From paddling the scenic spring-fed rivers to riding an ATV through the Ocala National Forest, there are numerous outdoor adventures available within an hour’s drive.
Mickey Pierce retired from the Navy in 2005 after 28 years of service. His retirement gift was a 19-foot custom-made prone paddleboard. He started racing prone in the ocean—belly down and paddling with his arms.
Eventually, neck issues from his time in the Navy led him try stand-up paddling, where you stand on the board and use a long oar to propel yourself through the water.
“It still provides the thrill but we don’t have to get up and down so much,” he explains. “I just fell in love with it.”
Now, with a home on the clear waters of the Rainbow River in Dunnellon, he spends two to five days a week paddling the river, depending on the season. He has trained his Australian shepherd, Kai, to ride with him. He paddles with his wife of 42 years, Dawn Pierce, his neighbors and friends. “It’s just a fun little neighborhood,” he says. “Everybody will start up the river, and as you pass people’s houses, people just join in.”
Other times, it’s a party on the river, such as when they set up a game of Frisbee football in the water.
“When we get the right people, it is a tremendous workout,” he offers. “The next day, you’re going to be sore—in your gut —from laughing so hard. It’s just wild.”
Then there are days when he heads out solo.
“Sometimes I make it a point to go by myself, headphones on, pull my hat down low, and take off and get a good workout in.”
The Ocala/Marion County area has several rivers that can be paddled throughout the year because the spring-fed temperature is a constant 72 degrees.
“You can’t beat the Rainbow River,” Pierce asserts, “but any of the rivers are fun.”
The best thing for beginners to do is rent a board for your height and weight and take a lesson or go paddling with someone who knows what they’re doing, Pierce recommends.
If you prefer to canoe or kayak, you can rent a kayak at a concession on any of the area’s rivers or bring your own. KP Hole Park in Dunnellon is a popular launching site into the Rainbow River for tubers and paddlers.
The wide and scenic Silver River is a favorite among kayakers, says Chris Spontak, president of the Marion County Aquaholics Paddlers Group.
The Silver River is also one of the best places to spot an enormous amount of wildlife, including alligators, Spontak states.
“If you leave the gators alone they’ll leave you alone,” Spontak asserts. “They don’t want anything to do with you. More people eat gators than gators eat people.”
Sometimes, the Aquaholics will paddle into wilder and more remote areas, such as the Withlacoochee River Gum Slough near Inverness or the isolated Waccasassa River in Levy County. Juniper Springs in the Ocala National Forest is also on the wild side. “It’s wilder,” Spontak affirms, “but still gets plenty of traffic.”
Beginner or experienced, anyone is welcome to join the Aquaholics, Spontak reports.
Choose Your Adventure
In addition to tubing and paddling the rivers, you can zipline through a canyon, spy alligator eggs in the tall sawgrass from an airboat, go on a bird walk, scuba and snorkel in a sinkhole, ride more than 80 miles of mountain bike trails, ride an ATV through the Ocala National Forest and visit one of the many parks in greater Ocala and Marion County. Here’s a guide for a fun day outdoors.
KP Hole, Marion County Park
9435 SW 190th Avenue Road, Dunnellon
Kayak, canoe and tube rentals. Tubing starts here and ends at Blue Run, a total of 3.3 miles (four hours). The park also offers swimming, picnicking, snorkeling and a boat ramp.
Rainbow Springs State Park
19158 SW 81st Place Road, Dunnellon
Tube, canoe, kayak, dive, swim and camp.
Etiquette guide: www.rainbowriverconservation.com
Paddles Outdoor Rentals
469 NE 1st Street, Crystal River
Paddleboard and kayak rentals. They also offer swimming with manatees and a kayak or paddleboard ecotour on Crystal River.
Silver Springs State Park
5656 E Silver Springs Boulevard, Silver Springs
Nearly 5,000 acres of critter habitats can be seen by hiking or paddling. Wild Rhesus Macaque monkeys also live here but folks are cautioned not to feed or interact with them. Paddling rentals available.
Eaton’s Beach Adventure Sports
15790 SE 134th Avenue
Lake Weir, Weirsdale
Paddleboard, pedal boat, kayak, lake cruises and pontoon boat rentals. Make a day of it and eat lakeside at Eaton’s Beach Florisiana Cuisine Restaurant.
Juniper Springs Recreation Area
26701 E State Road 40,
Canoe and kayak on Juniper Run, a narrow and winding 7-mile waterway. Named one of the top 25 canoe runs in America by ReserveAmerica.
Devil’s Den Spring
5390 NE 180th Avenue, Williston
Snorkeling and certified diving happens at this prehistoric,120-foot diameter sinkhole that may be as old as 10 million years. Mid-June to mid-August is the busy season—250 snorkelers a day. Bring your own snorkel gear or rent for two hours at a time. “It’s blue, blue water. It’s absolutely gorgeous,” says Rowena Thomas, manager. The owners added fish for snorkelers to view. It’s a great place to spend a morning or afternoon or stay in a cabin or park your RV.
3852 NE 172nd Court, Williston
Two miles from Devil’s Den is the Blue Grotto, which has deeper dives for those with open water diving certification. Dive down to a depth of 100 feet in this clear-water cavern. Also offers caving at The Cave at Blue Grotto. www.divebluegrotto.com
Fun 2 Dive
135 NE 3rd Street, Crystal River
Specializes in manatee snorkeling tours at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Paddle and scalloping tours are also available.
Airboat tours offer another way to enjoy regional waterways. They are boats propelled by a giant fan that glide on the water and don’t rock, so you don’t get seasick. They offer a great way to view alligators, birds, turtles, boar, deer and other wildlife.
Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours
12430 E Gulf to Lake Highway, Inverness
Tours runs through the placid Withlacoochee River. In the first hour, the captain will point out all the wildlife. The second hour, he does some slides and turns to “give you that adventure,” says employee Olivia Schlum. Bubba, a 13-foot, 1,000-pound gator, is a big draw. He’s more than 60 years old. “We also have baby gators here that the customers can hold and take pictures with,” Schlum notes. “It’s a great time. Great for families.”
Airboat Rides Unlimited
9400 SE Highway 42, Umatilla
Captain “Justin” takes guests on a 40-mile ride into the gator nesting and breeding areas in the backwater canals in the marshes of the Ocklawaha River. He points out critters along the way, such as wild hogs, birds, water snakes, bobcats and bears.
“He captains like a chameleon,” says Yvonne Rose, who books the rides. “Whatever group he’s with, he just gets right into their little niche. I wish everybody in the world could do this. It’s just so fun. It’s so out in nature.”
Captain Bob’s Airboat Tours
12189 S Williams Street, Dunnellon
Tours on Rainbow River for up to six people, four minimum.
Tom and Jerry’s Airboat Rides
68 N Main Terrace, Lake Panasoffkee
Offers one-hour and a 90-minute tours of the swamps of Lake Panasoffkee.
Mountain biking can be a leisurely cruise through the woods. It can also be an extreme sport where you’re launching off ramps and jumping obstacles—like those found on the red trails at the Santos Vortex. Throughout more than 80 miles of trails in the Marion County section of the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, there also are yellow beginner trails and blue intermediate trails—all built and maintained by the Ocala Mountain Bike Association. The Vortex is about two miles from Greenway Bicycles, where Justin Worth works.
“I wouldn’t say, by any means, I’m near the expert level,” Worth admits. “Do I go on everything at the Vortex? Of course I do because I’m crazy.”
He also rides the 46-mile paved Withlacoochee State Trail which stretches from Dunnellon to just north of Dade City. The trail he rides the most is the Greenway’s paved, multi-use, 16-mile trail from Santos to State Road 200.
“I do 200 miles a week on the Greenway trail,” he says. “It has nice rollers where the Withlacoochee is super flat.”
Angela DeSimone says there aren’t as many women who ride, but some of those who do ride with the Florida Chapter of the Muddbunnies Riding Club. The Ocala resident says her favorite spots to access the trails are the main Santos trailhead and the 49th Avenue trailhead, which are starting points for riders of both singletrack and the paved trail.
Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail
This is a 22-mile loop through the southeastern corner of the Ocala National Forest—the forest’s only mountain bike trail. It is described as a “roller-coaster ride” on rolling sandhills, with trailheads at Alexander Springs and Clearwater Lake.
For extensive trail maps, visit the Ocala Mountain Biking Association at www.omba.org.
Gliding over sparkling waters, over the tops of towering trees and with a birds-eye view of birds is a thrill-seekers’ way to explore the area. Those with the derring-do can zipline over deep and beautiful former limerock pits in Ocala or foster teamwork at a retreat in Crystal River.
The Canyons Zip Line & Adventure Park
8045 NW Gainesville Road,
Zip through the sky, day or night, soaring along steep cliffs and over four lakes. The Canyons offers night zipping with glow sticks and even has a special full-moon zip.
“Because of how dark it is, it looks like you disappear into nothing,” says receptionist Angela Middleton. The Canyons also offers kayaking on its 12-acre quarry—great for beginners because there is no current, as well as horseback riding.
Faith Haven Tree Top Adventures
10830 W Bentbow Path, Crystal River
It’s zip lining with 24 different elements, such as ropes and wall climbing, to challenge individuals and groups in this retreat setting.
Start Your Engines
If you have a need for speed, you’re in luck. Whether its on a super-quick go-kart or an ATV, here’s how you can rev up an adrenalin rush on wheels.
Ocala Gran Prix
4121 NW 44th Avenue
Ocala Gran Prix rents karts that go up to 55 mph. You must be at least 16 with a valid driver’s license.
ATV Off-Road Adventure Tours
15991 NE 243rd Place Road, Fort McCoy
Five-hour to eight-hour tours on an ATV through the Ocala National Forest where you can spot wild turkey, deer, eagles and more. GoPro camera rentals available.
World Adventures by Optucorp
Three-hour tours through the Ocala National Forest on your choice of ATV. Before touring, clients take an hourlong course to learn hand signaling, safety and how to treat the wildlife. “Do not touch an animal. Respect them. This is their home,” says Priscilla Gonzalez, business manager. “We encourage responsible use of the forest.”
Take In The Sights
For those who like to keep their feet firmly on the ground, there are abundant opportunities to see the region’s diverse wildlife, including birds, manatees, reptiles, otters and more.
The Marion Audubon Society counts the striking sky-blue and gray scrub jays who live at the Hálpata Tastanaki Preserve in Dunnellon as part of its Christmas Bird Count.
Scrub jays are found only in Florida and nowhere else, explains Helen Ogren, director/Breeding Bird Atlas for the local chapter. There are three kinds of birds in Florida—permanent residents, winter residents and those that migrate through to faraway places, she offers. Marion County Audubon offers regular bird walks.
Hálpata Tastanaki Preserve
Seventeen miles of multi-use trails will reveal myriad forms of wildlife.
15430 SW County Road 484, Dunnellon
The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail
A trail that includes Rainbow Springs State Park and Rainbow River, where there are more than 60 species of birds, including egrets and herons.
Blue Run (Marion County park)
19680 E Pennsylvania Avenue, Dunnellon
Hike or walk and spot hawks, eagles, river otter and other critters.
Three Sisters Springs
123 NW US Highway 19,
Surrounded by a 57-acre refuge wetland habitat, visitors can explore hiking trails and view mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. In the winter, hundreds of manatees visit the warm waters. The refuge was established to protect the West Indian manatee. Trolley and guided walking tours available.
Ocklawaha Prairie Restoration Area
Wildlife viewing, nature study, primitive camping and recreation are a few of the offerings.
Established as Florida’s first backpacking trail, it hosts over 1,300 miles of potential walks and became a National Scenic Trail in 1983.
The Ocala area has national, state, county and city parks for locals and visitors to enjoy. Here are a few highlights of park activities.
Ocala National Forest
The forest has more than 600 lakes, rivers and springs, for year-round swimming, snorkeling and diving, canoeing, kayaking and camping.
Florida State Parks
Treasure hunt in state parks by using your GPS to find geocaches.
Marion County Parks
Marion County has more than 40 parks. Brick City Adventure Park offers archery classes and underground caving, the kind where you need to crawl on your belly. It also offers tours through nature trails where local wildlife resides. Its tram can accommodate people with disabilities.
City of Ocala Parks
The city has a number of parks, including a skateboarding park at 517 NE 9th Street.
Camp It Up
Tents. RVs. Cabins. Ways to go camping in the region are as varied as the personalities who want to get away from it all. While there are far too many tent and RV options to list, here are three outlets for cabin and glamour camping.
Like Airbnb for campers and glampers (campers who want more amenities), Hipcamp’s mission is to get people outdoors so they can connect with nature. The more people get outside, the more likely they are to care about nature and be inclined to protect it, offers Ariana Anthony, communications manager. The site offers unique camping in the Ocala National Forest, such as Grateful Hammock, a campus on eight acres that welcomes tenters, RVs and vans. www.hipcamp.com
Ocala National Forest
Large families and small groups can enjoy two rental cabins, both of vintage Civilian Conservation Corps craftsmanship. The Lake Dorr Cabin is nestled on the south end of Lake Dorr and can accommodate 10 people. Sweetwater Cabin, accommodating 12, overlooks Sweetwater Spring, a freshwater spring that flows into Juniper Run.
Silver Springs State Park
Located beneath shady oaks and pines, cabins accommodate up to six people. Each cabin has a dining area, two bedrooms, one bath, stove, refrigerator, microwave, dishwasher, screened porch, dishes, pots and pans, silverware, linen, towels, picnic tables and rockers. Outside there is a campfire ring with seating as well as a grill.