Ocala, once considered a dusty Central Florida cow town, is an adventurer’s paradise with rolling hills, horse farms, a national forest and one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions, Silver Springs State Park. It may not fit with your idea of a typical Florida vacation spot lined with beaches and palm trees, but Ocala will pleasantly surprise you when visiting this charming destination packed with natural beauty and fun.
Northwest of Orlando and south of Gainesville, Ocala is surrounded by acres and acres of fenced-lined horse pastures. Known as the “horse capital of the world,” more than 700 horse farms dot the Marion County landscape ranging from small two-acre farms to the largest spread of 4,500 acres. This area is also home to the Ocala National Forest, the second largest national forest in the U.S. with hiking, biking, kayaking, crystal clear springs, lakes and rivers. Not far from the horse farms and the pine forests you’ll also find one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions, Silver Springs State Park.
Silver Springs State Park
Launch your visit with a nostalgic tour of “old Florida” by cruising in a vintage glass bottom boat at the Silver Springs State Park. The boat captain touts the history and ecological features as visitors peer down at the bubbly springs and wonders below. Fish and turtles glide through the sea grass while an occasional alligator, or manatee, swims below.
Ocala National Forest
The Ocala National Forest is known as the “the big scrub” by virtue of its dense Florida sand pine scrub, which is considered one of the most endangered ecosystems in Florida.
Bordered by the Ocklawaha River on the west, and the St. Johns River on the east, the forest provides year around recreation with nearly 400,000 acres, 600 lakes, rivers and three first-magnitude springs. If you are seeking adventure by canoe or kayak, you are in for a wonderful paddle through spectacular scenery.
This Forest is also considered one of the state’s best destinations for hiking. In fact, hikers can trek 73 miles along the Florida Trail through stunning Ocala wilderness.
Four major springs, referred to as the “jewels of the Ocala National Forest,” are the Juniper, Alexander, Silver Glen and Salt Springs offering refreshing retreats during the summer in the cool 72-degree water.
This Florida treasure is located in the Juniper Springs Wilderness area where the vibrant turquoise blue headspring is surrounded by a swimming hole, historic millhouse and picnic area.
To appreciate this beauty, paddle a kayak or canoe down the Juniper Springs Run, a slow moving, winding creek that will gently carry you through breathtaking scenery. You’ll paddle through twists and turns surrounded by pristine and lush forested hammocks; you’ll glide under fallen trees and past fields of colorful wildflowers. Shafts of sunlight will shine through overhanging branches illuminating crystal clear water and a shallow sandy bottom below. This one-way, four-hour trip will then wind through the park's Prairie Wilderness Area eventually flowing to the Wayside Park.
Ocala is Florida’s horse country, and a drive through this world-class horse capital will quickly help you understand what drives this region. Some say it’s the nutrient-rich Florida limestone soil that creates healthier grass for stronger horses while others believe it’s Ocala’s equestrian history and close-knit tradition that has nurtured a legacy of winners. No matter what the reason, during your visit you’re sure to learn more about horses and the “behind the fence” industry that drives it.
Ride the Greenway
The 110-mile corridor of the Florida Greenway extends across Florida from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. John’s River, running through Marion County and next to Ocala’s 500-acre Florida Horse Park. The Park sits next to the Greenway and is a major destination for equestrian riding and major events. Inside the Horse Park BG Trail Rides provides horses to help you saddle up and enjoy a ride along the Greenway, take in scenic views while breathing in the fresh air.
Sit in Comfort on a Carriage Ride
Board a carriage with Horse Carriage Company and ride by some of Ocala’s most prestigious farms through the rolling hills of Marion County past pastures speckled with horses. The clip clop of the horse’s hooves evokes a magical feeling as you ride riding under a canopy of shady trees. And best of all, your guide will bring you near the fence lines so that you can pat and admire the elegant horses that happily greet you.
Go with an Insider
For another unique “behind the gates” experience, try Farm Tours of Ocala. Owner Karen Grimes is a local expert and industry insider, who personally shuttles guests in her comfortable van while touring through horse country, visiting thoroughbred racehorse farms, sophisticated equine breeding farms and event facilities that focus on sport horses.
Hope Hall Farm
If you only have time to visit one local farm, consider a stop at Hope Hall Farm where German owners, Traudel Bongers and Thomas Stenebach train horses and riders for worldwide competitions. Majestic horses gallop through manicured pastures surrounded by shady oaks. This facility also serves as an equine quarantine facility for those animals entering the United States. Hope Hall also serves as a Bed & Breakfast Inn so to arrange a visit or plan a stay, call ahead.
More Places to Stay In Ocala
Both the Holiday Inn Conference Center Ocala and the Courtyard by Marriott offer easy access off of I-75. Accommodations are comfortable, clean and both have restaurants on the premises. Also, the BG Sun Plaza Motel is clean, retro inspired with easy access to the Ocala National Forest.
Places to Dine
Consider the award-winning Sky Fusion Restaurant, the organic Artisanal Dish Restaurant (Blue Wagyu) and the Horse and Hounds Restaurant where the locals lunch.
Florida native Robin Draper is a columnist and owner of the award-winning “Blog of the Year” and “Best Travel Blog” and website, AuthenticFlorida.com, that features travel and lifestyle topics.
For more information: Visit Ocala Marion