With more than one million acres of undeveloped wilderness, Florida state forests are a veritable playground for backpackers, birders, paddlers, and off-road cyclists. From northwest Florida to the Everglades, these public lands receive only a fraction of the use than the more highly publicized state parks.
Florida’s forests welcome visitors with sparkling waters, unspoiled wilderness, and miles upon miles of hiking and biking trails. With over 30 state forests spread around the state, there are countless recreation opportunities. Here are three state forests that offer both fun outdoor activities and fantastic camping.
Located in the Panhandle about three hours west of Tallahassee, the Blackwater River State Forest is one of the largest state forests in Florida. Amidst low rolling hills covered with Longleaf pines and scrub oak, meander a series of winding streams and rivers. Most noteworthy is the 30-mile long Blackwater River that originates in Alabama and flows south to Blackwater Bay.
Paddling and fishing opportunities are abundant here, as are trails for horseback riding, hiking and biking. Within the forest are five separate camping areas suitable for RVs or tents. Camping fees here range from $10 for primitive sites to $20 for sites with electric and water hook-ups.
Hurricane Lake Recreation Area:
Fishermen flock to this broad, shallow 318-acre lake located in the northern half of the Blackwater River Forest. Boat ramps and fishing piers allow for easy lake access. The boat ramps are adjacent to two campgrounds.
On the south side is a campground with primitive sites (no utility hook-ups), restrooms, and picnic facilities. For those seeking more creature comforts, the northern campground offers campsites with electric & water, restrooms with showers, and some sites with fantastic views.
Bear Lake Recreation Area:
Located alongside the man-made Bear Lake, this camping area offers both electric and non-electric campsites along with water hook-ups. Restrooms and showers are available as well. Recreation here is plentiful with boat ramps, a fishing pier and access to several hiking trails.
Coldwater Creek Recreation Area:
Bordered to the north by Coldwater Creek and surrounded by a scenic forest crisscrossed with trails, this recreation area is a favorite for equestrian campers and paddling enthusiasts alike. With horse stalls and campsites offering electric and water hook-ups, the campground is set up to accommodate both man and beast. The campsites and horse stalls require advance reservations.
In addition to numerous forest trails, the Coldwater Creek Paddling Trail is accessible from the recreation area. For 19-miles the trail follows the swift moving river past broad sandbars and through pristine forest.
Karick Lake Recreation Area:
Smaller in size than Hurricane Lake, but still a great place for fishing, Karick Lake offers a boat ramp, a fishing pier, and two camping areas on the north and south sides of the lake. Both camping areas have electric and water hook-ups along with restrooms & showers.
In addition to fishing, the Karick Lake area also offers access to several hiking trails, including a section of the Florida Birding Trail that travels around the lake.
Kurl Recreation Area:
A small camping area that is located next to an even smaller man-made lake. Since it’s a popular swimming spot, the day-use area with swimming dock is often busy on hot summer days. The campsites at Kurl Recreation Area are equipped with electric and water hook-ups.
Picayune Strand State Forest is in the heart of an ecosystem called the Big Cypress Basin. The forest is comprised of cypress strands, wet prairie, pine flatwoods and subtropical hardwood hammocks. It is also the location of one of the greatest “swampland scams” in Florida history. In the 1960s, investors from around the country were invited to visit the “Golden Gate Estates” during the dry season and hundreds of lots were sold. What they didn’t know was that the area turned into a mosquito filled swampland during the summer, and most of the land could not be developed.
Eventually the developer went bankrupt, leaving behind an ecological mess. Bulldozers and dredges had carved more than 880 miles of roads and 180 miles of canals out of the wilderness, cutting off water flows and slicing through wildlife habitat.
Today, the land has been purchased by the state and is undergoing a massive restoration to restore the natural flow of water and preserve the health of the Everglades. The forest provides habitat for many species of wildlife including black bear, bald eagle, wood stork, Big Cypress fox squirrel, and swallow-tailed kites. It’s also one of the few places where Florida panthers live. Although sightings are rare, they do leave tracks for the observant visitor and in recent years female panthers have born cubs in the forest.
Belle Meade Track:
Camping in the Picayune Strand forest is restricted to a primitive area adjacent the forest service office in the Belle Meade Tract. Here you will find portable toilets, non-potable water, and horse paddocks. This area also serves as a trailhead for a 22-mile equestrian trail that is open to bikes and foot traffic. The camping fee is $10 per night and there is plenty of room for RVs of all sizes.
Withlacoochee State Forest is conveniently located within a two-hour drive of both Tampa and Orlando. Despite its proximity to developments, malls, and freeways, the Withlacoochee remains a wild and wonderful place. Anglers will find sport fishing opportunities plentiful on the many lakes and waterways. But it is the forest’s trails — for hiking, cycling and horseback riding — which draws the most interest. The forest boasts miles of trails, crowds are never a problem, and it is not unusual to find the place all to yourself.
The forest is divided into seven distinct areas, or “tracts”, with the Citrus Tract offering the majority of camping options for RVs. All three camping areas have a nightly fee from $10-15 and require advance reservations to obtain a permit and a gate code. Make a reservation by calling the forest service at (352) 797-4140.
Holder Mine Recreation Area:
Moss-draped oaks provide shade at this grassy camping area. Water and electric hook-ups along with picnic tables and a grill adorn each of the 27 campsites. In addition, restrooms and a dump station are located on site.
Mutual Mine Recreation Area:
Mutual Mine Campground has 13 campsites in a horseshoe formation next to a picturesque, rain-filled lake that was formerly a mine pit. There are no utility hook-ups, but the campground does have restrooms (no showers).
Tillis Hill Recreation Area:
A great option for those traveling with horses, or looking for a place to host a large gathering. Tillis Hill has 37 campsites with paved parking pads, electric and water hook-ups, and picnic tables. In addition, the campground offers restrooms, dump station, and 28 horse stalls.
Aside from the well-equipped campground and access to miles of trails, Tillis Hill also has some great facilitates for large gatherings including a covered pavilion, dining hall, and a commercial grill/smoker. Advance reservations are required for all of these amenities.