High on the mountain tell me what you see
Bear tracks bear tracks lookin’ back at me
Better get your rifle boy before it’s too late
Cause the bear’s got a little pig and headed through the gate
He’s big around the middle and he’s broad across the rump
Runnin’ ninety miles an hour takin’ thirty feet a jump
Ain’t never been caught he ain’t never been treed
And some folks say he looks a lot like me
- – From the song “Ole Slew-Foot” recorded by country singer Porter Wagoner, written by Jay Webb
When I heard that the portion of State Road 40 that runs east from Silver Springs through the Ocala National Forest to Ormond Beach, Florida, had been officially designated the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway, I knew that there would have to be a ride. I have hunted, fished, camped, canoed and motorcycled the area for more than 50 years. Through all the growth and development that Florida has experienced, much of the forest and its surroundings have remained unchanged, a natural wildlife habitat surrounded by Florida’s exploding population and development. In addition to the main corridor of SR 40, the byway includes loops on SR 19, County Road 445 and Forest Road 29 (43) to the St. Johns Ferry at Fort Gates.
I’ll begin my ride in Umatilla, Florida, motoring north on two-lane, well maintained State Road 19. It is just three miles to Altoona where I top off the tank, the last of the gas stations for 30-40 miles depending on your route. Next is the little community of Pittman, which marks the beginning of the forest and the Scenic Byway. It is also the location of the Pittman Visitor Center, where maps and other forest information are available.
It’s early morning and few vehicles are on the road. The stock mufflers on the Honda Nighthawk make the early morning ride almost silent, gliding along the ribbon of black asphalt which cuts through the dense green woods of the Ocala National Forest. Known locally as The Ocala or The Big Scrub, it consists of 383,000 acres and more than 600 lakes, rivers and springs.
The road is lined with the forest vegetation that makes The Ocala unique—small scrub oak and the world’s largest stand of sand pines thrive in the sandy soil. The basic layout of the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway is a cross, so my ride will involve some backtracking. I’ll continue on 19 north, then west on SR 40, which is the main corridor of the Scenic Byway.
I am now headed for Silver Springs, one of Florida’s earliest tourist attractions beginning around 1870 and featuring river cruises and glass bottom boats. Silver Springs is a privately operated, naturally oriented attraction still featuring the beautiful springs and Silver River. It is well worth a visit if you have an extra day. There is a wide selection of motels, campgrounds and restaurants nearby.
Along the way are numerous interesting stop-offs, including Juniper Springs, the Lake George Ranger Station and the Oklawaha River. I’ve planned my trip as an all-natural outdoor adventure tour, so I’m doubling back to my chosen campsite in the forest at Juniper Springs. The campsites are located in a beautiful oak hammock, each site equipped with a fire ring, a picnic table, a lantern post, a barbecue grill, nearby rest rooms and showers. After checking in and setting up, I head for the springs, a pool of crystal-clear 72-degree water bubbling out of the earth at a rate of 8 million gallons per day! A dive into these magical waters is guaranteed to refresh body and spirit. I spend the rest of the afternoon on the nearby hiking trails.
As night falls on my Juniper campsite I take time to reflect on the newly designated Scenic Byway. The Florida black bear stands as the symbol for this unique roadway. Fittingly so, for the bear is the undisputed king here, Florida’s largest land animal, roaming the 383,000 acres of the forest and surrounding land unchallenged. It is estimated that one-third of the state’s 3,000 bears reside in The Ocala. The bears’ only enemy is the encroaching development that could wipe out his natural habitat. Bear hunting is banned in Florida, but some 25 bears die annually on the roads of The Ocala in vehicular encounters.
After a good rest and great night at the Juniper Campground I’m on my way again east on SR 40 and then north on SR 19 past Salt Springs to the northern terminus of the byway just south of Palatka. Then it’s back to Salt Springs for a bit of real backwoods adventure, taking Forest Road 29 (seven miles of dirt and gravel) through the forest to the Fort Gates Ferry, where you and your motorcycle can get a ride across the St. Johns River for $5 (closed Tuesday). The crossing only takes 10 minutes, but it is an experience you’ll never forget. The ferry consists of a small barge pushed by a small tug boat. Ferry service was started at Fort Gates by the U.S. Army more than 150 years ago.
Landing on the eastern shore of the river it’s on to Crescent City and south on U.S. 17 to SR 40 and on to the eastern terminus at Interstate 95. Then I double back, crossing the St. Johns again at Astor, then 445 South to Alexander Springs, then to SR 19 and back to the start/finish at Umatilla. It has been everything that I expected, and more. A great ride!
I hope that all of this can be preserved for my grandchildren and yours, for all future generations. The Scenic Byway designation can enhance the public awareness of this pristine wilderness, drawing supporters who will work for its protection and preservation. If I can take this ride and write about this great resource in a way that will expand its appreciation and understanding, then I will have paid back in a small way for all the enjoyment I’ve had in The Ocala over the years.