With the right vehicle and some expert guidance, a challenging off -road adventure awaits just off the beaten path.
Travel a few miles east out of Ocala and you’ll leave behind the crowded shopping areas and suburban traffic. Drive off the main highway into the Ocala National Forest and you’ll enter a realm where nature rules. But even here, there are rules of engagement for taking advantage of the miles and miles of forest roads and trails that lead to, well, nowhere in particular but somewhere quite special.
The United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service manages three national forests in Florida—the Apalachicola, Osceola and Ocala. Combined, they cover nearly 1.2 million acres in north and central Florida, with more than 1,400 miles of trails. President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the Ocala National Forest (ONF) in 1908. Covering about 387,000 acres, or more than 600 square miles, it has the world’s largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest, which is one reason that getting off -road there can be so much fun.
Jay Perry, the ONF’s recreation manager, says that of their more than 2 million visitors on an annual basis, roughly a quarter of those are four-wheel drive enthusiasts. The Tread Lightly! Four Wheel Drive Way features 81 miles of roads geared especially to visitors with true four-wheel drive vehicles that have the proper amount of ground clearance and provide maximum traction in an off -road environment. Taking two-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles on these trails is not recommended and may lead to damage to your vehicle or could find you stuck in the middle of all that nowhere.
The code of Tread Lightly! is: Travel responsibly, Respect the rights of others, Educate yourself, Avoid sensitive areas and Do your part. Perry says the best way to access these roads is to install the Avenza app, which allows you to download maps for offline use on a smartphone or tablet. The device’s built-in GPS will track your location even when you don’t have cell service, which happens a lot in the forest. If you have never visited the Tread Lightly! Four Wheel Drive Way before, you will want to navigate your way there using the app or you may miss the entrance at Forest Road #9 (a two lane dir t road with access on the south side of East State Road 40), just down the road from the Lake George Ranger District Office. There is no significant roadside signage and the Tread Lightly! kiosk is on the west side about 100 yards down the trail from the main road.
To test drive the ONF trails, two of Ocala Style’s own thrill-seeking photographers, Meagan Gumpert and Dave Miller, hit the road in a fully- loaded 2020 Jeep Gladiator belonging to their friend, Ladden Herrmann, an Ocala resident and off -road enthusiast.
“The Tread Lightly! trail is well documented as far as the maps go and you can learn more in some forums online and on the National Forest website,” shares Miller. “They have maps you can print off and with Avenza it’s marked really well as far as which roads you can go on. There are areas of different experience levels, such as where the sand is not too thick or it’s not too hard to get around, but then there are areas that are more advanced, where you have to have a very capable vehicle, like a Jeep.”
Perry and Miller both stress that staying on numbered forest roads is a must in order to avoid being given a citation. The miles of trails include some that are permitted only for off -highway vehicles such as ATVs or motorcycles. Some areas of the forest are protected, such as wetlands, and you can’t drive there. Paying close attention that your vehicle—denoted as a small blue dot on Avenza as you travel—stays on the black trail line will keep you from having a conversation with a law enforcement officer or forest ranger.
“I cannot emphasize it enough to have this app downloaded when you come out to the forest,” stresses Perry. “It will save you a lot of time and money and issues because you won’t get caught where you’re not supposed to be.”
It was back in 2009, he says, that some four-wheel enthusiasts provided a grant of $10,000 to help designate the 81 miles of trails.
“We didn’t add anything, but made a defined route for Jeeps,” Perry outlines. “These are all on existing routes and with their assistance and money we put up three kiosks and created some maps. It’s kind of a Jeep destination. More recently, Tread Lightly! got involved. They are a nonprofit and their thing is responsible use of trails. Any time we can get a partnership, we are happy.”
Perry says that the condition of the roads in the forest can contain hazards such as downed trees, deep sugar sand and wildlife. He recommends maintaining a moderate speed and paying attention to what might pop up around the next sharp curve.
“Our forest is here for enjoyment; it’s not a racetrack,” he explains. “Responsible use is what we’re looking for out here. We want you to enjoy nature. We don’t allow mudding and tearing up the roads is not acceptable. You can put yourself in position for a federal misdemeanor punishable up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine. Most fines are less, but if you get caught in a wetland or off of a numbered road, it’s fees plus court costs.”
Before you begin your journey into the forest, it is a good idea to put some food and water in your vehicle and bring some extra fuel.
“And, you want to go in with someone in case you get stuck so they can tow you out,” notes Gumpert, “because there is no cell reception out there.”
Perry says there are a couple of towing companies that can come to your aid but that can get pricey as well, in the neighborhood of $300, and that the tow truck drivers are required to report back to the Forest Service if they tow out people who were in an area they were not supposed to be in.
“You’re way out there and you might not see anybody,” Miller notes. “You’re talking about miles and miles of trails. If you go on the weekends, there are people who come from all over with their families and go out with multiple Jeeps and have a great day out there, but if you go out on a weekday, you might not see anybody.”
Miller, who is a veteran trail rider, says he loves being able to see the abundant wildlife in the forest, including bears, deer and “all kinds of snakes. The wildlife is a nice side of things.”
He also says being on the ONF is “family friendly fun if you are properly prepared.” “Honestly, it’s all nature. You don’t see power lines, other vehicles really, you don’t see buildings,” he explains. “It’s really one of the last pure nature places around here. It’s beautiful and it’s huge, very expansive, with lakes and ponds. It’s nice to escape city life and get out there.”
“And no cellphone reception is actually nice to kind of disconnect, be off the grid for a little while,” shares Gumpert. “On our recent outing, I also enjoyed how much the terrain would change, like some areas would be more wooded and then one section looked like there had been a controlled burn in that spot and it was desolate but still really beautiful in a different way. It is neat how you can explore different trails just to see what you can find.”
Perry notes that visitors can drive back out to access maintained campgrounds or you can pull your Jeep off the side of the trail and engage in primitive camping in the woods. Check the website for specific rules pertaining to dispersed camping. He also wants people to enjoy the wildlife, including bear sightings, but cautions that you must never feed wild animals in the forest.
“Enjoy it. Take pictures,” he states, “but don’t get too close.”
If you do decide to visit the Ocala National Forest, you can find lots of useful information online and by visiting either the Lake George Ranger District Office or Seminole Ranger District Office.
To learn more, call (352) 625-2520 or go to www.fs.usda.gov/florida or for information about Tread Lightly!, visit treadlightly.org