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Destination: Florida : Near Disney World, Ocala National Forest often causes visitors to wonder how any place so big and so beautiful remains so little known

October 02, 1994|ELLIOTT MACKLE | Mackle is dining critic of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. and

OCALA NATIONAL FOREST, Fla. — We are out of the motel and moving before 7 a.m., driving east in November fog--out to where Silver Springs Boulevard becomes simply Florida State Road 40. Swooping up across the big steel bridge over the Oklawaha River, we turn left on Highway 314, skirting the vapor-tinged villages of Turkey Landing and Grahamsville, running along the edge of the Ocala National Forest.

Houses on patches of private land--some of them shacks, others trim enough--lurk far back from the road, their wide, deep, mostly unmowed front yards marked by azalea bushes, bass and gator boats, house trailers, rusty Jeeps and rough signs advertising fishing bait and truck repair.

Almost imperceptibly, we enter the forest preserve itself--430,000 acres of prime, north-central Florida real estate dotted with springs, trails, all-year campgrounds, sinkholes and the largest stand of sand pines in the world. Established by order of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, it's the oldest national forest east of the Mississippi River, the southernmost in the nation.

Among guidebook-packing travelers on the Yankeeland-to-Disney World funnel down Interstates 75 and 95, the forest is scandalously--nature connoisseurs might say fortunately--overlooked. With not a chain motel, factory outlet store nor fast-food stand to boast of, it's a haven for conservationists, backpackers and lumberjacks alike.

On our way from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale for a wedding, we have but a single day to spend in the park. So we hurry along--past family and youth camps at Fore Lake and Lake Eaton, using a full-color U.S. Forest Service map I had ordered by mail, searching for unpaved forest road 86. We find it after doubling back twice--because the cutoff is marked NE 172 Av. Rd, following Marion County, not national forest, nomenclature.

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We get deep in the woods fast. Rows of tall, managed sand pines on each side of the car grow right to the edge of the scraped, yellow-sand track. After a mile or so, we wave at a trio of camo-clad hunters with their truck of caged, long-eared dogs. They wave back, friendly-like.

We turn onto another scraped road, then halt at signs announcing the Lake Eaton Sinkhole Trail. Inside two minutes, we plunge into the forest on foot, down a clearly marked but unfussy half-mile path, passing oaks, deer moss, cawing scrub jays and woodpeckers.

The dry sinkhole--like other sinks, lakes and springs dotting Central Florida--is a result of water erosion in subterranean limestone caverns. The ceilings of compromised caves eventually collapse--so we read on one of the markers. But most soon fill with water. At 450 feet across and located in high ridge country, the Lake Eaton dry hole is a rarity.

A boardwalk and stairs lead down into the 80-foot-deep sink with its deep-forest ecosystem of broadleaf magnolias, live oak, pignut hickory, loblolly pine and sabal palm.

Insects are also part of the system, even in late November. Returning to the car on another half-mile trail--through a managed stand of pines planted in 1983--we slap gnats and mosquitoes, regretting that the repellent spray stayed in Atlanta. This is what natives call "Old Florida" . . . with a vengeance.

After sand pines, the most notable feature of Ocala National Forest is its numerous natural springs. Salt Springs Recreation Area, 10 miles northeast of the Lake Eaton Sinkhole--like the privately managed Silver Springs outside the national forest--has operated as a tourist attraction for more than a century. A resort hotel once flourished there (the building stands just to the south of the parking lot). Author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings ("The Yearling," "Cross Creek") used to spend time in a juke joint nearby. In fact, business was so good that the 10,000-acre Salt Springs tract wasn't added to the national forest until the 1960s--at a cost over $12 million.

Despite the name, the water is fresh. And the place is a magnet still. In late morning, we watch an extended family emerge from a three-axle camper and a battered Camaro. As we slip our $2.25 day-use fees through a slot at the shuttered gatehouse, we overhear the elders loudly convincing each other that payment is unnecessary in winter--though a sign clearly states otherwise.

The spring is worth whatever it takes. A concrete path leads to a walled-at-one-end semi-tropical pool surrounded by live oaks and palmettos. From the edge--through water transparent as cellophane--we gaze down past hovering largemouth bass, bream and mullet into deep, rock-lined holes. Clear, clean water flows up from what are called boils at a rate of 52 million gallons a day. The temperature is a constant 72 degrees. The "salts" in this lightly mineralized water include sodium, potassium, silica and magnesium.

There is camping and, in season, swimming. At the open end of the spring-fed pool, paths skirt a fishing area and marina. Beyond is the run, or open creek, to Lake George.

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