FLORIDA'S NATIONAL FORESTS
By Kevin Mims
Florida has three National Forests: Apalachicola, Ocala and Osceola. Explore their one-of-a-kind wonders.
Three national forests lie within Florida’s borders, providing habitat to countless plant and animal species, some of which are found nowhere else on the planet. Unique features such as gin-clear freshwater springs, massive sinkholes and one of the longest explored underwater cave systems in the United States provide a window into Florida’s geological history. Combine the three forests together and you have a protected piece of land that’s larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Historical treasures and recreational opportunities in Florida’s national forests are equally as impressive. Hundreds of miles of linear and loop trails in the Florida National Scenic Trail system give both day hikers and long-distance backpackers a footpath to experience the natural side of the Sunshine State. Birding, geocaching, kayaking and mountain biking are all equally as popular in Florida’s national forests. History? Yes, there’s plenty of that to be found, ranging from Civil War sites and battlefields to ancient Native American shell mounds.
Ready to start exploring? Here are some “don’t-miss” spots in each of the three locations.
Apalachicola National Forest
Near Tallahassee, this is the largest national forest in the state, covering more than a half-million acres of longleaf pine, freshwater springs, rivers and lakes. Here, you’ll find interpretive information and artifacts at the site of Fort Gadsden, which dates to the War of 1812. Explore the world of Karst topography at the Leon Sinks Geological Area, with rugged trails leading to massive sinkholes, limestone formations and an extensive underwater cave system. Follow the Apalachee Savannahs Scenic Byway near Bristol to botanical wonders such as rare carnivorous pitcher plants, native orchids and sprays of colorful wildflowers.
Osceola National Forest
If Civil War history is your thing, you need to head over to the site of the largest battle in Florida at Olustee. Each year in February, the annual Battle of Ocean Pond (or Olustee, depending on a Confederate or Union point of view) reenactment takes place at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park. Hunting, camping, hiking and equestrian activities are also popular in the Osceola National Forest. Set up basecamp at Ocean Pond Campground (water and electric sites are available), and explore the forest via the Florida National Scenic Trail. The Osceola National Forest is located east of Lake City and west of Jacksonville.
Ocala National Forest
The Ocala National Forest, located east of Ocala, is home to some of the most incredible places in the state. Freshwater springs, anyone? The Ocala National Forest has enough crystal-clear springs to keep you refreshed all summer long. Recreation areas like Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs, Silver Glen Springs and Salt Springs are incredible places to play, while also learning about Timucuan Indian culture. Hike through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, which protects a portion of the largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest in the world. See it all for yourself with a hike on the Florida Trail, and keep an eye out for the Florida Scrub-Jay, one of the rarest yet most personable birds in the state.
For more information on Florida’s National Forests, visit fs.usda.gov/florida.