Ocala, Florida: From lush forests to swim-worthy, natural Springs.

The beauty of Ocala, Florida is everywhere. From it’s lush, rolling hillsides dotted with thoroughbred horses, to swimmable, artesian springs, and renowned forests. Don’t miss Ocala National Forest, it’s many natural springs make it worth the stop. You’ll want to stroll the kitschy, historic downtown area to enjoy the many mom and pop shops that line the square.

Ocala, Florida is a charming small town located in Central Florida. It’s welcoming and eclectic and is a wonderful alternative to Florida’s busy beachfronts and thriving theme park scenes.

Horses, Horses, Horses

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A jockey was out and he was kind enough to stop and let me photograph these beauties.

Known as “The Horse Capital of the World™️,” Ocala’s equestrian-focused attractions are prolific, yet one-of-a-kind. The area leads all other Florida counties in the total number of horses and ponies in residence. Equine Olympians are often spotted training in Ocala year-round as the climate is mild. The area offers 70,000 acres of thoroughbred breeding and training farms.

With horses come horseback trails, and there is no shortage of trails in the area. Travelers who want to trot the trails can choose from 100 miles of horseback riding through Ocala National Forrest and the Greenway. The Ocala National Forest provides a stunning backdrop of unspoiled Florida tropical wilderness. The rich forest’s canopy provides a blanket of shade ideal for riders and the horses on hot summer days. Remember to take water for you and your horse and dress accordingly. There are also designated cycling trails too.

Horse Farm Tours in Ocala, Florida

Curiosity seekers and horse lovers alike can learn about the world of equestrian training by signing up for a horse farm tour. A variety of tours are available, some offer riding classes, while others offer more sophisticated lessons such as eventing, dressage, and showjumping. Additional tours provide a behind the scenes look or a day-in-the-life of a working horse farm.

Farm Tours of Ocala offers “beyond the stall” tours exploring three horse farms in the area, allowing spectators to get up close and personal with local legends and world-class champions, as well as their trainers and caregivers.

The Gypsy Gold tour is of particular interest for a look at a rare breed. Owner Dennis Thompson and his late wife Cindy brought the first Gypsy Vanner horses to North America in 1996. Together, they established The Gypsy Vanner Horse Society, the world’s first registry for a selectively bred horse developed by Gypsies.

Olympic winners David and Karen O’Connor, now own and operate O’Connor Equestrian a camp and clinic training facility in Ocala. David O’Connor is an Olympic gold medalist in eventing; Karen OConnor won an Olympic silver medal in eventing as well.

One last horse-related trip idea: Many horses are loved and well taken care of, but a few need your attention. Why not volunteer at the Horse Protection Association of Florida (HPAF) a 501 (1)(3) which moved to a farm in the area in 2001. One hundred and fifty acres of lush grass provides excellent nutrition, quality grazing land and a peaceful environment for rescued and abused horses. Families are welcome to volunteer. Please contact Karen Curran, the volunteer coordinator, to schedule a half-day volunteer opportunity. Email: kcurranlaw@aol.com.

The Soft Adventure Side

If you’re looking for additional adventures in Ocala, Florida there are a lot of options. Lush state parks and state forests, award-winning mountain bike trails, the largest and longest zip line over water and renowned artesian springs. One of the most famous artesian spring is Silver Springs; located in Silver Springs State Park, one of the largest natural springs in the world.

You may have even seen Silver Springs when watching one of your favorite movies. Hollywood has been filming in Ocala for decades. Over 40 films have been made in and around the springs, including “Tarzan,” “The Yearling,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Doc Hollywood,” “Smokey and the Bandit III” and others. Television shows and commercials have also been filmed there.

A Hollywood Obsession

alt = "Climb aboard for a glass-bottom boat tour in Silver Springs, Ocala Florida."
Climb aboard for a glass-bottom boat tour in Silver Springs, Ocala Florida

It’s easy to understand Hollywood’s obsession with the park. It’s an unspoiled tropical wonderland, with more than 600 lakes, rivers, and springs. Did you know it is one of Florida’s first natural attractions, open since 1870? The park attracts endangered bald eagles, great egrets, gopher turtles, wood ducks and occasionally manatees. A personal guided kayak tour is the best way to see it all and really submerge yourself in the many wonders of this pristine forest.

Another fun way to see the park via a glass bottom boat tour. It’s one of the oldest and longest-running attractions in the state. Remember to look up while you’re in the park. You won’t spot Tarzan, but you may spot one of his co-stars, a rhesus monkey.

Looking for an additional adventure? Hit the trails and hike the Ocala National Forest, the second-largest forest in Florida. Just 40 minutes from downtown Ocala, the forest offers dozens of camping sites and a plethora of different hiking trails ranging from half-mile boardwalks ⏤ to nearly 100 miles of backpacking trails ideal for the experienced naturalist.

Juniper Springs

alt="Juniper Springs, Ocala, Florida."
Juniper Springs, Ocala, Florida

You won’t want to miss the opportunity to canoe or kayak down the 7-mile- long Juniper Springs Run, ranked as one of the best runs in the nation. Be on the lookout for a 45-foot Chapman Oak Tree, located just off State Road 19. This tree is the largest of its species in the U.S. and it’s a registered as an American Champion Tree.

The longest, highest and fastest zip lines in Florida and the longest zips over water in the U.S. are at Canyons Zip Line & Canopy Tours. Zipliner’s won’t experience these views anywhere else in the state. Look forward to seeing massive lime-stone canyons which give-way to vast wooded wonderlands. Worth a stop, and the owners are amazing!

Santos Mountain Bike Trails are some of best mountain biking throughout Florida, within the southeastern U.S. and even internationally. Santos includes 80+ miles of single-track bike trails, a place to discover for mountain biker enthusiasts.

Culinary Stops

alt="The views from Eatons Beach Bar and Grill, Ocala, Florida"
The views from Eatons Beach Bar and Grill, Ocala, Florida

Getting hungry yet? Brick City Southern and Whiskey Bar is a great place if you like smoked meats, plus it boasts one of the largest, curated whiskey collections in the state.

Want a water view without crowded beaches? Eatons Beach Sand Bar and Grill feature a lake view and Southern hospitality. The food is finger-licking good. Brooklyn’s Backyard is another popular local hangout. It offers a fun casual vibe with an American fare menu. What makes it unique? It’s decorated with yard ornaments, lanterns, and grass, it’s the perfect place to pull up a lawn chair and enjoy a delicious meal. Eclectic and fun for the entire family.

On your way out of town, stop by and pick up a few hand-dipped chocolate goodies. Try chocolate fruit, truffles or pick up some fudge at Ocala’s Chocolate and Confections, their eight different varieties will have you drooling, they’ve got ice-cream on the menu. It’s a must stop.

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned for the debut of the World Equestrian Center slated to open in 2021. Did you know Ocala’s airport is expanding, too? Ocala/Marion County is on the move, be sure to visit now introverts while the crowds are still manageable. For more information about Ocala/ Marion County, visit www.ocalamarion. com or call 1-888-FLOCALA.

All Photos: Nina Zapala

This article first appeared in the Naples Daily News, a daily newspaper in Naples Florida, 2017 and has been updated.



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