Indian Lake State Forest is a testament to humans and nature working together for a positive outcome for all. Free of charge to the public, open dawn to dusk 365 days of the year, the forest offers hiking, horseback riding, fishing and primitive camping in a naturally preserved setting.
Given a chance and a little assistance, Mother Nature will reclaim what is hers. Such is the case with Indian Lake State Forest. Located in the Silver Springs/Anthony area in northeast Marion County and bisected by County Road 35 (Baseline Road), these 4,466 acres were once farmlands and were even platted for future housing development. But, thankfully, the Florida Forever program acquired the property through purchases in 2007 and 2008.
Marion County, The Nature Conservancy, the Silver Springs Working Group and the Department of Environmental Protection also provided additional financial assistance.
Indian Lake State Forest, which is managed by the Florida Forest Service (FFS), was created from those purchased lands. The FFS operates under the auspices of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS).
“The main goal of the Forever Florida land purchase was to utilize these areas to restore the Silver Springs water system flow and quality. The dry, sandhill topography, where rainwater drains through easily, is key to recharging groundwater,” says Ludie Bond, an FFS district public information officer. “The FFS has also planted hundreds of longleaf pine trees to maintain the integrity of the sandy soil to aid the process. And Indian Lake is actually a sinkhole lake, which drains adjacent Indian Lake Prairie into the Florida aquifer. So, there’s this amazing connection to all the ecosystem pieces that make up Indian Lake State Forest.”
Bond also explains that “year-round prescribed burning helps maintain the native plants and keep out the invasive species. Prescribed burning also leads to new growth of nutrient-rich plants, which serve as food for wildlife.”
The other aspect of the FFS’s management of Indian Lake State Forest is creating recreational opportunities for the public. But, according to FFS District Wildlife Biologist Charlie Pedersen, there is a provision to that recreation.
“The recreation in Indian Lake State Forest has to be compatible with the restoration mission and nature. We have hiking, shore fishing, primitive camping and horseback riding. It’s a great place to bird watch and keep an eye out for wildlife like deer, wild turkey, fox squirrels and even black bears,” notes Pedersen. “But we do not allow boating or swimming in Indian Lake. Hunting is not allowed either. I like to say that we promote space, solitude and self-reliance while enjoying nature and doing no harm.”
A Lakeside Hike
While the 1.6-mile Bear-N-Oak Trail that loops around Indian Lake can be accessed from a small trailhead directly off County Road 35, the parking is limited there. A much better choice is to drive past that trailhead to the main Indian Lake State Forest Recreation Area Trailhead just up the road. Officially, that trailhead is 2.6 miles north of the intersection of State Road 326 and County Road 35, on the east side.
A lime rock road winds its way to an inviting park-like setting overlooking the 3-acre Indian Lake, a reported 85 feet deep in the center and home to, yes, alligators. Grand live oaks provide abundant shade, with numerous picnic tables scattered about, including one down on the lake beach. There are barbecue grills and a first-come, first-served covered pavilion for gatherings. Leashed pets are allowed in the recreation area and on the hiking trail. There are five primitive campsites available by reservation. An enclosed vault toilet is the basic amenity.
“This is such a great spot to just relax and enjoy nature. All but 1,000 acres of Indian Lake State Forest is on this side of County Road 35,” says Bond, smiling as she looks out to Indian Lake, where on this day two fishermen are casting their lines from the shore. “It’s accessible for all ages and a great spot for families to spend a day.”
Facing the lake, the hiking trail can be accessed to the right past the pavilion or to the left past the parking area. Blue blazes mark the trail, which is flat and carpeted with leaves and pine needles. This is a quintessential Florida walk in the woods, featuring live oaks, sand and longleaf pines, scrub oaks and palm trees. And, thanks to Indian Lake, an added treat is seeing cypress trees and their knees, which are distinctive knobby root outgrowths.
“The cypress trees and knees are a great visual to show just how high the lake’s water level can be during a good rainy season or after a hurricane,” Pedersen points out. “This is as Florida as it gets.”
Another feature of the lake loop trail is the little foot bridge that crosses Indian Prairie Run, which spills into Indian Lake.
“Walking across the Indian Prairie Run bridge is another teachable moment of how nature is always connected and how we have to foster that connectivity,” Bond says.
Saddle Up & Ride
The Indian Lake Equestrian Trailhead is located on 1,000 acres, 1.5 miles north of the intersection of State Road 326 and County Road 35, on the west side. There is ample horse trailer parking, a covered pavilion, picnic tables and a vault toilet. While there is a future plan to install a water pump, there is no water available for humans or horses at this time.
Some 11 miles of trails wind through wooded areas and on wide grassy lanes, allowing for side-by-side riding and not just nose-to-tail riding. The grassy lanes between the newly planted forests of longleaf pines just beg for trotting and cantering. To experience both, take the Blue Diamond trail going west from the trailhead. It begins in the woods then spills out onto the grassy lanes. At the first Double Red Diamond marker, take a right to head back to the trailhead, making for a nice introductory 5-mile trail ride.
“Riding is allowed all year long. But because of the open trails bordered by young longleaf pines that don’t provide much shade yet, the cool days of fall and winter are best for riding here,” advises Bond. “And, just like when planning to hike and come out to the recreation area side, we encourage visitors to check the website for when prescribed burning is going on. If burning is going on, it would be best to plan for another day.”
“There are no horseback riding trails at the recreation area trailhead,” Bond adds. “We have had reports of people coming into that side with their horses and going into Indian Lake. This is not allowed and, because it is a sinkhole lake with alligators, it is also very dangerous.”
For Bond, Indian Lake State Forest provides ample recreational opportunities that should be respected.
“We want people to come out and enjoy Indian Lake State Forest. It’s a wonderful natural setting we are fortunate to have preserved,” says Bond. “And we want people to recreate responsibly, respecting each other and nature.
Indian Lake State Forest Trailheads
Equestrian Trailhead: 7200-7726 NE 58th Avenue, Silver Springs
Recreation Area Trailhead: 7728-8126 NE 58th Avenue, Silver Springs
For more information, visit FDACS.gov or contact Ludie Bond, Florida Forest Service District Public Information Officer, at (352) 395-4943 or email Ludie.Bond@FDACS.gov
To reserve primitive campsites, visit FloridaStateForests.ReserveAmerica.com