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

Photo by Sally White

Explore via land, air and water

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Far from the theme-park crowds, outdoor adventure awaits in North Central Florida. Marion County, located north of Orlando and south of Gainesville, is known for rolling green pastures, thoroughbred farms, turquoise-colored springs and deep limestone pits. All of this makes it a unique adventure destination spot. And best of all, visitors have the opportunity to explore this slice of natural Florida via land, air and water.

The city of Ocala makes a prime base for exploring Marion County. Hotel accommodations and chain eateries are best found around the I-75/HWY 200 exit. Camping is available at the State and National Forest Recreation Areas as well as areas along the Florida Greenway.

North Central Florida: Day 1 River Adventures

Come sun-up, adventurers can head to the southwest corner of Marion County to float the Rainbow River. The Front Porch in Dunnellon offers a delicious hometown breakfast of biscuits and gravy among their selections, a perfect stop before hitting the river.

In summer, tubers can make like Huckleberry Finn and go with the flow on the 4- to 4.5-hour tube trip from the K.P. Hole in Dunnellon. Those feeling more energetic can rent kayaks or canoes at the same launch point (year-round) and head up river 1.5 miles to Rainbow Springs State Park and the mainsprings of the Rainbow River. Float back to the K.P. Hole or continue on along with the tuber trail to the takeout point at the HWY 484 bridge.

The Rainbow River is one of Florida’s pristine and protected waterways and abundant with fish and bird and wildlife. Shoals of fish swim below in the crystal clear water. Anhinga birds perch on branches to dry their wings. Turtles sunbathe on logs and otters dart through the water in search of a fresh dinner catch.

If the day on the river hasn’t worn anybody out enough, outdoor enthusiasts can travel north on HWY 41 to Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon for a hike around the winding garden paths and past waterfalls at this former historic Florida attraction. Later they can take a dip in the crystal clear, cool waters of Rainbow Springs.

Visitors can wrap up their day overlooking the Rainbow River with good food and live music at the popular local spot, The Blue Gator.

Day 2: Face the Vortex

Time to don those bike helmets. Cycling enthusiasts will love the multi-level skill trails at Santos Bike Trails in Belleview. Santos offers everything from beginner trails to the fear-inducing Vortex Trail, where cyclists can try the ramps, jumps, bridges, and the challenging Corkscrew, a ramp run that winds back under itself. Rental bikes are available at the bike shop across from Santos Trailhead.

Not a cyclist? Hikers can enjoy these Florida Greenways on foot on the Florida Trail, which also runs through the Santos Trailhead area. Afterward, tired adventurers can grab a cool drink (and maybe even a swim) at Eaton Beach on Lake Weir, just a short drive away.

Day 3: Soar Like a Bird and Float Like a Leaf

Explorers can soar across canyons and lakes at The Canyons Zip Line and Canopy Tours. The Canyon Zip Lines offer 2.5- to 3-hour zip line experiences with two swinging bridges and a rappel. Catch aerial views of the historic limestone mining pits and wild landscape in this little-known Ocala gem. Travelers should make reservations in advance or arrive early to bypass the lines (and beat the Florida heat) and take in this unique way of exploring natural Florida from above.

Afterwards, adventurers can return to the ground and catch a casual lunch in downtown Ocala at Feta Mediterranean Cuisine, known for tasty Greek dishes. Prefer American fare? The nearby Richard’s Place, a popular breakfast spot among locals, also offers lunch favorites.

The day’s still young and more adventures await farther down Silver Springs Boulevard at Silver Springs State Park. This historic Florida attraction, now a state park, offers visitors the opportunity to view the largest artesian spring in the world from the dry comfort of their world-famous glass bottom boats. Guests can take the 45-minute boat tour over the springhead and discover the many natural wonders above and below the Silver River.

Wrap up this final day of outdoor adventure and enjoy a leisurely dinner at one of Ocala’s fine dining experiences, like the La Cuisine French Restaurant, Ipanema Brazilian Steakhouse, Mark’s Prime Steakhouse, The Braised Onion or The Ivy House.

All in all, visitors can choose one or more of these three days packed with adventure, or do them all. Marion County offers outdoor enthusiasts a myriad of opportunities to explore the natural side of North Central Florida.

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