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

Momma Bear and Two Cubs

Bear CubsThis young lady came in with her two babies. She was straight downwind of me but came in anyway. It was Awesome! I hope you enjoy it as much as me! This was the 4th time I’ve seen bears in this area over the last two years. May post a little video of the 5:30 am walk in later.