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The Ocala National Forest is home to the Big Scrub ecosystem and the Florida Trail, featuring cypress-studded wetland prairies, huge oak trees, and spectacular subtropical oases. The area is a natural haven for off-roading enthusiasts.
Ocala National Forest Jeep trails boast of sandy terrain and an impressive ecosystem. Beginner-friendly routes allow you to revel in the lovely scenery and diverse wildlife. Recreational areas make for splendid stopovers, making your stay in the forest rejuvenating and fun.
The Ocala National Forest trails are, perhaps, the best paradoxical embodiment to the saying “need for speed.” You don’t have to be in the fast lane to experience thrill and excitement. Sometimes, easy does it. Enjoying the outdoors at a slow pace is something you can look forward to.
Florida’s Best-Kept Secret
The Ocala National Forest is located in parts of Marion, Lake, and Putnam counties and lies between the Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers. Its porous sands and largely undeveloped charm draw more visitors than any other national forest in the Sunshine State. Plus, nearly 81 miles of Ocala National Forest 4×4 trails and Central Florida’s mild climate make this woodland a top getaway for off-roading. Off-road vehicles like Jeeps are welcome to use any of the forest roads designated as ORV trails.
Some veterans find the riding conditions dry and unchallenging in the daytime, and the only obstacles close to demanding are slightly deep sand and muddy ditches. Still, these can pose a challenge even to modified 4WDs. However, if you own a Jeep, you will naturally have no trouble surviving the sand and mud. Between May and October, expect brief afternoon rain showers, so gear up accordingly.
When to Go Off-Roading
Many tread the forest trails for several reasons – some for an in-depth forest exploration while others for sightseeing and bear watching. For off-roading enthusiasts, it is always for the thrill and excitement of riding and discovering new places. There is no better time to go off-roading with your Jeep than now.
However, for long-term plans, it is best to have your trip coincide with the annual Jeeptoberfest organized by the Ocala Jeep Club to make the most of your adventure. Thousands of Jeeps ranging from stock brutes to heavily modded rigs gather in the spirit of camaraderie and fun. The many vendors onsite offer almost everything a Jeep enthusiast would need from cool accessories to all-terrain trailers. There are also several courses to test your Jeep’s off-road capabilities.
Tread Lightly! Four Wheel Drive Way
If you’re riding a Jeep, there is only one place inside Ocala National Forest – The Four Wheel Drive Way. It is the only dedicated Ocala National Forest Jeep Trail opened with the help of volunteers from Hummer Recreation Rescue and Tread Lightly! The 4×4 trail stretches 81 miles and uses an existing road system – a combination of maintained roads by the Roads Maintenance Program and other unmaintained forest roads. It is currently available for Jeeps, pickup trucks, high-clearance SUVs, and other licensed off-road vehicles. ORMs or off-road motorcycles require a permit in using this trail, but Jeeps and high-clearance SUVs ride it for free.
As of July this year, Jeep’s Badge of Honor mobile app included Tread Lightly! Four Wheel Drive Way. This app launched in 2013 and enabled Jeep to connect more easily with off-road drivers and allow 4×4 enthusiasts to conquer trails and earn corresponding badges. Aficionados can request plates for display on their Jeep’s bumper or leave trail reviews and tips for other Jeep owners directly in the app.
Fees and Permits
Licensed 4x4s can ride free on ORV-marked trails but may need to pay fees if crossing tracks exclusively for ORMs, ATVs, and UTVs. You can purchase a pass that lasts up to three days on the forest trails if a ranger inspects. Annual passes are available, too. Furthermore, riders under 16 years of age must carry a card proving they have taken a state-approved course in OHV safety.
Ocala North OHV Trail System
If you brought your ATV along, you could take advantage of the Ocala North OHV Trail System. These interconnecting loops offer 125 miles of trail consisting of a 14-mile ORM-only trail, a 35-mile track for motorcycles, ATVs, and UTVs, and a collective 76-mile mixed-use trail shared by all OHVs/ORVs and licensed vehicles. A permit is required to drive on this trail. Riders below 16 years of age must wear a helmet at all times when riding. OHVs/ORVs must have a spark-arresting exhaust silencer or end cap as the noise limit tops out at 96 dB. Oh, and don’t forget there is a speed limit of 20 mph.
- Delancy Loops Trail – this is a 16-mile trail that can be accessed along SR 19 and is meant for ORMs and ATVs only due to its narrow vehicle width restriction. This also connects directly to Delancy West Campground, where OHV camping is permitted. The absence of hookups in this campsite is replaced with a picnic table, BBQ grill, fire ring, and lantern holder. Consider arriving early as campsites get filled on a first-come, first-serve basis.
- Hog Valley Trail – this is a 13-mile mixed-used trail, with some parts overlapping with the Motorcycle Loop Trailhead and Tobacco Patch Trail. It is open to motorcycles, ATVs, and UTVs. There is no specific trailhead for access to this OHV trail.
- Longleaf Trail – this is a 25-mile mixed-use trail accessible via the Rodman Trailhead, Delancy West Trailhead, and Campground, or the OHV Center off FR 11. It is a beautiful route along the Ocala North OHV Trail System, linking the Hog Valley Trail, Motorcycle Loop, Tobacco Patch Trail, Pipeline Trail, and Delancy Loops. The vehicle width limit is up to 65 inches.
- Motorcycle Loop Trail – this motorcycle-only loop stretches 14 miles and can be accessed along FR 66. A speed limit of 20 mph is also enforced here, as with other trail systems inside the forest. Fast riders, beware!
- Pipeline Trail – this 19-mile stretch is perhaps the easiest OHV trail to access, as its trailhead along SR 316 (between Salt Springs and Eureka) is very prominent. It includes some sharply piled curves through the scrub. Some portions of it are for mixed-use and connect to Tobacco Patch Trail and Longleaf Trail. The rest of this trail system is strictly for ORMs and ATVs and provides access to Motorcycle Loop.
- Salt Springs OHV Connector Trail – Originating in the southeast corner of the Longleaf Trail, this new connector trail enables OHV riders to access facilities at the Salt Springs Recreation Area. The trail ends at a corral directly across the plaza. Riders who want to visit the Saturday flea market after scenic riding have to park in the corral and use the crosswalk to access the place.
- Tobacco Patch Trail – this is a series of three-stacked OHV loops located northwest of the forest near the Ocklawaha River. This 18-mile mixed-use trail is open to motorcycles, ATVs, and UTVs. It doesn’t have its trailhead but is accessible via reached via NE 150th Avenue, Hog Valley Trail, Motorcycle Loop, or Pipeline Trail along SR 316.
Other Trails in the South
The fun doesn’t end where the North OHV Trail terminates. There is more off-road trail to ride in the southern part of the national forest:
- Ocala Centennial OHV Trail – the name of this 47-mile loop trail was derived from ONF’s centennial year in 2008. It is accessible from trailheads off FR 573, SR 40, and the Big Scrub Campground. Unlicensed vehicles with a width lesser than 65 inches are allowed in this trail system.
- Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail – it’s pretty apparent this 22-mile trail is meant for bicycles, but numerous 4×4 Jeep trails criss-cross the approximately 50 mi2 of this area. Download a free copy of the Ocala Forest Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) book to show all numbered forest roads or Jeep trails with a bike trail overlay.
- Scrubjay OHV Trail – This 20-mile trail is dedicated to increasing people’s awareness of the need to preserve the natural habitat of scrub-jays, gopher tortoises, and native plant species. It is accessed from trailheads off FR 573, SR 40 and the Big Scrub Campground, and will reopen on August 22nd after scheduled trail maintenance. Motorcycles, ATVs, and UTVs are allowed in this trail.
- Wandering Wiregrass Trail – this 17-mile loop is dedicated to ORMs, ATVs, and UTVs and goes through the southeastern corner of the forest, south of the well-known Alexander Springs Recreation area and east of Lake Dorr. Trail entry is via CR 445 between Altoona and Astor. Currently, it has no ATV-specific campgrounds available.
Campsites and Interest Points
We all know that a day is not enough to explore the entirety of Ocala National Forest, which is why off-roaders usually stay in for at least 2-3 days in the campgrounds. So plan your visit, as you are sure to find yourself traversing its wooded trails from morning until nightfall.
After dark, you can stay in the Very Beary Cabin near Ocklawaha, where you can enjoy a quiet morning under the shade of trees, catch fish in the clear water or enjoy smores around the lakeside fire. The cabin is near the access points of the 81-mile Ocala National Forest OHV trails that crisscross through the thick pine forest, so you’re not very far from the action. For larger groups, the Lake Dorr and Sweetwater Cabins are great rental options. Both are of classic Civilian Conservation Corps craftwork and can accommodate 10-12 persons.
Rodman and Big Scrub Campgrounds
The Rodman and Big Scrub Campgrounds are also top picks, especially for ORV enthusiasts. Each site has a little over 60 campsites, with Rodman offering RV and tent sites with electricity and water hookups. Salt Springs Recreation Area, Silver Springs State Park, and Alexander Springs Recreation Area would be perfect for pet lovers. Check the ranger station for information about 4×4 vehicle restrictions on these sites, if any.
Another area of common interest is Juniper Springs, one of the oldest recreation areas in Florida, consisting of hundreds of tiny boils, larger spring vents, and a swimming area. The water here is constant at 72°F in the summer and is perfect for escaping the summer heat. Similarly, Alexander Springs on Lake County Road 445 is another fantastic stopover after driving for miles in the dirt and sand. Apart from swimming, the place also offers seven miles of canoeing through Juniper Creek, kayaking rentals, camping, hiking trails, and picturesque surroundings.
If you take a detour from riding and decide to go canoeing on the 7-mile trail through Juniper Creek, put in at the campground with an experienced paddler in the stern, and take out under the Florida 19 bridge, where one of several canoe concessionaires can shuttle you back to your start. Furthermore, save your adventurous wading for spring-fed Juniper Springs or Fern Hammock Springs as alligators will always have first dibs on the creek.
Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway
Whether you’re close to the area or not, you are sure to see black bear sightings. This 60-mile National Scenic Byway is a network of roads between Silver Springs and Ormond Beach that goes through the communities of Forest Corners, Mill Dam, and Astor along SR 40, and Salt Springs and Altoona along SR 19. It passes through the Ocala National Forest from the north, south, east, and west. Advice from the rangers and the frequenters of ONF is that you store food or any scented items in a hard-topped vehicle or a bear-proof storage container. If you’re parked and resting, hang your food from a branch at least 10 feet in the air. Determined bears have an amplified sense of smell and, in worst-case scenarios, can climb trees and break vehicle windows.
The Dark Forest
At present, there is no actual death toll in the Ocala National Forest. Over the years, some deaths have occurred there but mostly due to accidents or from natural causes. To date, there is no account of death due to off-roading. If there would be any deaths, it would most probably be your vehicle’s battery (especially if you are riding an old Jeep model).
But based on a study by the University of Florida in 2017, 10% of riders who took the survey felt that safety was an issue in the Ocala OHV Trail. Not because the trails were dangerous, but because some were not properly marked. Also, ORM riders comprised a big chunk of the respondents who expressed dissatisfaction. By default, motorcycles leave a rider more prone to accidents due to very little protection, whereas a Jeep would traverse the woods like a piece of cake.
Open Comments from Off-Roaders
72.4% of survey respondents in a study carried out by the University of Florida stated their riding experience was perfect or nearly perfect, but with expressed dissatisfaction with lack of trail maintenance, limited riding conditions in open scramble areas, and monotonous riding opportunities. 4×4 riders, including Jeeps, could not fully explore the natural environment due to riding limitations and some closed-off areas in the forest. Despite the survey results, off-roaders still felt that they could attain their motivation for visiting the national forest – be it enjoying nature, exploring the surrounding areas, challenging their off-roading skill sets, or promoting physical fitness.
FAQs on the Ocala National Forest Off Road Trails
- Is the Ocala National Forest Closed? The national forest closed all of its campgrounds on March 22, 2020, but reopened them to the public on June 8, 2020. However, all restrooms are still closed for everyone’s health safety.
- What animals live in Ocala National Forest? Alligators, white-tailed deer, wild boar, squirrels, bats, coyotes, gray/red foxes, opossums, raccoons, river otters, bobcats, skunks, southeastern pocket salamanders, gopher tortoise, nine-banded armadillos, woodpeckers, egrets, and herons live in the forest.
- Where can I find an Ocala National Forest Jeep Trails map? You can find a copy of a trail map at the USDA website.
- What are the dangers of the Ocala National Forest OHV Trail? There are very few hazards on the Ocala OHV Trail. It is unlikely that you will see sharp corners or fallen tree branches on the trails. Jeepers, however, veer away from crossing the Bounty Hole part of the Jeep trails believed to be three feet deep after heavy rains. Nevertheless, be on the lookout for natural hazards that come with riding off-road.
- Where can I grab a good meal inside Ocala National Forest? The communities in and along the Ocala National Forest edges have a few of the local’s favorite eateries. Among them are Bass Champions, Square Meal, and Castaways. Paisley also has a restaurant, as does Forest Corners.
- Are the trails in Ocala National Forest easy to find? I would say yes if you have been to the forest more than five times. But if it’s your first visit, it is highly recommended to download or pick up a vehicle map from the ranger station for any service roads in the forest you want to wheel in. Not only will this make pathfinding easier for you, but some jurisdictions also do not shy away from ticketing or impounding vehicles found on prohibited trails.
Ocala National Forest Jeep Trails – Exploring the Floridian Wilderness
Whether by foot, bike, or vehicle, there are just so many recreation opportunities in the Ocala National Forest. The richness of flora and fauna keeps you wanting for more. Its 81-mile trail offers a variety of riding opportunities for Jeep enthusiasts. Best of it all, this is one off-roading adventure that you can share with your family and friends making it priceless.