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Gainesville, Ocala and Natural North Florida

Photo by Sandra Friend

Gainesville, Ocala and Natural North Florida Itineraries

Marion County in North Central Florida: 3 Days of Outdoor Adventure

Shades of blue and green

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Shimmering springs in aquamarine, teal, and robin’s-egg blue. Vast forests of leafy green, and rolling hills topped with grassy pastures. As a resident of this region for much of my life, I paint it in shades of blue and green, the contrast of sparkling waterways, lakes, and springs with woodlands, farms, and fields. Other friends paint it in blue and orange, the colors of the Florida Gators. There are many contrasts you can draw between Gainesville and Ocala, separated by less than 40 miles along Interstate 75: young and old, vibrant and quiet, liberal and conservative. Gainesville’s population has a constant turnover, thanks to being a college town; Ocala has become a mecca for retirees. But there’s one thing that both cities agree on. If you love the outdoors, you’re in the right place.


Gainesville

Hip and historic: that’s the vibe of Gainesville, one of the hilliest and leafiest cities in the Florida peninsula. It started as a tiny settlement along Hogtown Creek – yes, that one, which the Hogtown Greenway now follows – and beat out Lake City as the site of the University of Florida back in 1853. The city of the Gators is indeed the city of the ‘gators, as you’ll find out with a visit to Paynes Prairie, the vast grassland defining the city’s south edge. It was first documented by botanist William Bartram in his Travels. Visiting the village of Cuscowilla on the edge of the great prairie in 1774, Bartram mused that “one hundred thousand human inhabitats” might live along these “exuberant green meadows, and the fertile hills which immediately encircle it.” Gainesville’s population hit that mark in 2000. A compact downtown with restaurants and nightlife means a bustling evening scene, but the mostly-residential city itself sprawls in several directions around the University of Florida. Connected by urban bike paths and greenways, Gainesville thinks and acts green.

Surrounding Gainesville are a host of rural villages with authentic Old Florida charm. Micanopy, founded in 1821, is Florida’s oldest inland community, with Victorian homes, antique stores and art galleries, and a main street straight out of the past. Pulitzer Prize winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings put Cross Creek on the map, a community where Lake Lochloosa and Orange Lake, both popular with anglers, meet. Florida’s phosphate boom built the town of Newberry in 1870, where paleontologists have had a field day digging out fossilized crocodiles, turtles, and other creatures whose bones can be seen at the Florida Natural History Museum in Gainesville. Settlers coming down the Bellamy Road into High Springs on the Santa Fe River as early as the 1830s; Florida’s phosphate boom accelerated the town’s growth in the 1870s, and it retains that turn-of-the-century feel. The Bellamy Road also brought settlers to the pastoral town of Alachua, founded in 1905, and to Melrose, where you’ll find Florida’s densest concentration of historic homes.


Ocala

Known as the “Horse Capital of the World,” with more than 225 working horse farms, Ocala – the heart of Marion County – is one of the top horse breeding centers in the world. During the winter months, equestrians from around the United States descend on Ocala for world-class riding and jumping competitions, including the ever-popular seven-week-long HITS (Horses in the Sun) series of hunter/jumper competitions hosted by Post Time Farm, one of the few farms where you can see show horses being put through their paces.  At the Florida Horse Park, ongoing Olympic trials-style competition means more spectator fun. Trail rides are offered on an extensive trail system along the Cross Florida Greenway, a mile-wide recreational corridor spanning 30 miles across the region and offering separate trail systems (with inexpensive campgrounds) for equestrians, off-road cyclists, and hikers. The famed Santos Trails run through former mining pits and are a draw for cyclists throughout the southeast, especially during the annual Fat Tire Festival.

One of Florida’s first tourist draws was a visit to Silver Springs, and that’s how my family fell in love with Ocala in the 1960s, when Lloyd Bridges used to dive in the crystalline waters for Sea Hunt. Visitors started flocking here in 1878, when the invention of a new device called a glass-bottomed boat was used to ferry visitors across the main spring, one of the world’s largest, and the dozens of aquamarine springs along the Silver River’s meandering course. In the 1930s, Rainbow Springs was transformed into a public garden surrounding another compelling series of springs, and became a tourist attraction in its own right. It wasn’t until the theme park era that both of these natural attractions struggled; thankfully, they are both now under the protection of Florida State Parks.

Teddy Roosevelt signed the act that created the Ocala National Forest, one of the first National Forests east of the Mississippi, in 1909. Due east of Ocala, it blankets more than half a million acres, centered on the world’s largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest, a desert-like environment of ancient sand dunes topped with fluffy sand pine trees. Among these rolling hills are oases where more massive springs pour forth millions of gallons of water daily: Salt Springs, Alexander Springs, Silver Glen Springs, and Juniper Springs. Each of these gems is a recreation area where you can swim, snorkel, and in some cases, dive and camp nearby.


Natural North Florida

Anchored by Gainesville and Cedar Key to the south and Monticello to the north, this broad swath of rural North Florida encompasses communities along the fabled Suwannee River and its tributaries, as well as the wild shores of Florida’s Big Bend. Nature rules in this region, with campgrounds, cabins, and fish camps to settle into and stay awhile.  The greatest attractions here are natural beauty and solitude.

Along the Suwannee River, meandering 246 miles through this region, there are more than 300 documented springs, which vary greatly in size, depth, and flow. Most of the largest (known as “first magnitude”) springs are protected as part of state or county parks or water management lands, and typically open for swimming and diving. Divers come from around the world to experience the bountiful freshwater springs of the region. Cave diving certification is required for many of the dives in this region, where the limestone beneath forests and farms is riddled with holes like Swiss cheese, with underwater tunnels that can go on for thousands of feet.

From Big Shoals to Suwannee, the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail provides paddlers a place for a long-distance trip through rural Florida, with nicely appointed River Camps providing stopover points and places to camp and shower. The statewide Florida Trail, our National Scenic Trail, spends more than 60 miles of its route along the rugged river bluffs, a beautiful backpacking experience.

Coastal communities cater to anglers and paddlers, with the Florida Saltwater Circumnavigational Trail running along the wildest shoreline in Florida, the Big Bend. Cedar Key, the historic terminus of the Florida Railroad, is where John Muir ended “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf” after crossing Florida from Fernandina. Well known for its seafood restaurants and artists, Cedar Key is a great launch point for adventures by kayak or boat through the coastal islands and estuaries. The town of Suwannee sits along its namesake river within sight of the marshes into which the river vanishes to flow into the Gulf of Mexico. Steinhatchee and Keaton Beach are popular outposts for anglers, who have miles of grassy flats to fish along the expansive shallows of the Big Bend, where Florida’s Panhandle and peninsula meet.


Explore Gainesville, Ocala and Natural North Florida Itineraries

Marion County in North Florida: 3 Days of Outdoor Adventure …Explore via land, air and water


What it Costs

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in $US.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double

Eat
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Videos

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