having little to no nutrients in it. Water quickly permeates through this sandy soil leaving it dry. Sand Pine Scrubs also have evergreen plants to include shrubs and dwarf pines. Plants and trees do not root deep in this area and they do not grow as large as their counterparts to the north. The ONF host 4 Wilderness area.
Wilderness Areas in The O.N.F.
Juniper Prairie Wilderness: Designated a Wilderness in 1984. It covers an area of about 54 square kilometers (13,260 acres).
Alexander Springs Wilderness: Designated a Wilderness in 1984. The wilderness has a total of 32 square kilometers (7,941 acres).
Little Lake George Wilderness: Designated a Wilderness on September 28, 1984. The Wilderness has a total of 11 square kilometers (2,833 acres)
Billies Bay Wilderness: Designated a Wilderness in 1984 on September 28, 1984. The Wilderness has a total of 13 square kilometers (3,092 acres).
The ONF is about an hour and a half drive from where I live. I have been backpacking in the ONF for years. Wilderness Backpacking in the ONF is a very different experience then backpacking in the mountains. The terrain is relatively flat with very hot and humid temperatures in the summer months. The winter months have temps that can get done to the freezing mark in the evenings.
When I go backpacking in the ONF I like starting my journey at the Juniper Prairie Wilderness. The Juniper Prairie Wilderness is the largest Wilderness areas in the ONF. There is a campground off Highway 40 where I park my vehicle. This campground is the Juniper Springs Campground located at 26701 E. Highway 40, Silver Springs, Fl. (352) 625-3147.
The park requires an overnight registration fee of $12.00 a night but I gladly pay this fee to ensure that my vehicle is safe and secure. There is a trailhead just outside the park’s gate that connects to the Florida Trail. I travel about a mile from the trailhead to the entrance of the Juniper Prairie Wilderness. When you enter this Wilderness area the terrain opens up showing its mystic beauty.
The Juniper Prairie Wilderness is the perfect spot for Wilderness Backpackers to do some bushwhacking. Getting off the Florida Trail and bushwhacking into the heart of this Wilderness gives Backpackers the opportunity to explore the diverse ecosystem and history of this area. This portion of the trail also affords you the opportunity to experience remote solitude once you get off the Florida Trail
I always wear long pants and long sleeve shirts for protection from the plants, insects, and sun. I enjoy getting off the Florida trail to do some bushwhacking. Once you are off the trail the Wilderness adventure begins. Many backpackers stay primarily on the Florida Trail and a favorite spot in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness is called the Hidden Pond. The name speaks for itself and it is a very scenic spot to set up your basecamp.
Anyone who decides to backpack the Ocala National Forest should make it a point to visit Hidden Pond. It is a great place to set up a basecamp but it can get crowded, especially during the cooler winter months. I have been to Hidden Pond, but I choose to set up my basecamp in the remote areas of the Juniper Prairie Wilderness well off the Florida Trail. There is a variety of wildlife in the Ocala National Forest that you may see on your adventure.
WILDLIFE IN THE OCALA NATIONAL FOREST
Mammals: Black Bear, White Tailed Deer, Bob Cat, Coyote, Gray Fox, Red Fox, Skunk, Racoon, Bats.
Birds: Bald Eagle, Florida Scrub Jay, Vultures, Owls, Cranes.
Reptiles: American Alligator, Gopher Tortoise
Snakes: There are 44 snake species in Florida. 6 out of the 44 are poisonous. The 6 poisonous ones are:
- Southern Copperhead
- Cotton Mouth
- Eastern Diamondback
- Timber Rattlesnake
- Eastern Coral Snake
- Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake
Below are some recommendations if you decide to do some backpacking in the Ocala National Forest. These are general guidelines that will assist you in properly planning your adventure.
Equipment and the proper gear are essential for any Wilderness adventure. Gear is preferential and unique to each Wilderness Backpacker. When I go into the ONF I like being comfortable during my stay. My first priority is to bring those items that will keep me safe and then those items that will make my stay comfortable.
Having a good shelter system is imperative in this ecosystem. I like using a tent on all my adventures in Ocala. I find that backpacking in the Ocala National Forest brings you around a lot of water and marshlands. Both of these environmental conditions equate to insects and reptiles such as snakes coming into your basecamp. Having a good tent keeps these critters out while you sleep. If you choose not to use a tent please try to elevate your sleeping quarters off the ground, (using a hammock) to at least avoid the reptiles.
When travelling through the ONF have bear spray with you. I recently did an article and video on Bear Spray. Bear Spray is the best deterrent for bears and when you travel through Ocala or any other Wilderness areas in North America. Have a good Wilderness knife with you. I recommend a fixed blade knife straight edge knife. Fixed blade knives are more durable and stronger than a folding knife. Fixed blade knives can be used for batoning if needed to build a shelter or prepare firewood. I also carry a firearm when I am in a wilderness area.
Carrying a firearm is a personal preference. If you do carry a firearm make sure that you are properly trained on how to use it. You should also decide how you will carry it, (Holster Selection). Check with state and local laws in the Wilderness area you plan on carrying a firearm and comply with their rules and regulations. If you decide to do some Wilderness backpacking in Florida here is a link to my article on carrying a firearm while backpacking in Florida.
COMMUNICATION, COMPASS, AND GPS
Have some type of GPS satellite communicator with you for emergencies. At the least, have your cell phone with you. Carry a small portable solar panel or battery pack to recharge your GPS satellite communicator or phone when needed. Make sure you carry a compass on all your adventures in case your GPS stops working.
FOOD AND WATER
Carry a water filter with you. Make sure that you filter any water you drink. In The ONF, you will find that the water you come across is a reddish/tea color look. The reddish/tea color is from the surrounding marsh vegetation and hardwood trees. The color is not the issue but the pathogens in the water is. So filter your water before drinking it.
One last thing you need to be aware of. When you are getting water from any source in Ocala be aware of alligators that may be waiting under water to strike you when you get close to the shoreline. I recommend that you visually inspect the area before approaching it and look for signs of alligators or other wildlife.
Signs of Alligators Near a Water Source
- Look for slide marks around the water source.
- Look for nests, indentations, or dugout areas around the water source.
- Look for bubbles rising to the surface. There may be an alligator underwater waiting. Alligators usually stay under water between 20 to 30 minutes. With the right conditions they can stay submerged up to 2 hours. When in doubt scan the area for approximately 30 minutes before approaching the water source if you suspect there may be one underwater.
Water Filter Systems You May Choose For Your Expedition
On any adventure whether long term or a day trip bring the necessary amount of food to sustain your strength during your adventure. Wilderness Backpacking can be very strenuous. Fueling your body with the necessary foods and keeping hydrated keeps you both physically and mentally alert. Granola bars and trail mixes are an excellent food source to keep you energized throughout your adventure. Bring electrolyte packets with you to replenish lost minerals and salts.
CLOTHING, SUN, AND INSECT PROTECTION
like wearing long sleeve pants and shirts for protection from the plant life and insects that inhabit the ONF. My clothing also serves as protection from the sun. I always wear a hat, (wide-brimmed) to protect my head, face and neck area from the sun. I always carry sunscreen and I carry insect repellant in either a powder or liquid form.
Sulfur powder is a great insect deterrent for ticks and chiggers. You can sprinkle it on your shoes and socks to keep insects from attaching to your clothing. Be careful on putting it on your skin since it may cause severe irritation.
Spraying your clothing with an insect repellent helps deter biting insects. Sawyer Permethrin works very well. Make sure you following the directions on the bottle on how to properly apply it to your clothing.
As for a liquid insect repellant some use Deet, which I find to be very harsh on both clothing and your gear. I use Sawyer Picaridin. It will not harm your equipment or gear and it lasts up to 8 hours. Please read the general warning on the bottle before applying Picaridin to your skin.
I also use the Thermacell Backpacker that uses a fuel canister to heat a strip that repels insects within a specific area.
WEATHER AND CLIMATE
The climate in the ONF varies throughout the year. During the winter months it can get very cold especially in the evenings. Make sure that you check the weather forecast during your stay and bring the appropriate cold weather gear when necessary. Temperatures can get very cold in Ocala and hypothermia is a real possibility if you are not adequately prepared.
Florida is notorious for rain especially between June through September. During this time rains are the heaviest. This period of time also is the hottest time of the year to backpack in The ONF.
Be sure to drink allot of water since the Florida heat comes with allot of humidity that will make you sweat. Stay hydrated and use electrolyte packets to replenish those lost salts and minerals your body sweats out.
I hope my above recommendations and the brief history of the Ocala National Forest entice you to come and visit this great Backpacking Destination. It is nothing like being in the mountains but it will challenge your outdoor skills and provide you with a great adventure.
I have also posted a video on, “Staying safe in the Ocala National Forest” that you can find on my You Tube Channel (The American Backpacker).