State Road 19 forms a north/south spine through Umatilla, as it does just a blink of an eye up the road in the Ocala National Forest. That spine links the two entities together, bringing thousands of people to Umatilla on their way to and from the forest every year. Situated at the southern boundary to the Forest, Umatilla is considered the “Gateway to the Ocala National Forest”. It particularly is for those residents and tourists who visit the Forest from the fast-growing Central Florida area around Orlando.
Generations of Umatilla children attended class in the old “Umatilla School”. In service since early in the 20th century, the building was closed in the early 1990’s and almost demolished when the City of Umatilla answered citizen calls and took over ownership of the structure. It was been renamed the Paul Bryan Historic Schoolhouse for the Umatillian who spent decades serving the community on the Lake County School Board. It serves as the headquarters for the Umatilla Historical Society.
The area that today is known as Umatilla was for centuries occupied by Native American tribes, including the Timucuan, who were a prominent society in and around what is now the Ocala National Forest. Nathan J. Trowell is credited with being the first of a group of permanent settlers, bringing his large family to the area that is today downtown Umatilla in 1856. Like many early Florida towns, its land was first planted in citrus and row crops. Tourism came to Florida in waves over the years, until the arrival of Disney World south of Orlando in the early 1970′s created a more dependable tourism market. While coastal cities rely on beaches and fancy hotels, Umatilla is proud of its authentic eco-heritage identity, and its proximity to the Ocala National Forest.
The Forest was created in 1908, and is the oldest national forest east of the Mississippi River. Florida Black Bears highlight the many protected species that call the Forest home. Keened-eyed visitors might see deer, turkeys, bald eagles, and dozens of other animals and birds. A yearly “Black Bear Festival” in Umatilla helps introduce residents and visitors to the ecological values of the Forest.
In addition to both improved and primitive camping sites, the Forest features miles of biking, hiking, and horse trails, off-road vehicle trails, and speciality trails such as The Florida Trail, The Backwoods Trail, The Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway, The Great Florida Birding Trail, and The Yearling Trail—which includes landmarks used by author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in “The Yearling”.
Many early Cracker-style cabins such as that used by the Carr family were built by Umatilla residents as hunting and fishing camps in the woods and on the lakes outside of town, but few are still standing today.
For more information on the Forest, check out on our Ocala National Forest page; specifics on Umatilla can be found at Umatillachamber.org