On the Trail: Ocala National Forest
If you've ever dreamed of off-roading a hedge maze full of alligators, the Ocala National Forest is your huckleberry. It's even home to a cool ghost town.
In this episode of On The Trail, Cole Young guided avid hunters, anglers, noodlers Hannah Barron and her dad Jeff Barron over a blend of surf, turf, and mud for the day. Our heroes stormed Ormond Beach, just north of infamous Daytona Beach before heading inland on the highway to conquer the Ocala National Forest (and hopefully catch some fish there). (Click here to go directly to the video.)
Cole and the Barrons chose Ormond Beach for three reasons: location, location, location. It's part of Volusia County, where it's legal to drive on the beaches (and easily accessible to do so). The crew just couldn't pass up the chance to hit the sand while they were here. And who can blame them?
Cole's weapon-of-choice was a Toyota 4Runner TRD Offroad on Nitto Mud Grapplers with a VT Racing kit (adjustable coil over up front, adjustable high low rear). Hannah and Jeff ran a stock 2020 Ford Ranger on Nitto Terra Grappler G2’s. We made sure we had a winch, jumper cables, food, and water. It gets muddy and the winch might come in handy. After tackling the beach it was on to the 40-minute highway run to Ocala National Forest.
They entered the park at Alexander Springs. One great aspect of the Ocala National Forest is its ready accessibility and Alexander Springs sits along the eastern edge of the park, in Central Florida. That means you can hit the trail and Disney World in the same day. Before you head in, nabbing a map at one of the welcome centers is a great idea. While the trails are all clearly named and marked, at some point you will lose cell phone reception. The Ocala State Forest isn't exactly a petite dog park. You can get lost in it.
On the first leg, our team drove west below the powerlines into the forest. It's a blend of trees, sand, and water. And, of course, that famous psycho Florida weather. You'll be running along, all nice and sunny, and then you get a brief rain shower just because the sky likes to do that here. Sometimes those showers aren't so brief; keeping current on the weather forecast is a good idea. Otherwise, you might get a bad surprise when you hit the trails.
Seeing as how the park is also home to over 600 natural ponds and lakes, you're bound to navigate at least one of them while you're here. Cole guided Hannah and Jeff through a couple of them before a downpour vented itself on the trio. It was the perfect opportunity for lunch.
With full bellies and high spirits, the group got back to it. The owl Jeff saw was just one of the many forms of wildlife that call the park home. Black bear, wild boar, white-tail deer, river otter, bobcat, and more live here too.
The trail snaked its way to the St John's River where Hannah and Jeff busted out the rods and reels for a go at the fishing. There'd be no noodling because, as Hannah said earlier, "Everything in Florida has teeth." I'm sure she could rock the Captain Hook look, but you can't blame her for not wanting to explore that idea.
At least, the fauna they ran into sure had teeth. A few gators scouted the group as they fished and the gar were out in force to the point that absolutely zero fish were around to be had. So thanks for that, big scary aquatic predators. Jerks.
Into the Wild
Skunked by the fish that were too cowardly to risk death-by-chomping for the chance to dance at the end of a fishing line, the team hopped back on the trail. Cole thought he'd put Hannah's driving chops to the test with more water to tackle at this point. And she wasn't shy about getting the truck all dirty in the mud.
From there it was smooth sailing back to Alexander Springs. Not a bad way to end a full day of tackling beaches, forest, mud, and water. Both sets of Nitto tires gave our drivers plenty of confidence to get the job done, too.
Check out the full video here.