Discover breathtaking Juniper Springs and more on Florida’s Black Bear Scenic Byway
Most trips to Florida focus on two things: the beach and Orlando’s ever-sprawling series of fantasy-lands like Walt Disney World. What if we told you there were thousands of acres of beautiful wilderness and local Florida fare right outside Orlando and just a few miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. Discover all the natural springs, lush vegetation, and maybe a bear or two on the Black Bear Scenic Byway.
The Black Bear Scenic Byway dissects the Ocala National Forest, running north and south from Palatka to Umatilla and east and west from Ormond Beach to just outside Ocala.
North/South on the Black Bear Scenic Byway (SR 19)
If you’re a fan of fishing, rural beauty, and rustic dining, you’ll love this stretch of the Black Bear Scenic Byway. Starting in the north in Palatka or Umatilla in the south, both directions offer you every opportunity imaginable to connect with nature, catch some fish, and soak some beautiful springs.
What to do:
Much like the east/west portion of the Black Bear Scenic Byway, the north/south route’s major draw is its remarkable springs and other watering holes. If you’re a fisher, Rodman Recreation Area has a great pier to drop a line, but for most travelers, the springs are where it’s at… This route has 3 you’ll want to check out… (Quotes from the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway)
Salt Springs Recreation Area is one the recreational jewels of the Ocala National Forest. The recreation area is located in the lush, semi-tropical setting of central Florida. Within the recreation area is a natural spring rising from vertical fissures (cracks) from deep within the earth. The presence of potassium, magnesium and sodium salts give the waters in the spring a slight salinity. Hence the name Salt Springs.
Silver Glenn Springs is one of the prettiest and most untouched springs in the area. Crystal blue water, sandy bottom, and rugged trails surround it. This location is also a setting in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ novel, The Yearling. It provides the backdrop for the opening chapter. The Boils Trail is another highlight of this area. Take the trail to see the water bubbling up through the sandy bottom of the creek in what are called boils.
Alexander Springs (along with Silver Glen Springs) is one of the more naturally maintained springs. One side is has a sandy beach for easy access to the water, and the opposite side of the spring is natural forest, giving the area a peaceful atmosphere. This spring area does have an occasional gator due to its natural setting, so be alert. There are swimmers here, but they are smart swimmers aware of the surroundings.
This park is a great place to spend the day with the family and/or friends. The park has concessions, picnic tables, outdoor grills, and interpretive information. The spring flows to form Alexander Creek; canoes are available for rent. The half-day run along the river takes you south into the forest; the Park Service provides pick-up and portage back to the park.
Where to eat:
Since most of this route winds through Ocala National Forest, your dining options are limited, but that doesn’t mean they’re dull. Bass Champions Restaurant and Lodge is the go-to for catfish and other seafood, just ask the locals. For some good ol’ fashioned BBQ, take a little detour off the byway to the Backwoods Smokehouse. From the rustic building to the delicious BBQ, it’s southern through and through.
East/West on the Black Bear Scenic Byway (SR 40)
More populated and more traveled than SR 19, SR 40 runs from the sandy beaches Ormond into the lushness of Ocala National Forest to form the east/west portion of this byway, finally ending with a bang at Silver Springs State Park.
What to do:
Like SR 19, much of your time will be spent admiring nature and exploring the beautiful springs of Ocala National Forest, but before you head deep into the forest, stop at the Barberville Pioneer Settlement for a chance to go back in time with this recreation of a town from the 1800s. From there, you’re back into the land of the springs. (Quotes from Black Bear Scenic Byway)
Both beautiful and historic, Juniper Springs features a large campground plus one of the great swimming holes in the state, complete with a historic mill house. The Juniper Creek canoe run also begins here, and is ranked as one of the best canoe runs in Central Florida. Two-time winner of America's top 100 Family Campgrounds Award!
No matter what your age, there are plenty of rides and attractions at Silver Springs that will make you laugh, fill you with wonder, and provide a glimpse into what life was like here more than 10,000 years ago. Just as they did then, the springs pump out 550 million gallons of sparkling-clear water a day—enough to supply the entire city of New York.
The park has more than 10 distinct natural communities, dozens of springs and miles of trails. Visitors can canoe on the crystal clear river, hike or bike along one of the nature trails. The picnic area features three pavilions with grills that may be rented for group outings and a playground for the youngsters.
The park is home to a pioneer cracker village and the Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center (The center is operated by the Marion County School District in cooperation with the park and is open to the public on weekends and holidays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00. p.m.) In addition there is camping, picnicking, canoeing and a hiking trail. Admission to the Museum is $2.00 per person. Children under 6 are free.
Where to eat:
SR 40 may be more traveled than SR 19, but it’s still a road through a national forest… That means the options are limited and mostly local, just the way we like it at Roadtrippers. As you can imagine, seafood is the name of the game along this route. Essex Seafood Two and Lena's Seafood are excellent little hole-in-the-wall options, and if you want a beach feel, check out Kick n’ Back Café and Grille. Blackwater Inn/Williams Landing, Marie’s Home Cookin, and Sparky's Place are all local favorites as well.
Finally, make sure you stop by Sweet Jane's Candy Store for one of their world famous “Whoopie Pies.”
Whether you travel north and south or east and west, your time spent on the Black Bear Scenic Byway is sure to fill your camera with beautiful pictures of wildlife and natural springs and fill your stomach with good local seafood and down-home country cooking- all just a skip and jump from the hustle and bustle of Orlando.
Cover Photo: Visit Florida