Osceola National Forest – Camping and Recreation

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Osceola National Forest covers nearly 200,000 acres of land and is located northeast of Lake City, Florida and is bisected by Interstate 10.  Osceola is a “Flat-woods” forest composed of low pine ridges with Cypress and Bay Swamps riddling the area. The forest was named after, and in honor of the well-known Seminole Indian warrior, Osceola and became a national forest in 1931 by Herbert Hoover’s Presidential proclamation. The area helps to protect Pinhook Swamp, the Southern end of the Okefenokee Swamp.

Camping

There are camping sites on the area to suit most tastes. Ocean Pond Campground, Cobb Camp and Hog Pen Landing are the three main camping sites, but there are other designated hunt camps. All three of these camping areas are located just south of I-10, or about an hour west of Jacksonville, Florida. This trip was planned on short notice and ocean Pond camp was full, so we stayed at Cobb camp this time around.

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Cobb camp has quite a few sites, and I don’t recall ever seeing the campground full. There is a Civil War re-enactment event that happens at the nearby Olustee Battlefield in February every year, and the campground is in more demand during that week. Things pick up again during the early weeks of deer hunting season, and again in the Spring for turkey hunting season, which happens to coincide with Spring Break season. We camped during this busy period and were still able to get the camping sites we wanted at Cobb. The Cobb Camp sites range from sitting beside the main forest road, to sites further back into the trees. During hunting seasons, camping anywhere other than  marked sites is prohibited. During non-hunting seasons you can camp anywhere in the forest that is not closed to public access.

Two of the campgrounds sit directly on the shores of Ocean Pond, a 1760 acre natural lake. The largest is the main “Ocean Pond Campground” that offers 67 campsites, with 19 offering electric hook-ups and some sites sitting waterfront. The Ocean Pond camp also offers shower and toilet facilities. A dump station is provided near the entrance, but the sites themselves do not have sewer hookups. Ocean Pond camp sites range from $8 to $18 per night. The other is “Hog Pen Landing”. This campground does not offer hook-ups or amenities, and spaces are quite limited.

Fishing and boating are allowed in the lake. I fished ocean Pond once before and didn’t do very well, but I’m not going to pass judgement based on one day of poor fishing, so I say have at it! The campground and lake offer great scenery, to include large old cypress trees with their Spanish moss dangling like jewelry above the water.

Trails

Approximately twenty-three miles of the National Scenic Trail meanders through Osceola National Forest, so if nature watching is your game, this might be a great place to go! There are miles and miles of 4 x 4 trails that can be used by licensed and unlicensed vehicles alike. There are some rules for off-road vehicles, such as no late night trail riding, and you must remain on numbered roads but otherwise you are free to explore. The forest service offers trail maps, but I’ve tried to save you the goose chase. You can find Osceola trail maps in the “Links” section below.

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Cross-roads.

The basic WMA map will not provide you all of the info you need to navigate the four wheeling trails, so if you have a poor sense of direction or just like to have an insurance policy, take the trail maps along for the ride. Also be aware that there are some deep mud/water holes along the way, and trees do sometimes fall across the trails. There is also a very real chance you will encounter other riders coming in the opposite direction. On this trip I came head on with a side by side on a blind curve and had to take it into the palmettos to miss them. Caution is encouraged even on familiar trails!

Many of the deeper holes seem to be where swampy areas surrounded by pine and palmetto flats cross the Osceola Forest trails. During wet seasons the water in some of these spots can be several feet deep, without considering the depth of the mud at the bottom. It is not uncommon to see a second trail bypassing some of these deeper holes. In other cases, you either go through, or go back. Your choice! I’ve seen an Exterra 4 x 4 club and a Jeep 4 x 4 club out riding the trails more than once, most of them sporting snorkel kits on their trucks. If you are going to make a serious run at the trails in a vehicle and don’t intend to backtrack, I would say the snorkels are a good addition to your equipment. During some times of the year the area is bone dry, so just pay attention to what the weather, be prepared, and go have fun!

Wildlife

The area offers a wide array of wildlife for your viewing pleasure. Alligators are an ever-present possibility in any Florida body of water, so be smart and be aware. Never feed wildlife! Black bear populations are on the increase in Florida. Years ago I never saw bears in Osceola, but over the last three years I have seen bears on three occasions.

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Bear talk.

The most recent sighting was a mother with two cubs, and is featured in one of our previous blogs. Check it out! The “no feeding” rule goes double for bears. Feeding a bear is likely to eventually end in the bear’s death when it becomes a “nuisance bear.” Florida held a bear hunt a few years ago as an effort at population control, but activists were successful in their efforts to have the next planned hunt cancelled before it occurred. No matter your position on hunting, the growing bear population and the likelihood of more human/bear interactions will mean the issue will have to be addressed at some point. Your guess is as good as mine on how the issue will ultimately be addressed. Personally, I suspect that the bear hunt will return in some form.

Keep an eye out for trees with white-painted rings around them. These are known nesting sites for the Red Cockaded Woodpecker. I see these large woodpeckers frequently in Osceola, and if you don’t see them, you are likely to hear the rather loud sound created by their pecking on trees. Once you know the sound of that and their call, you’ll always know when Red Cokaded woodpeckers are around. You may also be able to catch sight of endangered Gopher Tortoises, Eastern Indigo Snakes, or Florida Panthers. You can see a baby Gopher Turtle in one of our other blogs. Check it out if you have time. Don’t touch these animals if you do see them. They are protected for a reason. The forest is also home to more common animals such as skunks, coyotes, foxes, opossums, wild turkey and squirrels. Bobcat tracks were in abundance during this trip. Watch for snakes! I have personally seen some very large Timber Rattlers, Copper Heads and Water Moccasins in the area, along with an assortment of non-venomous species.

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Bobcats on the prowl!

Feral hogs are becoming more common in Osceola Forest. Prior to about 3 years ago, I had only seen hog sign in one area. Now I see it in most areas I frequent, and each year the sign becomes more abundant and obvious. The amount of damage a few feral hogs can do is amazing and sad at the same time.

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Feral Hog Damage in another North Florida Wildlife Management Area.

Fishing-Boating-Kayaking

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Ocean Pond boat ramp.

There is of course Ocean Pond. The pond holds many species of fresh water fish, to include Large Mouth Bass, catfish, and several popular pan fish. The Ocean Pond campground offers a boat ramp for campers, as does Hog Pen Landing. This camp does not have amenities. Cobb Camp has a couple of small ponds nestled in among the campsites which hold a few fish. I saw a few bass along the edges of the pond as I explored the area. I’ll be taking a rod and reel with me next time I go!

Hunting

As stated earlier, the area hosts  hunts from September through March. During these times camping is allowed only at designated campgrounds. Throughout the remainder of the year camping is allowed anywhere in the National Forest open to public access. When camping during hunting periods, be cautious, and personally I advise that if you are going to be using the trails even as a non-hunter, I would wear brightly colored clothing. Blaze orange would be ideal.

Foraging

Unlike most state parks, foraging in a National Park is allowed, but only for personal use. Please don’t ruin it for others by trying to forage for products to sell. There have been issues in Florida with people collecting Saw Palmetto berries by the truckload to sell to vitamin makers and the like. Taking wild forage on this scale creates a hardship on animals such as deer and bears that rely heavily on these foods for their basic survival.

As previously stated the forest area is expansive, and offers a number of different habitat types to explore. There are hardwoods scattered here and there, often along the edges of the more swampy areas, as well as cypress bogs, pine woods, and a few large planted food plots.

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A strip of flooded mixed woods amongst the pine.

As with almost anywhere, there are both mushrooms and greens to forage. The most recent trip was a bit mushroom deprived. We found a few both nothing highly prized.

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Clam Shell Mushroom

Greens such as Bull Thistle, Smilax, False Hawksbeard and Japonica were plentiful. I introduced several family members to Bull Thistle stalk, sautéed with salt and pepper, and they loved it! I gathered up a nice serving of Smilax for my own consumption and gave it a quick steam on the grill with some salt, pepper and butter. Again, they were very tasty!

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Bull Thistle. Wear heavy leather gloves and use a long blade!
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Peeling the stalk. It’s a lot like celery,
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Grilling it up! It can be eaten raw though.
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Smilax. I love this stuff. As good or better than asparagus in my book.

Biking/Hiking/Horseback

While the trails in the forest do not appear to have been designed with biking in mind, there is nothing preventing a person from using the forest roads to bike. The main forest roads are “improved” with limestone gravel. The unimproved roads would be a tough bike ride during wet periods given that there is more flooded road than dry during those times. The Ocean Pond campground has paved roads perfectly suitable for more leisurely family type rides around the immediate camping area and entry road.

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Ride the loop.
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The other side.

You could hike the 4×4 off-road trails, but bring tall waterproof snake boots and wear long pants in case you have to bust brush to get around deep spots. Throughout much of the year you are likely to need them.The Western portion of the forest offers approximately 50 miles of equestrian trails.

Osceola offers a wide array of activities for outdoors enthusiasts, is in easy reach of historical sites and the city of Jacksonville. Go out and give it a try!

Links:

Osceola National Forest Camping Reservations: https://floridastateforests.reserveamerica.com/

https://.myfwc.com/hunting/wma-brochures/

https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd573704.pdf

Off-Road Vehicle Guide Book: https://www.freshfromflorida.com/content/download/31616/769009/Florida_OHV_Guidebook_2017.pdf

Where to Ride Guidebook: https://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Florida-Forest-Service/Recreation/Off-Highway-Vehicles-OHV/Where-to-Ride#nationalf

1991 Coleman Pop-up Camper Remodel

So… sometimes I have a tendency to get deeper into a project than might actually be required to solve the problem at hand. Recently I’ve gone that direction with our Coleman pop-up camper. The camper needed one new bed-rail slider when I bought it and the other rail worked okay but had a slight bend that needed to be bent back into position in order to slide comfortably into the receiving guide rail when stowing the beds. The dealer rigged the broken rail so that the bed could be set up and returned to the stowed position for travel, though not smoothly or easily. I used it that way for about three years, then when it fell apart I fashioned a home-made replacement that worked reasonably well for another year’s worth of camping. I’ve always intended to replace that damaged rail with a new unit and to bend the other rail closer to where it should be while I was at it, and about two months ago that little project finally rose to the upper end of my to-do list.

The bed rails were a simple project since I already knew how the system operated. Luckily there are still parts and parts manuals available for this and many other older pop-ups, so I was able to buy a brand new slide assembly complete with all installation hardware. Upon closer inspection it was clear that the rivets on the bent but functioning bed rail assembly were starting to loosen, so I replaced those while I had the bed separated from the camper.

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I had to bend the aluminum on this side to get it off of the wheel so the rail would slide more smoothly. Removing those two pins at the top and bottom of the rail are the key to removing the slide rail from the guide rail.

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As you can see, no rail on this side. You can still see metal shavings from the two home-spun solutions the dealer and I came up with.

As one might imagine, time, temperature and our wonderful Florida humidity have all taken a toll on the interior of the camper. It was usable, and far from a piece of junk, but the particle board had disintegrated around many of the cabinet screws and the interior looked dated and tired. Several of the screw holes holding the long piano hinge into the stove cabinet base were completely stripped, and I really need this piece to function properly for the sake of easy set-up and take-down.

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Dated!
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Tired!

Demo

I started by removing all of the screws to the bases of the cabinets, bench seats, etc. Then I removed the screws holding the benches to the walls, as well as the screws holding the countertop to the long storage cabinet on the left in the picture below. Next, I removed the piano hinge screws that attached the stove and sink cabinet to the base section. The other side of the hinge is riveted to the upper metal cabinet, and since I planned to repaint and use the cabinet, I left the hinge attached on that side. I removed this section of cabinet in one piece. Later I separated the stove, sink and faucet into their individual pieces so that I could make a new countertop and paint the various parts.

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You can see the original bench layout in the picture. Notice the long wall extending into the floor space. It is now even with the front of the cabinets.
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You can see some of the peeling on this cabinet door.

The Floor

I pulled the old linoleum up, which was easy. Much of the paper backing remained on the floor. Trying to remove this from the strand board would have probably created more issues than leaving it, so I didn’t attempt to do so given most of the surface was really smooth with the paper remaining on. The corner areas and a few edges near the walls were a different story. Moisture had affected those areas over time and the paper backing came up with the rest, leaving exposed particle board.

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That’s a stylish floor!

IMG_20190218_132627495There’s one of the ugly corners I was talking about. Leaving brackets on the wall when possible made it easy to line everything back up.

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The floor turned out pretty well after painting.

I picked up two boxes of light grey oak vinyl planks at a local store while on a camping trip several months ago thinking maybe I would use it for something at some point. When I decided to do the camper it was clear I didn’t have enough to do the whole camper floor so I bought more of the same brand on-line thinking it looked like a product of sufficient quality for a project like this. The planks went down easily, and the glue seemed sticky enough to do the job. Looks great right?

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Looked good at this point.

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Then it happened… before I was even finished installing the furniture a few edges and corners were lifting. At that point with a planned trip coming up soon and rain in the forecast, I had to correct the issue or have a mess on my hands so I spent a little more money on higher quality planks from a major retailer and had a little do-over party. Good times! I installed the new planks over the first planks with the seams overlapping to lock the old ones in and it worked out great! Moral of this story is: READ REVIEWS BEFORE YOU PURCHASE! I didn’t and it wasn’t until the stuff started coming up that I did so and saw that most people who bought this product seemed to be having the same experience no matter what surface they laid the planks over.

Making the new pieces of cabinetry was relatively easy given that I had all of the factory parts to use as templates. Using 1/2 inch sanded and primed plywood I made sure to trace out each new cabinet door from the original doors rather than tracing new patterns from whatever new door I had just cut. I hoped to avoid amplifying any deviations by doing it this way.

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Everything getting a coat of primer and quality paint.
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New countertop not yet sanded or painted.
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New base top for stove and sink cabinet.

I used the original cabinet hinges and other hardware, but did have to pick up a few new screws, as it appeared rust had done a few of them in. I was never a fan of the factory floor plan and thought I had an idea that would open the space up, but that would still allow us to use the bench area as a bed should we need to sleep five. I left the furniture wall brackets up where I could, which made putting the furniture back in really easy. Luckily I was able to design the new benches in such a way as to allow the use of the factory bench frames and front panels. We have never used the folding table that came with the camper, so I removed it from the equation. It was probably the piece of furniture in the worst shape. I plan to make a new top for it, and if we ever need it we can take it along.

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Mock-up of the folding bench base section.

I only had to design and build one piece of the furniture from scratch. I needed something that would fold down to form the base for the couch cushions, make a bed, and to act as the couch seat, arm, and back. I came up with what I thought was a cool idea, and it actually worked out well. What do you think? You saw it here first. Call me Coleman. Call me…

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Folded down for travel or bed set-up.
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Folded up to act as couch.
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I bought a new piano hinge much like the factory hinge used on the stove and sink cabinet.

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I am really happy with how this piece of the project turned out. It really opens things up when the camper is in use, and can be set up as a couch, a bed, or a lounger of sorts, while fitting like a factory piece when it comes to take-down and travel.

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The new couch in the open position.
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Lounger anyone?
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A bed when needed.

The cabinet doors were pretty simple to install using the same holes in the cabinets and drilling new holes in the new cabinet doors. Be sure to either screw them in by hand or set your drill at the lowest setting so as to not strip the holes out. I set my cordless 20 volt drill on 1 and 1 1/2 and it worked great. None of the screw holes stripped.

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New countertop for the sink and stove.
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Bottom view of water faucet. Center feed is city water. The other goes to the reserve water tank.
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This is the piece the long piano hinge screws into. The screw holes were in terrible shape on the factory piece. I shortened the side panel since I turned the bench sideways against the wall. Now the floor is wide open when couch is set up.
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The vinyl was already coming up here, but you can’t tell in the picture.

 

My factory stove lid was peeling and rusting in spots, so I removed it from the cabinet, stripped the paint, sanded and primed with high build primer. I wasn’t worried about taking all of the deep pitting off but I do want a reasonably smooth, durable surface. I spray painted the lid ivory-white then coated with a moderate coat of a heavy urethane that you may have seen on some restaurant tables. I’m hoping it makes the surface as durable as we need it to be. We often sit things on the lid, so I know spray paint alone would be ruined in no time. I forgot to take a picture before I closed up the camper, but maybe I’ll get one later and update this blog. It turned out well. Sorry!

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This is with the new vinyl planks. Similar color but thicker and more color and grain variation.
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The wall paint was something I picked up along the line and just happened to work out for this project.

I have done a few maintenance tasks on the camper previously. Those included taking off the front panel to tighten the chain (watch for wasp nests if you do this!), replacing the tires and rims, lubricating the lift system, and fixing the leaking corner caps. I still need to repaint the roof, which will also require removing the AC unit and gasket so that I can get to the entire roof surface. If you need to know how to do any of the other tasks I just named on these Coleman campers, shoot me a question. Happy to help if I can.

In all, this interior remodeling  project didn’t take up too much time. I probably spent about 4 weekend days, sun-up to sun-down working on it. Outside of the issue with the floor, I couldn’t be happier with the rest. This pop-up should now last my family throughout the rest of my camping years, and hopefully will continue on with them when I am past my camping prime!

Cary State Forest and Campground

Recently Jake and I spent a weekend at Cary State Forest and Wildlife Management Area. We’ve been to Cary before, but hadn’t really been all that impressed. At first glance, you might feel the same. Driving through the main roads, which are mostly sand, you’re likely to think the place is just young pine flat woods and scrub. This year, we found out that is not the case. One just needs to know where to look to find some beautiful woods. While it is true that the area is mostly pine and cypress bottoms, it is the transition zones between the mature pine and swampy areas that we really enjoyed. The cypress bottoms here are not as thick as I have seen in other swamps, and can be walked when dry. This was the case on the weekend we recently spent there. Find some of those transition areas between the two types of woods and you won’t be sorry. I found that once I knew what to look for we were able to find great spots that were open and provided great views.  These woods were different from any we normally spend time in, and we really enjoyed the novelty. As with most places off the beaten path, protect yourself from biting insects such as ticks and mosquitos and watch for venomous snakes.

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During rainy periods this would be a swamp bottom. 8 inches short on rain, and you can walk it.
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More of the bottoms.
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View of transition area. The pines got larger a little further in.
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View of transition area. We really loved this spot. You could have walked quite a distance through the pines. There were game trails crossing in all directions here.

There is always a possibility that you will see wildlife when you visit a forest. There is a healthy population of feral hogs at Cary, as well as deer, turkey, gopher turtles, etc. Watch for sows with piglets, as they can be very aggressive. The area hosts management hunts through the fall and spring but remains open to other uses. If you are hiking or spending time in the woods during hunt periods, it would be wise to wear some hunter orange. You can find some cool plants on your walk, like the Sundew carnivorous plants I there.

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Little piggies running the road.
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Fox tracks in the mud.
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Beautiful Sundew specimen. One of Florida’s carnivorous plants.

Although we weren’t camping, Jake and I did check out the campground facilities, and everything appeared to be brand new. There are full shower and restroom facilities, along with powered and primitive campsites. Although I don’t recall reading anywhere that walk-up sites are available at the Cary campground, there was signage on some of the sites stating that they were walk-up sites available. All the camp sites were spacious relative to other camps I have seen and were well spaced offering a good deal of separation from the few fellow campers inhabiting the seven available spots. That weekend it looked like only two or three were taken. There is also a dump station on site. Campsite Welcome SignFee Area Sign

Primative Campsite
Primitive camp site.
Hook-up campsite
Site with full hook-up. Brand new concrete pads.

Michelle found a page on the web that talked about a little girl who haunts the forest and hangs out at the camp. Jake and I had to go check that out! Jake found her sitting on the bench in front of the restrooms. IMG_20181103_191522614She seemed nice. Pretty sure all that stuff about her killing people is nonsense. Or is it…