When I embarked on aÂ recent expedition into Ocala National Forest, I lost track of time and distance. Easy to do in this vast forest.
Who can resist the temptation of following an unpaved forest-service road to the unknown, a pathway to new discoveries and trail heads inviting you to take a walk or ride a bike deep into the forest.
Truly, the only way to fully digest the magical dimensions of this forest is to spend some time exploring it. The best way to do that is find a campground and immerse yourself in your surroundings.
The opportunities for camping in the 607-square-mile Ocala National Forest are limited only by your imagination and your tolerance for inconvenience. Bring everything you need, including drinking water.
Aside from the dispersed primitive camping throughout the forest, there are 18 â€œdevelopedâ€ campgrounds, most of which have little more to offer than a picnic table and an out-of-body encounter with Mother Nature.
For RVers, only one of these campgrounds has full hookups, Salt Springs, but you are ready for that. Six campgrounds have RV dump stations, and fewer still have a hot shower or a flush toiletÂ (Alexander Springs, Big Bass Lake, Clearwater Lake, Fore Lake, Juniper Springs and Salt Springs.)
With the exception of isolated outposts at the forestâ€™s fringe, there are few convenience stores and no supermarkets. Before you go, use a checklist and donâ€™t leave anything behind because itâ€™s unlikely youâ€™ll find replacement camping gear out here.
Itâ€™s also be safe to assume you are in bear country wherever you camp, not to mention raccoons, wild boar and the ubiquitous alligator near the forestâ€™s 600 swamps, wet prairies, ponds and lakes.
Store food securely, away from temptation and definitely not in your tent! Watch your pets carefully near water, especially small dogs (gator bait), and always keep a protective eye on small children.Â
The U.S. Forest Service has issued these rules on bear safety, specifically for Florida’s national forests. Bears are a big deal, not to be ignored.
It would be impossible for us to visit all camping destinations within Ocala National Forest, so we encourage you to share your experiences in comments. Make no mistake, we absolutely and unequivocally welcome your corrections and clarifications.
This campground guide will use these points of reference, towns at the outer edge of the forest on the two main highways, SR 19 and CR 40, each of which bi-sects the forest:
State Road 19 runs north and south, from Palatka on the north to Altoona at the south end (extending further south to Umatilla, Eustis and Mount Dora).
County Road 40 runs west to east from Ocala to Barberville in the east (extending further east to Ormond Beach.)
Deland is a good jumping-off spot for exploring the forestâ€™s southern tier along County Road 42, which branches off State Road 44 at the St. Johnâ€™s River.
The St. Johnâ€™s River and Lake George mark the eastern boundary of the forest, and the Oklawaha River forms the western boundary.
For travel within the forest’s boundaries, you may find this Motor Vehicle Use Map (PDF)Â to be a useful guide to have with you.
Campgrounds on the fringes of Ocala National Forest:
- Silver Springs State Park: A guide to new park with spring, cabins, hiking, history
- De Leon Springs: State park known for pancakes has much more
- Blue Spring: Manatees in winter; swimming hole in summer
- Hontoon Island: Camping, cabins, great kayak trip in wild setting
Developed Campgrounds with amenities (3)
These are the three jewels of Ocala National Forest, three campgrounds offering well-maintained campsites, concessions, on-site hosts and/or forest rangers with access to developed recreational areas. Only one campground has full hookups for RVs, although all three accommodate RVs and tents.
Alexander Springs â€” Lying in the southern tier of the forest within easy reach of Orlando and Deland, Alexander Springs is one of the more popular destinations in Ocala National ForestÂ forÂ day visitors and campers alike. Enjoy hiking the Timucuan and Florida Scenic trails, off-road cycling on the 22-mile Paisley Woods Trail, paddling Alexander Creek or swimming and snorkeling in the bubbly crystal-clear spring. The 7-mile canoe run will take you to the St. John’s River, or you can arrange for shuttles at two points down the run. Campsite separation is excellent with designated loops for RVsÂ andÂ tents for a total of 67 sites under a canopy of pine, oak and Sable palm. Each site has a picnic table, fire ring and a lantern post, but that’s about it. No hookups, but hot showers (Loops B and C) and flush toilets are available. Campers share water spigots. Reservations accepted up to six months in advance but no later than 4 days before arrival, beginning November 27 through May 24.Â Camping fee $21/night.
Juniper Springs â€” Near the crossroads of State Road 19 and County Road 40, Juniper Springs may be the most well-known spring in Florida, and the Juniper Spring run one of the most beautiful. Dense, semi-tropicalÂ foliage not seen anywhere elseÂ the forest provides a unique environment for picnicking, bird watching, hiking, swimming, snorkeling and paddling down the awesome spring run fed by Juniper Spring and Fern Hammock Spring. A one-mile interpretive nature trail tracks Jupiter Creek, and a 66-mile section of the Florida Scenic Trail passes through this recreation area. The 78-site campground can accommodate tents, trailers and motor homes up to 35 feet on both wooded and open sites. There are no hookups, but shared water spigots, hot showers and flush toilets are available, as is a dump stationÂ in the campground. Limited groceries, firewood and ice are available at a concession stand near the swimming area, where you can also rent kayaks and canoes. Reservations accepted up to six months in advance but no later than 4 days before arrival,Â November 25-May 24. Camping fee is $23/night.
Salt Springs â€” This is the big daddy of campgrounds in Ocala National Forest with 106 sites with full hookups and 54 with no hookups, though it’s not as scenic as Juniper Spring and Alexander Spring recreation areas. Still, there’s plenty of shade and plenty to do here, and there’s a well-appointed concession at the nearby marina where you can rent canoes, kayaks and paddle out to the St. John’s River. (A small fee is charged for personal launching personal watercraft.) The spring is cordoned off for swimmers, spilling out into a broadÂ spring run that offersÂ aÂ scenic paddle all the way to Lake George. There are several trailheads near the campground for hiking and biking. The fishing is world-class. Campground reservations required no later than 4 days in advance up to 6 months in advance from Nov 28Â – May 24. Reservations not accepted in the off-season.Â Camping fee is $22/night.
The privately run Salt Springs Run Marina rents paddleboards and kayaks for $25 per half-day, $40 for a full day; Canoes, $15/$25; Skiffs, $35.60/$50 (plus gas); and pontoon boats $90 for a half-day, $140 for a full day (plus gas).
RV or Tent Campgrounds (7) with limited amenities
Big Bass Lake â€” The southernmost campground in the forest, located just 10 miles west of Altoona on SR 42, has 34 tent/RV sites, each with a table, fire ring, pedestal grill and lantern pole. Very private sites shielded by a thick understory in a stand of longleaf pine and oak. Sites can accommodate any size RV, and there is a dump station in the campground. Otherwise, there is no bath house, just â€œvaultâ€ outhouses, and campers share 13 freshwater spigots. The big downside is traffic noise from SR 42, and thereâ€™s not a lot to do here except camp. No reservations. Camping fee $10/night.
Clearwater Lake â€” On the south side of the forest, about 7 miles east of Altoona on SR 42, there are 42Â open sites suitable for tents or RVs, 26 of them reservable atÂ Recreation.gov. Some sites overlook the 30-acre lake where you can swim and paddle. NoÂ hookups, but each site has a table and a grill in the shade of live oak dripping with Spanish moss. There is a dump station in the campground, and potable water is available from 11 shared hand-pumps. There is a bath house with hot showers and flush toilets. Camping fee $18.50/day.Â From the intersection of Florida 19 and 42, go east on 42 toward Paisley. Drive 6 miles and turn left into Clearwater Lake Recreation Area.
Attention Hikers! When selecting a campground, you may want to refer to this excellent trail guide atÂ FloridaHikes.com
Lake Delancy – There are two campgrounds on this small lake on the north side of the forest, about 21 miles south of Palatka on Forest Road 66, off SR 19. Delancy East (29 tent or RV sites) and Delancy West (13 tent or RV sites) are on a shallow lake surrounded by wet prairie. The only drinkable water is available from a single hand pump shared by both campgrounds. Popular with RVers, though the nearest RV dump station is Salt Springs (fee), 7 miles south. These campgrounds serve a network of motorized use trails (motorcycles and ATVs) that reach deep into the northwest quadrant of the forest. First come, first served. Camping fee $10/day.
Fore Lake â€” A remote outpost in the western reaches of the forest, Fore Lake is 17 miles east of Ocala on County Road 314, off State Road 40 just past the Ocklawaha River. There are 31 campsites tucked into lush, sub-tropical vegetation amid stately oaks and tall pines. Each site has its own parking spur, grill, table, lantern post and fire ring. No hookups, but there are new bathrooms with hot showers and a dump station. RVs OK up to 35 feet. A sandy beach offers swimming, or you can paddle the 77-acre lake. No reservations. Camping fee $10.
Hopkins Prairie â€” A waypoint for backpackers trekking the Florida Trail, this 18-site primitive campground sits in a stand of live oak that juts out into a wet prairie, each site protected from the Florida sun by the comforting shade of majestic live oaks. This remote campground is in the heart of Ocala National Forest on Forest Road 50, 7 miles south of Salt Springs Recreation Area, and is rarely full. Each site has a picnic table, fire ring and a lantern post. Excellent access to the Florida Trail and The Yearling Trail, which takes you to Patâ€™s Island, an outpost that inspired author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. First come, first served. Camping fee is $10.
Lake Dorr â€” Just three miles north of Altoona on State Road 19, this 34-site campground is adjacent to the Pittman Visitor Center at the south end of the forest. Excellent privacy is afforded to campers, and each site has a pedestal grill and lantern post. No hookups. There are 10 shared hand-pumps providing potable water, and modern bathrooms have flush toilets and hot showers. Thereâ€™s an RV dump station (fee) at a nearby private campground. Boating, swimming, fishing, even water skiing, are popular activities. Camping fee $12/day.
Lake Eaton â€” There are 14 sites in this scenic, deep-forest campground in the forestâ€™s northwest quadrant, . Each site has a picnic table, fire ring and lantern post. A hand pump delivers drinking water, and there are two pit toilets. RVs are rare here, although not altogether absent, especially in winter. Thereâ€™s a fishing pier and a boat ramp, but the lake is best suited for kayaks and canoes. This campground is notable for bird watching. Lots of great hiking nearby, including the popular Eaton Sinkhole Trail. No reservations. Camping fee $8/day.
Primitive Campgrounds (6)
Big Scrub — Popular with off-road vehicle enthusiasts, Big Scrub Campground sits in the south-central portion of Ocala National Forest. A trailhead,Â offering direct access to the 47-mile, ATV-friendly Ocala Adventure Trail. A permit is required for use of the trail system.Â Big Scrub can accommodate tents, campers and RVs. The campground is equipped with showers, restrooms and drinking water. Reservations for one of the 62 campsites must be made at least 4 days in advance of arrival, up toÂ 6 months in advance, on Recreation.gov.Â Alexander Springs is aÂ short drive away. Visitors can swim, canoe and dive in a natural spring-fed lake and creek.
Farles Prairie – On theÂ shores of Farles Lake in the northwest quadrant of the forest, this campground is a launch point for boating, hiking, birding, and fishing along the lake and prairie system. TheÂ campground is set in a pine and hardwood forest,Â and thereÂ are no designated sites. Reservations are not needed, nor is there a camping fee. Howeveer, there is a $4 parking fee per day.
Little Lake Bryant –– Another free campground with 6 primitiveÂ sites, Little Lake Bryant offers fishing, hiking and biking trails, kayaking, and an abundance of wildlife. RVs of any size are welcome, but you’ll be boondocking, and there are no fire rings or other amenities. The road to the campground is gravel, about a half-mile from a paved road. The campground is nestled in a grove of live oak.Â
Shanty Pond –Â Shanty Pond is in the heart of Big Scrub, south of Salt Springs off SR 19.Â A favorite of equestrians and hunters, it is open from October 15 through April 15.Â The turnoff for Shanty Pond is 1.8 miles south of the junction of SR 19 and SR 314 in Salt Springs, along SR 19. Watch for the sign directing you onto FR 65 on the right. Tents or RV’s with maximum RV length ofÂ 25′. No reservations. There is an $8 nightly camping fee.
Trout Pond –Â In the deep shade of oaks overlooking a large wet prairie, there are only two designated primitive campsites available, although dispersed camping is permitted in the woods on nearby trails.Â Trout Pond is east of Doe Lake Recreation Area and west of Big Scrub Campground, off Forest Road 591. Excellent destination for kayakers in the heart of the forest. No reservations, no fees.Â
52 Landing/Bluff Landing CampgroundÂ –Â Downstream from Alexander Springs, the three primitive tentÂ sites at 52 Landing make for an ideal overnight stay while paddling Alexander Springs Run. There is a four-night limit (enough to explore surrounding waters).Â 52 Landing is the take-out for a downstream paddle from Alexander Springs,Â or a launch point. It is bordered by the Alexander Springs Wilderness, which you can explore with a paddle downstream.Â No reservations, no RVs, no fees and rarely used.Â From Alexander Springs Recreation Area, goÂ north on CR 445 towards Astor. Turn right onto FR 18 after you cross Alexander Creek. Follow FR 18Â 2 miles to a sharp right turn off the main road. Continue 2 miles to the landing.
Ocala National Forest offers unlimited opportunities for remote backcountry camping onÂ land and along waterways.
Hike, bike, paddle,Â ride a horse or ATV down any of the hundreds of trails set aside for thoseÂ purposes, accessible from a vast network of forest roads — with the following restrictions:
- Cross country travel, damaging natural resources and blocking traffic is prohibited;
- All camping is restricted to designated campgrounds during general gun season, which is regulated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission;
- Groups large enough to impact natural resources must obtain a special use permit in advance
Florida Rambler Contributor Kyle Albinus loves backcountry camping, so be sure to read his story: Â The Great Escape: Primitive Camping in Ocala National Forest
Pittman Visitor Center
45621 State Road 19
Altoona, FLÂ 32702
Lake George Ranger District
17147 E. State Road 40
Silver Springs, FL 34488
Salt Springs Recreation Area
13851 Hwy 19N
Ft. McCoyÂ FLÂ 32134
For trailÂ maps, road maps, campground guides and other publications, go toÂ www.fs.usda.gov/main/ocala/maps-pubs. (Note that the forest service web site loads very slowly.
Other guides worth owning:
The Best in Tent Camping: Florida: A Guide for Car Campers Who Hate RVs, Concrete Slabs, and Loud Portable Stereos (Best Tent Camping)Â — This well-constructed guide featuresÂ select campgrounds for tenters around the state, including a few in Ocala National Forest. Good campground descriptions, along with recreation information.
Moon Florida Camping: The Complete Guide to Tent and RV Camping (Moon Outdoors)Â — The most complete guide available for Florida RV and tent camping with detailed descriptions of almost every public and private campground in the state. A must-have for any camper.
Florida Atlas & Gazetteer (Delorme Atlas & Gazetteer)Â — Extremely detailed maps of every navigable public road in the state, paved and unpaved, including the forest roads of Ocala National Forest. Maps identify campgrounds and others places of interest, even fire towers. Explorers should not leave home without it. Seriously.