When a mama bear and two cubs on the boardwalk shut down Juniper Springs, we were so disappointed – until we saw nearby Alexander Springs, where we had an outstanding day of paddling.
Just 20 minutes apart, these two springs in Ocala National Forest are different enough to merit kayaking or canoeing them both.
Alexander Springs will suit some people better – it’s an easy paddle requiring no experience or skills. Where Juniper is narrow and twisty, Alexander is 60 to 80 feet wide and slower moving.
Both have exceptional water clarity and are surrounded by unspoiled forest and vegetation. The sunny Alexander passes through a yellow pine lowland and a riverine swamp, with marsh grasses, lily pads and palm trees along the shore. (Shady Juniper has live oaks and cypress trees.)
The springhead at Alexander Springs creates a large, shallow sandy-bottom natural pool ideal for swimming – if you like swimming in 72 degree water. Where the spring emerges from the bottom, snorkelers and scuba divers enjoy exploring the limestone rocks and boulders in the spring boil. The swimmers in our group gave Alexander top marks as a swimming hole. (You can rent snorkel gear here too.)
Alexander Springs is a first-magnitude spring, meaning it discharges at least 100 cubic feet of water per second and it’s the only one in a national park or forest. (There are 27 first magnitude springs in Florida.)
What made Alexander delightful was the wildlife we saw above and below the water.
A highlight: A bald eagle flew over the river twice, giving us an exceptional view. But we loved seeing all sorts of birds from herons to belted kingfishers.
In the water, there were schools of fish (look for bass and bluegill) and beautiful turtles who seemed to be flying because the water is aquarium-clear.
On the cool December day we visited, the ranger said others reported seeing otters and a doe swimming across the river. And we missed seeing Alice the Alligator, a 12-footer who we were told hangs out under the bridge.
Alexander is a relatively short out-and-back kayak. The outfitter recommended going only to the bridge, which is a mile distance, and said vegetation made it difficult to go farther. But we easily paddled another mile downstream and loved every minute. Even there, we suspect we could have paddled farther, though we would be making our way through vegetation.
The current is mild enough that is it easy to paddle back upstream and it makes a good three or four hour paddle, depending on how long you pause to picnic, photograph or fish.
There are few places to land for a picnic. We were told the best spot is around the bridge, but we also found an island downstream beyond there that made an ideal spot – small but picturesque.
We had the river to ourselves on a winter weekday and we loved the surprising (for Florida) fall colors of the trees and the beautiful bunches of purple asters.
Peak season here is summer, although this river has no shade and would be very hot. (There’s no swimming outside the designated area because of alligators.)
Unlike many Florida springs, Alexander Springs is quite healthy – nutrient levels, which can feed algae growth, have not increased over the entire 60 years they have been measured. (It helps that much of the springshed – the ground through which the water passes on its way underground into the springs– is inside Ocala National Forest.)
Visiting Alexander Springs in Ocala National Forest
You can rent canoes here ($16 for two hours or $24 for four hours as of winter 2018.) While all day rentals are available ($38), unless you plan to fish, you probably won’t need more than four hours. There is no shuttle service. Details: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/ocala/recarea/?recid=40314
If you have your own canoe or kayak, you can launch here for a small fee.
The area around Alexander offers excellent camping, shaded picnic tables, the short Timucuan Trail (with a beat up wooden boardwalk through jungle vegetation) as well as rest rooms with hot showers.
Camping reservations may be made by phone at 1-877-444-6777 or online at Alexander Springs Campground . Our group included one adult who had camped here wiht his family as a child 50 years ago and remembers the area fondly.
49525 County Rd 445, Altoona, FL 32702
Directions: Alexander Springs Recreation Area is located along CR 445 in the northeast corner of Lake County between Astor and Altoona. From SR 40 at Astor, take Butler Street to CR 445A, and turn left on CR 445. The recreation area is 5.8 miles south on the right. From Altoona, drive north 5.2 miles on SR 19, and turn right on CR 445. Continue another 5.1 miles to the entrance on the left.
Things to do near Ocala and Ocala National Forest
- Four great rivers to kayak or canoe from a base in Ocala
- Five things to do in Ocala National Forest
- Florida Rambler contributor writes about hike-in primitive camping in Ocala National Forest
- Ocala National Forest Home Page
- Interactive recreation map for Ocala National Forest
- The Trails of Ocala National Forest by FloridaHikes!
- Florida Rambler story on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek, about 40 minutes way, and worth visiting.
- Near Cross Creek, you can dine at the historic Yearling Restaurant, 14531 E. County Road 325, Cross Creek, just down the road from the state park. The 60-year-old restaurant celebrates the Florida Cracker culture. It serves Rawlings’ legendary sour orange pie, as well as frog legs, catfish, venison and the best cheese grits I’ve ever had. It’s decorated with enough memorabilia to be an antique store.
- Historic Micancopy, Florida’s oldest inland city, is a few miles away and is a great place to browse antique shops and admire a quaint and historic small Florida town.
- Herlong Mansion Historic Inn and Gardens in Micancopy is a bed and breakfast known for its white pillars, wide verandas and Southern hospitality.
- Nearby Paynes Prairie State Park offers extensive hiking plus shaded sites for tents, trailers or RV camping. The park is known for its sinkholes, birdwatching and alligators.