Best Places to Hike with Kids in Marion County, Florida
So, you want to take the kids on a hike, but you’re not sure where to go. The last hike you attempted resulted in a lot of bug bites and a meltdown in the middle. Perhaps your kids are little- still stroller reliant, but in desperate need of leg-time as well, or maybe you have a family of multiple ages with a tag-along cousin or grandparent.
The good news is Marion County, located in North Central Florida, offers some of the best places to hike for families. Some are easy-peasy, others more of a challenge- and most are stroller-friendly. Yes, that defies the point of a hike, a person without kids may argue, but with tiny tots and babies, we totally understand- our own shoulders and backs bowed from many ‘carry me!’ moments 😉
Best Hikes for Families in Ocala/Marion County
Here are our top 5 family hikes the whole family will love. We’re giving you the prime list, complete with cool-factors to pique your children’s interests and restroom locations- because we know all too well the phrase: “Mom, I gotta pee!”
Rainbow Springs State Park
- Cool Factor: Waterfalls
- Location: 19158 SW 81st Place Rd. Dunnellon, Florida 34432
- Contact: 352-465-8555
- Fees: $2 per person
- Restrooms: Located by the concessions/gift shop and also by the springs swimming area.
Located in Southwest Marion County in Dunnellon, Rainbow Springs State Park is one of the few places in Florida where you’ll find multiple waterfalls. Although they look natural, these man-made creations date back to the 1930’s when Rainbow Springs was a privately-owned Florida attraction. You can still see the remnants from the past, like the limestone walls of the former zoo (a great place to play: what animals do you think used to be here-guessing game with the kids).
A Choose Your Own Adventure Hike
Now a state park, the stroller-friendly paved paths wind around the spring head and up and around the landscape. This is not a one-hike. It’s more of a choose-your-own-adventure hike. You’ll find hidden springs, a boardwalk over the river, side paths, bridges over creeks, and a butterfly garden.
There is a spring-fed swimming area- which maintains a 72F temperature year-round. But it starts at 6 feet deep. No lifeguard. Watch your non-swimmers. There is also an onsite kayak/canoe rental area just beyond the swimming hole, in case you need some on-water time as well.
Concession stand is open sometimes- but not always. Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the green grass field overlooking the spring head. There’s picnic tables and grills as well.
Hiking Challenge: Sandhill Trails
For advanced/energetic hikers- there are several trails (non-paved) through the surrounding wilderness area. You can access them at the far end of the Butterfly Garden. Take the main trail through the pine forest and follow the blue blazes for a Rainbow River view (no-swimming). Trails lead across and around an open grassy area and around an old phosphate mining pit- rabbits, deer & turkey have been spotted and also the occasional bear. Keep an eye out for animal tracks in the sandy areas.
Dunnellon Historic Railroad Trail
- Cool Factor: Bridge over the Withlacoochee River
- Locations: Blue Run Park Trail Head: 19680 E Pennsylvania Ave, Dunnellon, FL 34432 and CR39 Trail Head: 1279 W Withlacoochee Trail, Citrus Springs, FL 34434
- Contact: 352-236-7143
- Fees: None
- Restrooms: Porta-potty at trail heads.
Just minutes south from Rainbow Springs State Park is the Dunnellon Trail. This 2.4 mile trail runs from Blue Run Park at the Rainbow River Bridge to the trail-head on Highway 41 (CR39).
This paved stroller-friendly trail is open to cyclists and runs parallel to the Rainbow River for a good part. Depending on the time of the year, you’ll see swamp on both sides, cypress knees and the occasional ibis looking for dinner. You may even spot an alligator sunning on the banks of the river.
Bridge over the Withlacoochee River
The highlight of the trail is the bridge over the Withlacoochee River. This former rail bridge was redesigned with pedestrians in mind, and offers vantage viewing points, seats for chilling and plenty of picture-perfect shot locations. Look down for gators and turtles hanging out in the lily pads and watch the airboats go by on the winding Withlacoochee River.
You can turn back at the bridge or continue on the path to the trails end at the Country Road 39 Trail-head.
Due to the water factor- if you are hiking in spring-summer or just in warm weather, bring bug spray – mosquitoes can get pretty bad.
Hiking Challenge: Pond Trail
Take the Pond Trail from the parking area at Blue Run Park. It leads through the woods around the 3-acre pond beside the river. There are benches by the pond for an impromptu picnic or fishing, if you happen to bring a pole.
Silver Springs State Park
- Cool Factor: Wild monkeys
- Location: Silver Springs Park is located at 5656 East Silver Springs Blvd, Silver Springs, Florida 34488
- Contact: 352-236-7148
- Fees: $2 per person
- Restrooms: Located before the entrance to the left, by the concessions, and also near the end of the River Walk on the north side of the park.
Another stroller-friendly loop of paved trails can be found in Ocala’s Silver Springs State Park. Take the Ross Allen Boardwalk– to the right after the entrance. This boardwalk path crosses over to an island and runs in a giant circle before looping back. It’s all boardwalk- with fencing- so those little toddlers can stretch their legs. Stop at the covered viewing platform for a view of the sapphire waters of the Fort King Waterway. The fish are huge in this state park. You may see turtles, alligators, white-tailed deer and the occasional wild monkey.
Wild Monkeys at Silver Springs
A colony of feral rhesus monkeys inhabit the wilderness of Silver Springs. Their ancestry dates back to the 1930’s, when a boat captain put a pair of rhesus macque monkeys on one of the islands in the river in hopes of livening up his boat tour. He didn’t think they would be able to escape- but guess what? Rhesus monkeys apparently can swim! And swim away they did, finding their own happy place among the palmettos and cypresses, where they continue to roam and thrive to this day. These monkeys are wild- and they can bite. If you see them- do not approach. It’s illegal to feed them or approach them. So, enjoy them from the distance, as you would any other wild animal.
Ready for more? Walk past the glass bottom boat dock (extra fee to ride) to the platform over the giant spring. There’s rocking chairs and picnic tables on this deck, in case you need a chill, or to eat lunch. The spring head is the start of the Silver River and one of the biggest artesian springs in the world. It pumps out 550 million gallons of water daily. You’ll see fish hanging around this area, alligators and the occasional manatee.
The River Walk path leads from the far end of this patio deck and follows alongside the Silver River. There are places to stop, rocking chairs and benches. However, there is no water access. No swimming at this park! Follow the trail to the observation deck over the water. This was a former boat house, and even a dock for boats. Now it’s a place to enjoy the river.
You can follow the river walk back, or take the inland trail to return. The paths run through the former attraction areas and gardens from when Silver Springs was an old Florida attraction.
Hiking Challenge: Silver River Swamp Trail
Restrooms: Located by the Silver River Museum ($2 per person fee) by the trail-head and also by the playground at the trail’s end
Silver Springs State Park has several advanced hikes, in their Silver River area of the park- but you have to drive to get there. Keep your receipt and go back to your car- return to Highway 40 and make a left at the first traffic light. The entrance to the campground and Silver River Museum will be about 5 minutes down on your left. Show your receipt at the check-in booth to get into this portion of the state park (or pay $5 per single/ $8 a car-load- yes, you do the math)
The Silver River Swamp Trail is a 1.9-mile round trip loop hike through the wild. You’ll be going through a pine forest, scrub palms and a swamp. This is not paved, and there are protruding roots to watch out for. The trail begins at the parking area. Go through the arch marked River Trails and look for the trail markers. The River Trail is 1.5 miles to the kayak launch on the Silver River- there is a picnic spot and porta-potty at the river on that trail. Follow the blue blazes for the River Trail.
A Walk on the Wild Side
Follow the orange blazes for the Swamp Trail. Be aware of your surroundings. Things to watch for on the trail- animals. Deer are often spotted in the open spaces, along with wild turkey, armadillos, gopher tortoises and raccoons. You may see areas of the ground dug up – that’s from wild boar. Bear have also been spotted. Plenty of birds and grey squirrels.
This trail leads to a boardwalk over the swamp and a river observation platform. There’s a seat on the observation deck to rest and watch the wild side of the silver river, and if you look right below the palm tree hanging over the water, you’ll see a fresh water spring.
Return via to boardwalk and follow the orange blazes. The trail back is long and straight- and just when your kids may start to get antsy- there’s a light at the end- the trail literally ends at a playground. Enjoy the playground- picnic pavilions for lunch, and follow the path beside the cracker village (open weekends only) to reach the parking area.
Juniper Springs Nature Trail
- Cool Factor: Watermill and bridge over boils
- Location: Juniper Springs Recreation Area at 26701 FL-40, Silver Springs, FL 34488
- Contact: (352) 625-3147
- Fee: $5.50 per person
- Restrooms: Located at the entrance by the concessions/kayak rental.
Juniper Springs Recreation Area is one of many recreation areas in the Ocala National Forest. The paths and swimming area were constructed in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. They also designed and built a watermill on Juniper Springs Run to create electricity for their camp. The mill still stands, renovated through the years, and the watermill churns, though it’s a scenic picture, rather than a necessity now. You’ll find the mill house and other CCC built structures throughout the Juniper Springs Recreation Area.
To access the Juniper Springs Nature Trail, follow the path that circumvents the swimming area to the right. The nature trail begins behind the mill and runs parallel to Juniper Run. It’s an elevated boardwalk with overlooks over the run. You’ll see upturned trees, moss covered logs and you’ll even cross over a babbling creek on this 0.8 mile round trip hike. Take care, though as this boardwalk can be slippery when wet, and aside from at the overlooks, the guard rails are only ankle high. You may spot deer, turkey, snakes, squirrels and other critters along your boardwalk stroll.
Fern Hammock Boils
When the boardwalk comes to an end, you’ll see a bridge to the left. It leads over the Fern Hammock Springs. You’ll see sapphire spots in the water where the sand is literally bubbling up like water in a hot kettle. These are the boils- and the ground around them shifts, rolls and slides. Fish like to hang out over the boils, and you may see an otter or two. There is even an alligator who hangs out in the area, so do pay attention to those no-swimming signs!
Take the hard dirt path around Fern Hammock for additional viewing areas of the water and springs, then return the way you came, back to the boardwalk and return to the swimming area at the watermill.
Swimming at Juniper Springs
The swimming area at Juniper Springs contains two spring vents, and the water is icy cold. Even though it resembles a swimming pool, you will see fish, the occasional otter and even may spot an American eel sliding through the aptly named eel grass.
Bring a picnic and make a day of it. Kayak/canoe rentals are available at the concessions, with last launch at 11:30 am. It’s a 4-4.5 hour paddle, one-way only down winding wilderness on the Juniper Run with a shuttle back.
Hiking Challenge: The Florida Trail
As you entered the Juniper Springs Recreation Area, you may have noted the Florida Trail Signs before you reached the ranger station. Park in the parking area and walk back. The National Florida Scenic Trail spans 1,300 miles from the Panhandle to Big Cypress National Preserve. You may not be up for that kind of challenge, but you can take a day hike on the Florida Trail through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness. Tackle the 4 mile trip (8-mile RT) to Whiskey Creek or 5.3 mile hike (10.6 RT) to Hidden Pond- a spring-fed pond in the wilds.
There is frequent bear-activity in this area, so all food items must be stored in bear containers. Bring water and sun-protection too, and check with the ranger station or FWC for fall hunting dates before you head out.
What to Do if You See a Bear
Trails at Juniper Springs Recreation Area sometimes close due to bear activity. Call ahead if you are traveling from a distance- or choose another Ocala National Forest Recreation Area if you’ve arrived and the trail is closed. The ranger station sells bear-bells, as noise is one of the things that keep bears at bay. Keep your food in sealed bear-proof containers, and after any picnicking activities, store your remainders in your car or throw out in the bear-proof garbage bins by the concession area.
If you do see a bear- never approach it. Stand up right – try to look as big as possible and do not run- or make eye contact. Make noise and back away slowly. The FWC has other handy tips on how to deal with unexpected bear encounters in the wild.
Silver Glen Spring Boil Trail
- Cool Factor: Crystal clear swimming hole & boardwalk over boils
- Location: 5271 FL-19, Salt Springs, FL 32134
- Contact: (352) 236-0288
- Fee: $6 per person
- Restrooms: Located by the concessions (porta-potty only)
Often referred to as an old-fashioned swimming hole, Silver Glen Springs Recreation Area lacks the man-made gloss of other destinations, letting the wow-factor of nature shine loud and clear. Driving down the old highway in the Ocala National Forest, you may think you are headed the wrong way and yes, you will find yourself in the middle of nowhere, but it’s those far-out places that are worth that extra effort, and Silver Glen will not disappoint.
Watch the pot-holes in the parking area, and be warned, the changing room for the swimming hole is literally a one room cabin. (one for gals, and one for guys).
Swimming at Silver Glen Springs
You pay your $6 per person fee at the concession store by the parking lot and follow the worn path down to the swimming hole. The only bathrooms available are porta-pottys. You’ll see them on your way down the path. The main spring is straight ahead- a glistening, sparkling crystal-clear opening through the trees. Go left to access the swimming area. The water is 72F year-round with a shallow entry and sandy bed, making it a family-friendly swimming area. It gradually gets deeper and drops off near the main spring, a 1st magnitude spring. You’ll see giant schools of striped bass swimming around the main spring. And as always in Florida, be alligator aware.
Hiking Spring Boils Trail
Head right to reach the Spring Boils Trail. Follow the fence around the main spring for a view of Jody’s Spring- you may see a mass of bass swirling in a circle around the spring if you look closely. Then you will see the trail-head sign to the right.
There’s no swimming in Jody’s Spring or on the ¾ mile round-trip Boils Spring Trail. Follow the path through the woods. At the end there’s a boardwalk over the boils where the water pulsates up through the sand. Stay on the boardwalk. You will return back the way you came.
Hiking Challenge: Lake George Hike
Go past the swimming area to reach the Lake George Hike. It’s a three-mile round trip hike through the wilderness of Silver Glen Springs with a view of Lake George. This path can get overgrown during the summer months. Watch for deer, wild turkey, wild boars, armadillos, and even bear in this area. Also be aware of alligators- who like to sun themselves on the banks of the lake. Lake George is one of the most alligator-populated lakes in Florida.
Located in North central Florida, Marion County is an outdoor lover’s paradise, offering hiking, biking and paddling adventures for all ages.
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