Florida’s best fresh-water kayaking trails start with Florida’s remarkable springs. I love kayaking in the Everglades and the Keys, but these aquarium-clear spring-fed rivers are hard to beat.
You can experience four of these rivers in one trip if you base yourself in the Ocala area. In four days of paddling, you have a good chance to see wildlife — from manatees to American eagles to alligators and even monkeys.
All four of these rivers are well-served by outfitters from whom you can rent gear and livery service. At all four, you can launch your own kayaks.
We’ve written detailed stories about each of these four rivers, and here’s a round-up to help you make your travel plans.
Silver Spring and the Silver River
If I had to pick a favorite of these four, it would be the Silver River.
How can you beat this trifecta of wildlife experiences, all from a December trip? Rhesus monkeys scampering overhead in the tree tops, manatees lolling around in water so clear you can see every scar on their broad backs, and hundreds of ibises, white wings flapping against brilliant blue sky?
You begin your kayak trip at Silver Spring State Park in Ocala, where the outfitter rents clear-bottom kayaks as well as other kayaks and canoes. You can see the best of the river in two hours of out-and-back paddling. (It’s not hard to paddle upstream.) But, unless it is an off season weekday (as it was for us in early December), the outfitter will pick you up five miles downstream and livery you back to the state park. If livery service is available, I recommend the downstream trip.
Here are details on kayaking the Silver River.
Tip: This is a great river for beginners: Paddling is easy with the current and little skill in turning is required.
Juniper Springs in Ocala National Forest
Juniper is a Florida spring with a distinction: It’s the healthiest, most natural spring in the state, according to a recent assessment. The water at the springhead is so clear and shallow that it appears the boats launching there are floating above white sand. Because the springshed is largely within Ocala National Forest, the Juniper isn’t affected by fertilizer and septic tanks, as are most Florida springs and rivers.
Juniper Run is also among the narrowest, with twist and turns that create intimate spaces where the cypress trees and foliage surround you.
And therein lies the controversy about paddling Juniper Run. If you read TripAdvisor, a number of people call paddling here “worst day ever.” There were enough comments about how difficult this run is and how miserable the experience, that we were prepared for something very challenging. We had paddled it a few years ago, but we figured the trail must have deteriorated.
To our delight, this run was as delightful as we remembered. It does require a paddler to be able to make some tight turns and inexperienced kayakers and canoers might find it frustrating. I say: just bounce off the edges and laugh.
Tip: Get an early start, as no boats are allowed down the run in the afternoon, in order to ensure everyone finishes by closing time. Also: This is not a good “first river” if you’ve never paddled before.
Alexander Springs in Ocala National Forest
If you want a relaxing, easy paddle with lots of birds and wildlife, Alexander Springs is a good choice.
If you only have an hour or two but want to experience a river with crystal clear water, Alexander is for you.
If you want to see how two spring-fed rivers 20 minutes apart can look and feel quite different — then paddle Juniper and Alexander back-to-back.
We hadn’t planned to paddle Alexander, but when Juniper was closed due to a black bear family hanging out at the canoe launch, it was an easy substitute. And we’re glad we got to experience Alexander.
There are no motor boats on this river and it is less intensively used than Juniper, so it was a quiet, bird-filled trip whose highlight for us was seeing an American eagle.
Tip: If you want to swim in a spring, Juniper is the best choice in Ocala National Forest. The spring basin is broad with a sandy bottom. Snorkelers and scuba divers enjoy exploring the limestone rocks and boulders in the spring boil.
Ocklawaha River along Ocala National Forest
The Ocklawaha is probably the least familiar of the four rivers described here. Athough it receives all the water from the clear Silver River, only the lower portion is clear spring water, as the Ocklawaha begins to darken as tannins seep into the water from vegetation.
The Ocklawaha forms the western border of Ocala National Forest and thus it passed through wild and natural scenery with an abundance of birds and wildlife.
The best part? Fewer people paddle the Ocklawaha and the space seems vast. There are no telltale highway sounds or power lines to bring you back to daily life.
Tip: If you want to do kayak-camping in a wild place, the Ocklawaha lends itself to a multi-day outing with primitive camping.
Planning your kayak or canoe trip to Ocala
If you’re a camper, your options are many, from Silver Springs State Park to the campgrounds in Ocala National Forest. See camping options in this story Five things to do in Ocala National Forest.
We always try to stay in the excellent cabins in Silver Springs State Park. For more on all the park has to offer, see Florida Rambler’s detailed guide to Silver Springs State Park.
More great rivers to kayak — also close to Ocala
We haven’t paddled it recently enough to write a review or guide, but if you have time, you might consider Salt Springs Run, also in Ocala National Forest. It comes later on our list because it is popular with power boats, although reviews suggest they’re not a problem. Here’s more about it.
There are two other spectacular rivers you can reach within 45 minutes of Ocala; we highly recommend these two, which are close to Dunnellon, 40 minutes west of Ocala. (It’s a nice base too. Here’s our guide to Dunnellon.)
The Rainbow River. The Rainbow has fantastically clear water and scenic beauty the whole way from the springhead to where it converges with tea-colored Withlacoochee River, 6.5 miles downstream. Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to the Rainbow River. The Rainbow is a premier tubing river in summer.
The Withlacoochee River. The tea-colored Withlacoochee River is beautiful, much wilder then the Rainbow. Whereas the Rainbow has houses along the west bank most of the time, the Withlacoochee has long stretches where there is no sign of man. On the Rainbow, we always had people around. On the Withlacoochee, it was just us and nature. Learn more about the Withlacoochee in our guide to Dunnellon.
Lodging options from BedandBreakfast.com and Hotels.com:
Things to do near Ocala and Ocala National Forest
- Florida Rambler: 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 away, 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 59-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 antique outboard motors, old guns and 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.