Exit Here: Why This Florida Spot Should be Your Next Stop
Some destinations are notoriously hard to reach; Ocala/Marion County in Florida, on the other hand, practically rolls out the red carpet. With six exits off I-75, a major thoroughfare of the Sunshine State, the area offers a number of attractions at each stop, making it an easy choice for a weekend getaway overflowing with different options.
Not only is the region home to outdoor parks, sporting events and zip-line adventures, it’s also packed with history, shopping and more horses than you can imagine. It's also far away from crowded beaches, theme parks and traffic, making it an ideal destination if it's zen you're seeking.
Read on to see why there are plenty of reasons to pull off the highway and create your own itinerary in Ocala/Marion County.
Exit 368: Scene Setters
With a population of about 500 people, the quaint town of McIntosh is a perfect introduction to the pace of life in Ocala/Marion County. Retaining that Old Florida feel with its shaded oaks and charming antique shops, McIntosh is usually a quiet spot for those looking for nostalgia. In October, however, tens of thousands of people descend for the annual McIntosh 1890s Festival, a free event which includes live music and nearly 300 vendors selling food and drinks, antiques as well as arts and crafts.
Agriculture is huge in Central Florida and Ocala/Marion County is no different. Open since 1936, The Orange Shop is a beloved institution that grows, picks, hand-packs and sells a variety of citrus including Citra navel oranges, temples and honey tangerines, temple oranges, Valencia orange, tangy tangerine tangos and ruby red grapefruit. They’re open seven days a week from Oct. 15-June 1.
If you prefer the fun (and the discipline) of choosing your own fruit straight from the source, there are plenty of berry farms to visit in the spring and summer months. These U-pick farms provide grounds to roam and select your desired blueberries and blackberries as well as peaches and flowers. The best time to pick is between April-July at places like Wet Hammock Farm.
Be sure to stop into Crones Cradle Conserve Foundation, a 756-acre farm focusing on sustainability and that grows and sells more than 50 types of vegetables, 25 herbs and nearly one dozen fruits. The Foundation offers workshops to promote conservation and tours of the gardens and greenhouses. Homemade honey from their country store makes a great souvenir to take home.
Exit 358: Adrenaline Rush
While much of Florida is over a flat terrain, Ocala/Marion County is home to a canyon of sorts. Once a limestone quarry and now reclaimed, this 94-acre area features rocky cliffs, wide blue lakes and pine-filled forests. Here is where you can find the Canyons Zip Line and Adventure Park and fly through the sky, like on the 1,100-foot route across Lost Spring Lake.
Bubba Raceway Park has been called a number of things over the years – Ocala Speedway, Zuber Speedway, Marion Speedway and Lightning Speedway – but it hasn’t deviated as a short track racing center since 1952. It’s actually the oldest continuously operating racetrack in all of Florida. Racing events are currently scheduled for September-October and January 2022. General parking is free and kids aged 11 and under get in free with a paid adult in the grandstand.
If you prefer being in the middle of the action rather than simply watching speed demons, try your hand at the Hardrock Off Road Park, which offers 100 acres for all types of off-roaders. So bring your 4x4 vehicles, dirt bikes and quads and get ready to play. There is a rock garden, steep climbs and over 70 acres of trails just for the 4x4 vehicles alone. Dirt bike tracks include trails through wooded areas, elevated terrains as well as a pee-wee track for younger riders. Quad riders can choose from speed tracks to natural terrain.
Exit 354: Spectator Sports
Ocala/Marion County is known as the Horse Capital of the World since it is home to more than 600 thoroughbred farms and has more horses and ponies than any other county in America. You don’t have to be an expert horseback rider to see some of these champion horses up close. Take a drive through horse country with its stunning rolling hills and pristine farmland and you'll be sure to see horses grazing in the pastures. If you're in the area in March, head to Live Oak Stud, a 4,500-acre thoroughbred farm that hosts Live Oak International; open to the public, this event draws athletes from around the world to compete in driving and show jumping events. From December 1 to March 27, visitors can also attend another premier equestrian event, HITS (Horse Shows in the Sun) Ocala Winter Circuit over at Post Time Farm.
One of the first new arenas to be built after World War II, Southeastern Livestock Pavilion hosts numerous agricultural events, horse shows, rodeos and other competitions. The annual Ocala Shrine Rodeo (Sept. 3-4) is one of the region’s most treasured traditions and features rodeo events like bareback bronc riding, barrel racing, bull riding, saddle riding, steer wrestling, team roping and tie down roping.
Exit 352: Man-Made & Natural Beauty
Whether you turn right or left at this exit, you can’t go wrong. To the east, one main attraction is Ocala National Forest, which is the southernmost forest in the continental United States and the first National Forest east of the Mississippi River. It’s home to more than 600 lakes (including Lake George, one of the best places for bass fishing in the state); three of Florida’s 33 first-magnitude springs (so people can swim, snorkel and dive all year long in 72-degree water); and a perfect spot for stargazing (the Big Scrub Recreation Area).
Another attraction to the east is the 4,000-acre Silver Springs State Park, where you can camp (in a tent, cabin or RV), kayak the five-mile Silver River or sail away looking at the sea life below in Florida’s original glass bottom boat tour, which dates back to 1870.
There’s also the 40-acre Fort King National Historic Landmark, which features a full-size frontier fort replica that is open to the public to explore. Its Heritage Garden grows native fruits, vegetables and plants while the Archaeological Resource Center showcases artifacts like a cufflink belonging to Andrew Jackson, a Seated Liberty 1841 dime and tool fragments.
Head to downtown Ocala, which oozes small-town hospitality, and meander under canopies of oak trees as you stroll around the Historic District, which is dotted with Queen Anne Revival residences built before 1910. Join in community events taking place at Ocala’s Historic Downtown Square, like the market every Saturday, the First Friday Art Walk each month (September-May) or the Fine Arts for Ocala festival (Oct. 23-24).
Situated just northeast of downtown Ocala is Tuscawilla Park, where you can find the Reilly Arts Center. Home of the Ocala Symphony Orchestra, the venue can seat up to 700 people for an intimate concert experience. Be sure to explore the three-acre Art Park and walk among a mixture of permanent and rotating giant outdoor sculptures.
To the west, is the 1,459-acre Rainbow Springs State Park, where activities abound. Paddle under moss-draped cypress trees and spot river otters in your rental canoe or kayak. Stroll through shady gardens of oaks and magnolias, passing three human-made waterfalls on a 2.5-mile nature trail. Catch sight of woodpeckers, wading birds, hawks, songbirds and owls, as the park is part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.
Also to the west, you will encounter the ultimate horse experience at the World Equestrian Center. Known as WEC, this complex is decorated in luxury, from the brick pavers lined with hydrangeas to The Equestrian Hotel lobby with a self-playing piano and high-vaulted ceilings. WEC is the largest equestrian complex in the United States and features events that are open to the public such as international horse competitions, canine championships and sports tournaments. Even if you're only accompanying a horse lover, you could easily spend a day exploring the property with its five restaurants, an ice cream parlor, decadent pastry shop and unique toy store, to name a few spots.
Exit 350: Creature Comforts
The most centralized and popular of all the exits in Ocala/Marion County, this is where you can find a variety of lodging and dining options right off the highway. Along this main thoroughfare, there's an outdoor mall to the west (Market Street at Heath Brook) and a traditional indoor mall to the east (Paddock Mall), as well as alternate access to places like downtown Ocala (east) or the town of Belleview (south). A large welcoming gateway sign that depicts pastoral settings is in the works just before this exit, so visitors coming from the south will be greeted to Ocala.
Nature is never too far, even from the busiest sections of town, and if you head to the west, you will come across the Ross Prairie State Forest, which spans more than 3,000 acres of preserved land. Open to the public, visitors can hike, go birding and even horseback riding here. There are various trail options to explore, some of which connect to the famous Cross Florida Greenway.
Exit 341: The Icons
Brimming with outdoor recreational activities like hiking, biking, paddling and, of course, equestrian trails, the Cross Florida Greenway stretches 90 miles from the St. Johns River near Palatka to the Gulf of Mexico. This protected green belt corridor is more than one mile wide in places and contains the 500-acre Florida Horse Park, an equestrian complex that hosts equine and agricultural events. The official moniker of the greenway is Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, named after the opposition leader to the proposed Cross Florida Barge Canal in the same spot.
Considered the father of drag racing and known as “Big Daddy” to fans of the sport, Don Garlits turned his passion into a museum, which is now in its 45th year. The Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing chronicles the history of the sport. Spanning two buildings, the museum is home to 90 racing cars and 50 antique cars.