Story & Photos By Sandra Friend
Is birdwatching your bag, or would you rather cast for bass? Marion County’s expansive public lands host a smorgasbord of outdoor activities — from backpacking across the Ocala National Forest to paddling down the jungle-like Ocklawaha River. Winter means crisp days and crisper nights, ideal for enjoying the outdoors, so get out and explore!
1 – Backpacking the Greenway
Since 1967, the Ocala National Forest has been the hot spot in Florida for backpacking a 70-mile stretch of the Florida Trail. But hikers and hunters share the trail in winter, and that isn’t always comforting. Why not try the new kid on the block: the Florida Trail on the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway? It offers 30-plus miles of hiking from Santos to Dunnellon — no hunting permitted. Set up camp under the pines near the Land Bridge or in the oak grove at Spring Park. But be warned! If you carry a heavy pack, it’ll hurt. The trail climbs up and down ridges created in the 1930s during the building of segments of the defunct Cross Florida Barge Canal. There’s even a switchback or two.
MORE INFO: Call the Office of Greenways and Trails (352-236-7143) for a free permit. There are no designated campsites, so specify which trailheads you intend to camp between each night. Check its website for maps and descriptions: www.floridagreenwaysandtrails.com
2 – Biking the Santos Trail
Clambering up the crumbling steep side of a former limestone quarry, I watched in amazement as mountain bikers flew off a wild jump, landing nearly 30 feet down a slope I’d figured too vertical to climb. Built by the Ocala Mountain Biking Association, the wild rides of the Santos Biking Trails are geared for high-speed pedaling on single tracks through the lush forests of the Cross Florida Greenway. Choose from rides like the Canopy Trail, under the shade of massive live oaks, or the Sinkhole Trail, which loops around a giant sink. Blazes denote three levels of difficulty: gentle (yellow), moderate (blue), and oh-my-God (red), which includes the quarry drops.
MORE INFO: Access the trail system from the Santos Trailhead, just off US 27/301/441 at SW 80th Avenue. Open dawn to dusk. Need a bike? Pick up a rental at the nearby Santos Bike Shop (352-307-2453; www.santosbikeshop.com), 8900 S. US 441, or Streit’s Cyclery Ocala (352-629-2612), 1274 E. Silver Springs Blvd.
3 – Birdwatching in the Ocklawaha Prairie
From my viewpoint on the edge of the levee, the wetlands shimmered with constant motion as thousands of blue-winged teals jostled for position with a persistent rumble of squawks rising to the heavens. In winter, migratory birds flock en masse to the Ocklawaha Prairie Restoration Area, where your best place to savor the bustling activity is a shaded observation deck along the Levee Trail. Take a slow walk along this open trail for a panoramic view and you’ll spot sandhill cranes, herons, limpkins, gallinules, and more. The network of trails is open to equestrians, bicyclists, and hikers.
MORE INFO: Managed by the St. Johns Water Management District (386-329-4500), the Ocklawaha Prairie Restoration is open dawn to dusk. From the parking area off SW 137 Ave. Rd. (at the curve of CR 314A, Moss Bluff), follow the blue markers to a T-intersection with diamond blazes; turn left to walk downhill through the forest to the Levee Trail.
4 – Camping in Style
My friends Bob and Bonnie towed their new trailer all the way from Boca Raton to Marion County for a test run, and when they called me and said where they were camped, I replied, “Reddick? No, seriously…” But then I hit the road and checked it out for myself. Under a heavy canopy of tall hickory and elm trees, the Encore RV Resort is a truly relaxing camper’s destination, with a sparkling pool to share with your fellow campers, a pleasant recreation hall with a big-screen TV, and big spaces that allow you room to kick back, fire the grill up, and enjoy your home away from home.
MORE INFO: The newly refurbished Encore RV Resort (877-267-8737; www.RVontheGO.com) is just off I-75 exit 368, Irvine/Orange Lake. Take CR 318 west to CR 225; head south 1 mile. Encore allows RV and trailer camping only.
5 – Family Fun in Salt Springs
If you’re looking for a weekend’s worth of outdoor activities to keep the whole family busy, head over to Salt Springs Recreation Area in the Ocala National Forest. Set up camp under the moss-draped oaks and take off in every direction: explore the little-known Bear Swamp Trail with its giant cypresses, head out fishing on Salt Springs Run, rent a canoe or kayak to paddle the pristine waters, or snorkel across crystalline Salt Spring, William Bartram’s “amazing crystal fountain.” Walk softly in the forest, and you’ll probably spot a deer or two.
MORE INFO: Reserve your campsite by calling 877-444-6777; visit the website www.saltspringscampground.com for details. Full hook-ups cost $20, primitive camping $14 (with access to bathhouse). A per-person day use entry fee applies.
6 – High-Tech Hide-and-Seek
It was my toughest find to date. Sliding down a steep slope off SR 326 into what was once an active quarry, I picked my way past millennia-old fossils to find a hidden treasure no bigger than a loaf of bread: a geocache. This new high-tech hide-and-seek game hooked me after an outing on the Cross Florida Greenway; I used my Garmin Etrex (bought to create maps for my hiking books) for the search. I’d almost given up hope when I decided to look behind the rocks. And there it was, at N 29° 15.686 W 082° 09.923: the treasure of Pokey Cache!
MORE INFO: You’ll need a GPS (Etrex, a low-end unit, costs about $129 at Wal-Mart) and Internet access. Dozens of caches are hidden from Dunnellon to the Rodman Dam: go to www.geocaching.com and plug in your zip code for a list and instructions. Bring some small trinket (Matchbox car, key ring) to swap for another “treasure” and be sure to sign the logbook.
7 – Hiking Silver River
I’ve hiked everywhere in Florida, and Silver River State Park is the only place where I’ve met dozens of other people out hiking on their own. The four trails that make up the hiking trail system provide more than 8 miles of easy exploration of the many habitats within the park — from longleaf pines and wiregrass in the dry sandhills to cabbage palm flatwoods and floodplain forest along the river’s edge. My favorite is the deeply shaded Swamp Trail, a round-trip of two miles to a boardwalk looking out over the glassy waters of the Silver River.
MORE INFO: Reserve a campsite (800-326-3521) or one of the spiffy new cabins ($85/night) at the park, or come in for the day ($3.25 per carload). Bring your bike, too, and enjoy the Ross Allen Loop through dense shady forest. Don’t forget the insect repellant!
8 – Fishing Silver Glen Run
Dropping a line off the back of my houseboat anchored in Silver Glen Run, I watched a shimmering school of needlefish flash by. The cormorants were having better luck than I was at catching dinner, but I didn’t care. The glassy water made it possible for me to watch fish sniff at the bait. A young stingray approached. I didn’t want to snag him, so I reeled in the line, attracting a sheepshead that nibbled the worm right off the hook. At the other end of the boat, my companion caught a few catfish, which we fried up that evening as we watched the sun set over the line of houseboats in the run.
MORE INFO: You can’t fish in Silver Glen Spring, but fishing is just fine in the run. Lake George boasts some of the biggest bass in Florida, well worth a day on the water. Put your own boat in at Astor (SR 40 at the St. Johns River Bridge) or ask the Astor Bridge Marina (866-BD-POTTS; www.astorbridgemarina.com) for a fishing guide recommendation.
9 – Paddling the Rainbow
Pushing off from shore in a Lexan kayak into the Rainbow River, I had the disorienting sensation of the bottom dropping out of the craft as I skimmed over one of the many deep holes in the river’s bottom, watching sand and shells bubble upwards beneath me. It took a few minutes to get used to the strange ability to look down into the river, and I reveled in underwater vistas I hadn’t seen since I was a kid riding the old porthole-equipped boats, gliding beneath the oaks over the headspring.
MORE INFO: Made of the same material as high-tech water bottles, the Lexan kayaks permit visibility for a brief time before fogging up (the water is cooler than your body heat trapped in the kayak). Extend your viewing time by splashing a little water across the floor of the boat. Rentals cost $6 per hour (plus $25 refundable deposit) at Rainbow Springs State Park (352-465-8555), Dunnellon.
10 – Retreat to Crones’ Cradle
At Crones’ Cradle Conserve, communing with nature is the focus of this privately owned retreat and organic farm outside Citra. Relax in a porch swing and watch the herons pick their way around the edge of the lake, walk the shaded trails, or let the kids be kids at the playground. Browse the bookshop and check out the organic produce, herbs, and soulful art. In addition to workshops on herbs, soap making, yoga, and other “down to earth” topics (call for schedule), the conserve hosts a Women’s First Sunday brunch ($6 donation) each month.
MORE INFO: Follow CR 318 east from Citra for 6.4 miles to the sign on the left; drive north along the access road into the woods and follow the signs. Open 9am-3pm Mon-Sat. For more information, call 352-595-3377.
Want to suggest your own favorite spot?
Drop Sandra a line by e-mail at email@example.com or by fax at 732-0226. Our editorial staff will select the best locations for a follow-up article in an upcoming issue of Ocala Style.
Story & Photos By Sandra Friend