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Ocala provides access to the great outdoors

Ocala horse farm

Ocalais a magical land of gurgling mineral springs, carpets of emerald-green grass that the springs feed, and handsome thoroughbred horses that feed on the grass. White corral fences neatly divide its rolling countryside, where foals romp and rambling ranch houses command. Some of the ranches allow visitors in to tour or ride horses and learn about how the thoroughbreds are trained for racing.

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Downtown Ocala, a quiet, compact district surrounded by modern-day stores and hotels, preserves the commercial buildings and ornate Victorian homes from its boom era in the 1930s. Delis, pubs and antiques and other shops take up residence behind brick façades around a pretty little gazebo park. In the residential historic district along Fort King Avenue, more than 200 wooden, steamboat-era mansions range in style from Queen Anne Revival to Italianate.

Other attractions in Ocala include the Appleton Museum of Art, an eclectic collection of priceless treasures; the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, honoring a local citizen who made it big on the oval track, with classic dragsters and other antique automobiles; and Discovery Science Center, with hands-on indoors and outdoors exhibits.

The Ocala National Forest spreads at Ocala’s backdoor, providing recreational access to the area’s pristine spring lands and preserving vast acreage of pine forest laced with rivers, streams and the lakes they form. The forest is immense – more than 383,000 acres, 19 developed campgrounds and two day-use recreational areas. Most popular among the camping recreational areas, Juniper Springs is beautified by an old waterwheel and mill at its refreshing swimming hole, naturally climate controlled to 72 degrees year ‘round. Alexander Springs is best for canoeists. One of its hiking trails takes you down the path of ancient civilizations, explaining how the Timucuan Indians used different plants for food, clothing and entertainment. Other trails in and around the forest are part of the Florida National Scenic Trail. Cyclists can pedal along the 22-mile-long Paisley Woods Trail, which connects Alexander Springs in the north to Clearwater Lake in the south.

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Silver Springs, OcalaSince 1878, the biggest attraction in the area has been Silver Springs, actually considered Florida’s first tourist park. It attracted folks with its sparkling spring waters and the first-ever glass-bottom boats for spying at the fish and archaeological artifacts at the springs’ bottom. Many a movie and TV show have used the lush location for filming, including Tarzan, Sea Hunt and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Today, live animals, a Jeep safari, boat tours, a tots play land and top-name country entertainment keep the park lively. Next door, Wild Waters water park adds to the excitement during the summer, with slides, flumes and kiddie fountains.

Small towns sprinkled around Ocala were created by spring land tourism or the phosphate mining that brought prosperity to the area west of Ocala at the turn of the 20th century. Dunnellon is a prime example of the latter and its historic downtown buildings and their dreamy oak-shaded streets stand as proof of the golden years. The town’s annual Boom Town Days fills those streets with costumed fairgoers, craft shows, antique car exhibits and music.

Today, Dunnellon draws most of its business from those who come to visit nearby Rainbow Springs State Park. Yet another of the region’s vigorous springs, this one is Florida’s second largest artesian spring, pumping about 500 million gallons of pure, clean water daily into the pristine Rainbow River. Snorkelers, divers, swimmers, paddlers, inner tubers, boaters and fishermen alike use the river and its springs as a source of wholesome entertainment you can’t find in any theme park. The Dunnellon area also provides access to the 46-mile paved Withlacoochee Trail and the Cross Florida Greenway, a 110-mile corridor once earmarked for a barge canal, today used for trails across Florida’s ridges, rivers, lakes and wetlands. It traverses Silver River State Park, where visitors love to canoe in clean, clear waters and visit the park’s museum and environmental education center.

Along the way, campgrounds, a pioneering eco-lodge, endearing bed and breakfasts, and small lakefront fishing resorts welcome travelers to stay in this part of Florida, removed from bustle and ensconced in rural heartland lifestyles.

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