Ahhh! The weather is finally getting cooler, and it is time to enjoy the outdoor activities Central Florida has to offer.
Our family moved to the Lake Nona area 10 years ago, and within those 10 years, we’ve created some beautiful friendships. As the kids have gotten older, they also have created friends that have become like our extended family. Families create traditions. One of the traditions we are establishing is a yearly camping trip to the Ocala National Forest.
Just over an hour’s drive north and, all of a sudden, the trees are taller, the streets are clearer, and cell reception is spotty at best. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s website, the Ocala National Forest encompasses approximately 387,000 acres and is the southernmost forest in the continental United States. It is rich with water resources with more than 600 lakes, rivers and springs with four major springs of crystal clear water: Juniper Springs, Salt Springs, Alexander Springs and Silver Springs.
Our friend and camping enthusiast, Chris Adams, set up the rental of the campsite. I am not familiar with the process of booking in the Ocala National Forest, so my first recommendation is to find a friend who does. Delegate that task! (Although a quick Google search will give you results on booking a campsite.) In all honesty, booking a campsite, whether on the national, state or local level, is not difficult; it simply requires flexibility in your dates and location. Certain campsites book 11 months in advance; others are only available two months in advance. Doing some research on where you want to stay and their booking processes may take some time, but it is worth it in the end.
We arrived at the campsite early, and the kids left the car and headed straight for the lake and the woods. Our specific campsite has a lake and a trail around it. My kids are excited to make forts with their friends, catch fish, go kayaking, make swords out of branches, and make s’mores. We don’t bring devices, and my cell phone gets no reception (other carriers do), so we are fully disconnected from our “virtual world” and fully connected with the humans in front of us.
My kids are old enough now that they can explore the woods on their own. My husband and I planned for this and decided to take 45 minutes out of our camping time to have a “wine and cheese” date. We set up our chairs to face the lake and created a mini charcuterie board. I made a playlist, and we enjoyed some quiet time together.
Cooking while camping can be simple or elaborate. We had a group of 23. One family, the Swansons, made the most amazing pork butt! They brought a smoker and let it sit for hours. We thought we were going to make eggs and bacon for lunch, but we forgot our skillet and instead had yogurt and granola. Peanut butter sandwiches or mac and cheese are also easy options to bring.
I saw my boys briefly at mealtimes and around the campfire at the end of the evening, when we all shared our adventures of the day and cooked s’mores. One parent brought glow lights for the kids, and the adults watched as the kids played in the dark a stone’s throw away.
Nightfall happens earlier, and out in the woods, there is little light pollution. The stars on this particular evening were bright, and the night was clear. Around 8:30, my youngest son Charlie asked to go to bed. I contemplated staying up but decided to go to bed with him. The rest of the family quickly joined, and we all snuggled on our air mattresses.
On the drive back, the boys told us how much fun they had and how much they enjoy camping with their friends. Their faces were muddy, their shoes were filthy, and their nails were full of dirt. Their smiles were from ear to ear. My husband and I looked at each other, and I knew this was a tradition I wanted to be a part of.