By Dalia Colon
Length: 123 miles.
How to get around: Car, off-road vehicle or mountain bike.
Best time to visit: Winter. The mild weather is ideal for hiking, kayaking and camping.
Fun fact: Many classic movies were filmed in the area, including Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Tarzan movies.
In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt established the National Forest Service. Three years later, Ocala National Forest became just the second officially named national forest east of the Mississippi River.
“Back then, it was referred to as the land nobody wanted,” said Michael Woods, chairman of the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway.
Oh, how times have changed. The land once scorned for being too remote is now treasured for its serenity. Drive among the sand pines and scrub oaks as you keep an eye out for deer, bears (hence the road’s name) and other wildlife.
Woods’s favorite way to explore the area is by kayak. At 72 degrees year-round and crystal clear, Juniper Springs makes for a blissful yet challenging route. After working up an appetite, consult the byway’s app for nearby restaurant recommendations.
“They’re all real small mom-and-pops,” said Woods, who recommends the fried fish at Blackwater Inn overlooking the St. Johns River. “The area is very, very rural. It’s a taste of old Florida.”
And he does mean old. In addition to its natural wonders, the area is the site of ancient Native American burial grounds.