Park Yourself in this Friendly Florida Stopover
If you have traveled through central Florida on I-75, you have surely passed Exit 350 (Highway 200) a million times — now is the time to turn on the blinker and make Ocala/Marion County the destination you visit for your next vacation. Whether you want to disconnect from crowded places or technological devices, Ocala/Marion County offers some respite to connect with family or your favorite traveling mate.
No matter where you are in Florida, it’s not very far away in a car, but you can feel far away here. Far away from the crowded beaches, far away from the theme park lines, far away from traffic. On top of all that, it is super friendly in a lot of different ways. Here are just a few that come to mind …
In this era of social distancing, getting out in nature is on everyone’s to-do list. Within the county's borders, you'll find a national forest, two state parks and many local parks, with hundreds of thousands of acres to explore. There's plenty to see on land (by hiking on the Florida Trail), on the water (try paddleboarding in Juniper Run) or even through the air (by ziplining 1,100 feet across Lost Spring Lake in the Canyons park).
The big 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. The forest is dotted with more than 600 lakes, the largest of which is Lake George—one of the best places for bass fishing in the state.
The Forest is also home to three of Florida’s 33 first-magnitude springs, where people can swim, snorkel and dive all year long as the water stays at a constant 72 degrees. (A first-magnitude spring discharges almost 65 million gallons of water each day—the equivalent of 16 football fields with 10 feet deep of water.) Rent a kayak, tube, canoe or paddleboard and sail yourself around the crystal clear waters of the Rainbow River or Silver River for a lazy day of wildlife sightseeing.
The forest also protects “the Big Scrub”, the world’s largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest (say that 10 times fast), which trivia-lovers might know is a desert-like environment atop ancient sand dunes that stood above the waves of primordial seas. The 1.9-mile Salt Springs Observation Trail, which starts at the Big Scrub, is just one of many hiking trails in the forest.
Camping (in a tent or RV) is encouraged at the Ocala National Forest, as well as at the 4,000-acre Silver Springs State Park and at the 1,459-acre Rainbow Springs State Park. Facilities at these three areas range from tent camping to cabins for large families.
If you prefer looking at nature rather than say, sleeping in it, the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway winds right through the Ocala National Forest. It gets its name for a reason, so be prepared to stop to take a photo if someone says "bear right."
There are some areas in this country that unquestionably retain their old school charm. Ocala/Marion County is one of them; for many Floridians, their parents brought them here as children. Now that it’s time to bring your own—or your grandkids—be sure to check out Florida’s original glass-bottom-boat tour at Silver Springs. Dating back to the 1870s, this attraction offers a clear look at the turtles, fish (of the sword and cat variety, among others) as well as vegetation under the water—keep your eyes peeled for alligators too.
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. Local farm tours gives non-equestrians the chance to see some of these champion horses up close and get a guided insider’s tour of Ocala’s working farms.
If your kids have been building blanket forts to pass the time in quarantine, they might be interested in seeing an actual one. In which case, take them to Fort King National Historic Landmark, where there is a full-size frontier fort replica that is open to the public to explore. While strolling the 40-acre grounds, check out the Heritage Garden full of native fruits, vegetables and plants, as well as the newly opened Archaeological Resource Center to see artifacts like a cufflink of Andrew Jackson given to key supporters when he was running for office, tool fragments and a Seated Liberty 1841 dime.
Sometimes the best way to please everyone in your family is to go see a movie in an old-time theater, which might feel like even more of a novelty in these times. Following guidelines on reduced capacity and social distancing, downtown Ocala’s legendary Marion Theatre is now open Thursday-Sundays. Kids might find it cool that you can mobile order from the concession stand, while adults can appreciate the full bar (including champagne bucket) delivery to your seat.
What you could spend on a night out in Miami or Tampa — or just admission price for a family to theme parks — you could stretch to a long weekend here in Ocala/Marion County. After all that time in the outdoors, you’re bound to be hungry, so head to one of the many local restaurants that won’t break the bank.
Brooklyn’s Backyard is a backyard-themed eatery—complete with indoor turf, patio tables and a tiki bar—serving dishes like Sally’s Goat, a burger topped with homemade pickled onions, baby spinach, rosemary fig jam, fresh tomato slice and goat cheese, as well as Not Ya’ Mama’s Meatloaf, slathered with country and brown gravies and served atop creamy in-house mashed potatoes with crispy onion straws and a fried egg on top. Save room for desserts like Tim’s Homemade Rum Cake or Campfire S’mores for Four, which comes with all the fixings and a little fire so you can roast s’mores right at your table.
Brick City Southern Kitchen and Whiskey Bar is home to one of Florida’s largest curated whiskey collections and offers smoked meats like pulled pork and beef brisket. If you’re really famished, there’s The Whole Hawg, a platter of pork, beef, turkey, chicken, ribs and sausage with four made-from-scratch sides like collard greens and garlic cheddar grits.
If you’re not in a meat coma after eating, the Ocala Drive-In is open rain or shine and offers double features 7 days a week. Adults pay $6 each, while children (6-12) are $3 each and children (5 and under) are free. (Those paying in cash receive a 4% discount.)
No matter where you are at night, be sure to look up and stargaze, as Marion County has some of the clearest night skies around. If you bring your own telescope, some of the best places for spotting constellations are Silver River State Park and the Big Scrub Recreation Area in Ocala National Forest.
It’s people friendly
In an age where masks mean you never really see strangers smile anymore, Ocala/Marion County oozes small-town hospitality/classic Florida. Head to downtown Ocala, where you can meander under canopies of oak trees as you stroll around the Historic District, full of Queen Anne Revival residences built prior to 1910. If you’re in the downtown area over Christmas, an evening walk will be lit by twinkling holiday lights.
Visitors are treated like locals here, so don’t be shy about joining any community events taking place at Ocala’s Historic Downtown Square, like the market every Friday and Saturday or the First Friday Art Work each month (September-May). The square’s historic gazebo often doubles as a stage for live performances. On Feb. 13, 2021, you can watch the Cattle Drive & Cowboy Round-Up, where real cowboys will drive Florida cracker cattle through downtown Ocala to nearby Tuscawilla Park.
Or, you could just rest your feet and people-watch for a bit to see who else is stopping by.