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Juniper Springs in Ocala Forest: One of the best kayaking runs is open again

Florida has hundreds of spring-fed streams, but perhaps the most pristine is Juniper Springs and Juniper Run in the Ocala National Forest.

When the Orlando Sentinel conducted an extensive investigation into the sad condition of Florida springs in 2012, one spring stood out as one of the healthiest in the state – Juniper Springs.

“It may not be what it was 200 years ago, but it’s probably as close as you get,” said springs scientist Rob Mattson of the St. Johns River Water Management District.

The dazzling blue of the river at Juniper Springs, Florida. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service.)
The dazzling blue of the river at Juniper Springs, Florida. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service.)

Even better, Juniper Springs run is exceptionally beautiful and accessible to kayaks or canoes.

It’s important to recognize, though, that it is not an easy anybody-can-do-it kayak run. It’s extremely twisty and there are even mild rapids about five miles in.

Also, it’s a four to five hour paddle through wilderness, so there’s no turning back. Once you start, the only way out is to keep paddling.

Given that, the outfitter requires paddlers in canoes and tandem kayaks to be at least 8 years old and you must be 18 years old to paddle a single. The outfitter does not recommend it for children under 12.

Juniper Run in Ocala National Forest. (Photo: Richard Barrett.)
The run at Juniper Springs in Florida’s Ocala National Forest. (Photo: Richard Barrett.)

A practical guide to kayaking or canoeing Juniper Springs Run

Juniper Springs run closed at the start of the pandemic and stayed that way until fall 2023. Plenty of Florida kayakers were waiting to get back on this gorgeous river.

As of fall 2023, canoe rental and the shuttle service have re-opened, a cause for celebration among paddlers. You’ll find details here.

The water is so clear it looks like you're floating on air at Juniper Springs, Florida. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service.)
The water is so clear it looks like you’re floating on air at Juniper Springs, Florida. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service.)

Juniper Springs Run rentals and fees

Juniper Springs is not as inexpensive or care-free as it used to be. There’s a $12 per person entrance fee and there are new policies designed to limit the number of people going down the run.

The concessionaire for renting kayaks is Adventure Ocala and the cost includes the shuttle trip back to your car. Fees as of November 2023 are $60 for a tandem kayak and $50 for a single kayak.

If you bring your own kayak or canoe, there is a $10 launch fee and a $12 haul-back fee.

To avoid overstressing the river, only 10 paddlecraft can launch every half hour, and there is no reservation system. Adventure Ocala recommends you call (352) 625-3147 to confirm availability on the day you wan to visit

juniper springs map of juniper springs run Juniper Springs in Ocala Forest: One of the best kayaking runs is open again
A map of the Juniper Springs Run.

Shuttles are available at the end of the 7-mile run and shuttle you back to headwaters. Shuttle times are at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m. 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Note: Those renting boats are required to attend an orientation. These are held between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. in winter in groups of 10 vessels, who must launch within 30 minutes afterward. (The concessionaire suggests you arrive at least 15 minutes early to do paperwork.) This 10-per-orientation means large groups have to plan for staggered starts.

Juniper Springs, Florida, in Ocala National Forest. (Photo: Richard Barrett.)
Juniper Springs Run in Ocala National Forest. (Photo: Richard Barrett.)

Since the run is 7 miles long, the cutoff for daily launches is noon. The route generally takes four to five hours to complete, including the frequent need to “limbo” under low branches.

What to/not to bring: Don’t underestimated the advice that “no disposable items are allowed.” They check your bags and coolers and even had me unwrap my granola bars and put them in a towel instead!

Drinks had to be in non-disposable bottles and I had to throw out the extra plastic bottle I brought. It’s certainly worth these measures though. The run had three pieces of trash I could see along the entire seven miles! Impressively pristine! I’d recommending packing food in Tupperware and putting all drinks in a Nalgene or other sports bottle.

No pets or alcohol are allowed and fishing is not allowed.

Note: Inflatable kayaks and tubes are NOT allowed on Juniper Springs.

Turtles are among the plentiful wildlife at Juniper Spring. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Turtles are among the plentiful wildlife at Juniper Springs, Florida. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Now the good part: Gorgeous scenery on Juniper Run

The topography of this run changes quite a bit from tight and shallow at the beginning and opening up into wider grassland type terrain. There is even a rapids section where the water flows quite aggressively over a limestone portion of the river. I was not expecting that in Florida and it was an absolute blast!

There are many unique features on the run including scattered sand boils in the earlier shallow sections, small unnamed springs feeding the run along the way, and spring seeps, where spring water seeps out from the ground forming small creeks that flow into the run.

You’re almost guaranteed to see gators and turtles along this trip and seeing as the run is rather tight most of the way down, you will likely be getting quite close to these reptiles as well — within 10 to 20 feet perhaps.

nature trail bridge at Juniper Springs
Nature trail bridge at Juniper Springs in Florida. (Photo by Bonnie Gross)

Most of the animal life on the run seems quite used to the human presence though and either completely ignores you or slowly swims away. The gators I saw were about four feet long but there were signs of bigger gators in certain areas.

If you want to avoid some of this animal life, I would suggest launching in the afternoon on a weekend. As weekends see more traffic on the run, the bigger gators will probably have already moved farther back and out of the run by that time.

If you want to see as much animal life as possible, then weekdays and early mornings are your best bet.

As for plant life, you’ll see a wide variety of what Florida has to offer from palms, oaks, and towering cypress trees to grassland areas and tight shrubbery areas filled with wild blackberries.

juniper springs Juniper Spring run paddlers Juniper Springs in Ocala Forest: One of the best kayaking runs is open again
A peaceful section of the Juniper Springs Run kayak trail. (Photo: David Blasco)

Is Juniper Springs Run as difficult as they say?

Many people have commented on TripAdvisor that Juniper Springs is an extremely difficult run and urging people to stay away. It is narrow and twisty and it helps to know how to make turns in your canoe or kayak. But for a moderately experienced paddler, there’s nothing to be afraid of.

If you’re not adept, you’ll use the “pinball” style of paddling — bouncing off one shore and then the other. Doesn’t matter! Laugh and enjoy. Also: while there is a current, it is generally not strong enough to easily capsize a canoe or kayak that gets sideways.

When we paddled, the “rapids” were mild, quick and fun. It makes sense to secure your belongings in dry bags on the off-chance you go over. Be aware, if the water is high, the run will be faster and more difficult.

A short video of the rapids section of Juniper Springs Run. (Video: David Blasco)

But assessments differ on the difficulty. On TripAdvisor, you’ll find comments with warnings like these:

  • The concessionaire “needs to be more up front with how hard and technical Juniper Springs Run is. This run is NOT for beginners and I would even hesitate to bring young children on this run. . .There was not any time to really take in the beauty …. you have to stay on your toes to make sure you do not get caught in an eddy or run into a tree.”
  • “Now that I have kayaked Juniper Springs and can cross it off my list I can say I will not be back. If you are not an experienced kayaker, kayaking with children or just looking for a run that is more relaxing to enjoy nature, than I would highly recommend going down the road to Silver Springs.”

Guest blogger Richard Barrett.
Richard Barrett.

Richard Barrett contributed to this original report. (Bonnie Gross has updated it several times since his original post; the comments are a mix from both of them over multiple paddles) A Florida native born and raised in north Orlando, he earned a PhD in Biomedical Sciences. Outdoor adventures his way of recharging after endless hours in the lab.

More resources for your visit to Juniper Springs, Florida:

Tiny fish in clear 72-degree water of Juniper Springs, Florida. The spring is a popular swimming hole in summer. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Tiny fish in clear 72-degree water of Juniper Springs. The spring is a popular swimming hole in summer. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Things to do near Ocala and Ocala National Forest


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james

Tuesday 28th of November 2023

Thanks for the ggreat article, Richard. We are going up to the Ocala area springs runs soon and we're wondering whether our 13 foot kayak (Sea Eagle 370 inflatable) is too long for the curvature of this route and others in the area. Many thanks. James

James Jordan

Wednesday 10th of April 2024

@Bonnie Gross, thanks for the info. We're heading up to hit all of the Ocala area runs next week and will post reports. Keep paddling! James

Bonnie Gross

Tuesday 28th of November 2023

Glad you asked; I will add this to the story. Juniper does NOT allow inflatable kayaks. https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/florida/recarea/?recid=83678 It appears you're OK at Alexander Springs and Silver Springs, which are excellent places to paddle. All three are within a half hours of each other.

KT

Wednesday 10th of May 2023

Every website says that shuttle services are not available. Is that true? I am planning a trip from Arkansas and am trying to figure out shuttling. Not sure is any rideshares would be available in that area. Any suggestions?

Florida Rambler

Wednesday 15th of November 2023

Just to clarify: the shuttle service HAS reopened and the details in the story are from November 2023 and were confirmed both via the outfitters website and via phone.

Bob Rountree

Thursday 11th of May 2023

It's true. We visited Juniper Springs last week and confirmed the shuttle is no more. Even if you provide your own shuttle, there is a $10.50 fee to use their launch ramp.

Paul Corrad

Thursday 9th of March 2023

Nice column. Used to be hunting / fishing guide in N Ontario. So good class 4 -5 rapids, almost screwed up couple times. Mostly canoe for bird & critter photos. Been by Juniper Springs, never canoed it, thanks to your tips (especially pack in/out advice, saved me a granola bar). Look forward to the Forest. Thanks for your column.

Bonnie Gross

Friday 10th of March 2023

Paul: My paddling experience began in Wisconsin and I thought canoeing meant white water. Florida is another type of paddling, and I've grown to love it. You just have to adjust your expectations. Thanks for reading! Bonnie

Guillerminet Christophe

Monday 2nd of January 2023

Hi, We are visiting Ocala in February. Will the shuttle service for Juniper run will be open? Thanks.

Bonnie Gross

Monday 2nd of January 2023

That's a very good questions! I do not know why it has been closed for what now has to be a couple years. The website says "expected to open in fall 2022." I am trying to get updated information. Thanks for using our website.

LP

Tuesday 15th of June 2021

How about on a paddleboard? Do you think it would be just as fun or not advised? Thanks!

Bonnie Gross

Wednesday 15th of November 2023

As of November 2023, the website for Juniper Springs kayaking recommends AGAINST paddleboards. I assume this is because of the technical nature of the trail.

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