Monday, June 22, 2015

Ocala/Marion County An Authentic Florida Family Vacation

Summer vacations are one of the most treasured and highly anticipated times of the year. It’s a season when life-long memories are made, and for many families a summer road trip is an unforgettable and forever cherished experience. Families, couples or friends looking for an exciting and distinctive stop on their summer adventure can explore countless attractions, both on land and water, throughout Ocala/Marion County, one of Florida’s original travel destinations. See breathtaking sights including sun-drenched hiking trails through lush forests, crystal clear fresh water springs, lakes and rivers and limestone canyons.

Those looking for an adventure through the woods can lace up their sneakers and hike through the Ocala National Forest. Located roughly 40 minutes from historic downtown Ocala, the national forest offers dozens of different hiking trails ranging from half-mile boardwalks to nearly 100 miles of backpacking trails for the experienced naturalist. In addition to hiking trails, there are 100 miles of designated equestrian paths and camping sites. Make sure to stick to the marked trails; this is, after all, the largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest in the world. While in the area, you may want to look for the 45-foot Chapman Oak Tree, located just off State Road 19; it is the largest of its species in the U.S. and registered as an American Champion Tree.

If making a splash is on your summer to-do list, plan to stop at Wild Waters at Silver Springs, a longtime family favorite that’s been newly renovated. This one-of-a-kind waterpark offers a cool time for the entire family, where you can relax by the wave pool or take a plunge down one of the high-speed waterslides. There are also several natural springs sprinkled throughout the Ocala National Forest, one of the most popular being Juniper Springs, located about 28 miles east of Ocala. The forest’s springs stay at 72 degrees year round, making them a fantastic spot to cool off from Florida’s summer heat. Another popular spring is The Salt Springs Recreation Area, also located in the Ocala National Forest. Its name originated from naturally occurring minerals carried to the surface from underground aquifers, providing a level of salinity not found in the other springs. The semi-tropical foliage of pines and palms at the campground is a winning combination for a summer outdoor experience, perfect for the entire family to enjoy.

During the summer the Rainbow River, located in Dunnellon, is the ideal aquatic sanctuary for tubing. A natural landmark, this family-friendly river shimmers with silver and turquoise hues and stays at a cool 72 to 74 degrees year-round, perfect to drift away for three to four hours of downstream relaxation. It is ideal for swimming, bird watching, scuba diving, boating, kayaking and paddle boarding as well. KP Hole Park, known as ‘The Tuber Ride of Generations’ and the ‘Rainbow River Classic’ has been a local and tourist go-to for more than 60 years. Water adventurers can bring their own floats (60” and smaller) or rent one for their excursion.

Carney Island Park at Lake Weir is another great recreational area for those looking for a little bit of everything. With over 750 acres of sand hill islands, causeways, wetlands systems and shoreline beaches, this destination offers hiking, swimming, picnic pavilions, playgrounds and sand volleyball courts fit for the true adventure seekers.

If your summer trip is fueled by adrenaline-filled off-road adventures, the Santos Mountain Bike Trails are considered the best in the area. They are one of only six bike trails in the U.S. offering more than 60 miles of off-road area covering the beautiful diversity of the county’s landscape. For more experienced mountain bikers, the Vortex Bike Trails offer riders a vertical drop estimated at 20 feet, where riders can take on higher jumps and more challenging trails. The 49th Ave. Trails are another must-see in the region and are lined with remnants of historic ship canal “diggings” that exist today as miniature valleys. For novice riders, Baseline Trailhead and Land Bridge Trail offer a more relaxed experience through Ocala’s pastures and greenery.

Known as the “Horse Capital of the World,” Ocala/Marion County’s equestrian-focused attractions are abundant, yet each boasts one-of-a-kind experiences. Makin’ Tracks Trail Rides offers several activities for equine-enthusiasts, from traditional trail rides to swimming and camping with horses. Riders can also explore the county’s limestone canyons carved from the countryside more than a century ago on horseback at Canyons Zip Line and Canopy Tours. The Canyons also feature the longest zip lines over water in the U.S. and the longest, highest and fastest zip lines in the State of Florida.

For a truly luxurious escape visit one of Ocala/Marion County’s golf courses that include Candler Hills Golf Course, considered to be a masterpiece in design. Five sets of tees ranging in length from 4,877 to 7,233 yards create a rewarding experience for any level golfer. With a Palm Springs-style landscape, this is not your typical Florida golf course. Juliette Falls Golf Course makes you feel the excitement of playing more than 7,200 yards on this par-72, John Sanford-designed course while offering beautiful rolling fairways and crisply manicured greens.

Vacations are a time to create and strengthen connections, and picturesque Tuscawilla Park, located near Downtown Ocala, offers a chance to enjoy an afternoon on the grass or a good-old-fashioned picnic with your family or loved ones. Visitors can also enjoy a bit of culture, as the Tuscawilla Park’s Second Annual Ocala Outdoor Sculpture Competition’s 10 installations are on display through mid-September.

Summer nights and drive-in movies go hand in hand and Ocala is one of the few places in the country that has a fully functional drive-in theater. Originally opened in 1948, Ocala Drive-In was renovated and reintroduced to the public in 2011. Double feature new releases show seven days a week when the sun goes down each night, at about 8:20 p.m. With a full-service concession area, Ocala Drive-In creates a night your family will always remember.

No authentic Florida vacation is complete without a visit to historic downtown Ocala. Take a family photo in the legendary gazebo and dine at one of the many restaurants or cafes serving decadent dishes fit for any palate. To sweeten your visit, stop by Ocala’s Chocolate and Confections featuring hand-dipped chocolate fruit, truffles, eight different fudge varieties and hand-scooped ice cream.

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