Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway
Beakman Lake on Route 19, part of the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway
The Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway is a 123-mile route that encompasses virtually all the paved road within the Ocala National Forest in central Florida. It obviously gets its name from the Florida black bear, and this is the place where you will find the densest population of Florida black bears in North America. This is also a place where you will find many rare and endangered animals and plants that live nowhere else on Earth: this is the Big Scrub, the largest sand pine forest in the world.
The Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway also ties together several Florida state parks and other recreation areas on and around the Forest. Places like Silver River State Park, Tiger Bay State Forest, Alexander Springs Recreation Area and the Juniper Springs Recreation Area. And while you're in the area, you might like to take a stroll through Kerr City, a privately owned ghost town on an inholding within the Forest. Most of Kerr City has been restored to what it was back in the 1920's, and you can even rent one or another of the houses there and stay awhile, if you're interested. For hikers, the Florida National Scenic Trail crosses Ocala National Forest north/south. It crosses the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway in several places.
Most of the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway runs east/west along Florida State Road 40 but the north/south section is on Florida State Road 19 and the Alexander Springs section is on State Road 445. Most of the Scenic Byway is within the Ocala National Forest but there is a long finger running east of the forest almost to Ormond Beach. Along that eastern finger you'll find Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge and multiple Florida State Parks and State Forests. This large concentration of federal and state lands is meant to give the endangered Florida black bear some room to live in and roam around.
At the western gateway to the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway is Silver Springs, famous for the large size of the spring system in the area and the glass-bottom tourist boats that ply those cool, crystal-clear waters. Most folks stop by the 5,000-acre Silver River State Park and enjoy the boat ride (glass-bottom boats). The byway begins just east of the state park and proceeds eastward into the Big Scrub: the largest sand pine forest on Earth. About 15 miles down the road you should start seeing signs for the Juniper Springs Recreation Area.
Juniper Springs is another large spring gushing with crystal-clear water. You can rent a canoe or kayak here and float down Juniper Creek for a couple hours, or maybe just hike the 3/4 mile interpretive trail along Juniper Creek and enjoy a semitropical forest setting found nowhere else in the continental United States.
A few miles further east is the crossroads with State Road 19. You can go north past the canoe/kayak takeout on Juniper Creek to the Yearling Trail trailhead and go for a short hike on the Yearling Trail into the Juniper Prairie Wilderness. Juniper Prairie Wilderness is home to the endangered Florida scrub jay. If you bring enough water and are prepared, it's 5.5 miles from the trailhead to Pat's Island, former location of a turn-of-the-century farming community made famous by The Yearling, a novel by Marjorie Kinnans Rawling and a movie of the same name.
The route continues to the north through Salt Springs but when I drove it, I turned back south on SR 19 at the Yearling Trailhead and followed the 19 out to Umatilla. Along the way I passed through some gorgeous forest and by several beautiful lakes. When I came to the road signs for Alexander Springs I really thought about it but I decided to pass it up for a day when I could get there earlier and could spend more time exploring.
Technically, the entire Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway covers 123 miles but I only drove about 1/3 of it. You could drive this entire route in maybe four hours (as it's not a loop you'll have to backtrack in places) but I don't know that you could properly explore the area in four days. Personally, I want to get in a canoe at Alexander Springs and ride the creek down through the wilderness to the St. Johns River. Some of the photos I've seen of that bit of countryside are incredible. And a float down the Silver River is another thing I'd like to do.
Swimmers at Salt Springs
Near the Juniper Springs Recreation Area
A view along the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway
Florida State Road 19 near the Juniper Prairie Wilderness
Juniper Creek at the Juniper Creek take-out on Route 19
In the headwaters of Juniper Springs
Photo of the black bear courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Photo of Juniper Springs courtesy of Michael Messina
Other photos courtesy of The ArmchairExplorer, CCA-by-SA 3.0 License