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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
- Ocala National Forest Juniper Springs page
- Camping at Juniper Springs Recreation Area
- Ocala Adventures concessionaire
Things to do near Ocala and Ocala National Forest
- Four great rivers to kayak or canoe from a base in Ocala
- Six 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
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A Florida native. Richard was born and raised in Orlando and spent most of his outdoor time in the Ocala National Forest and surfing near New Smyrna Beach. He spent six years at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, where he was on the collegiate sailing team and an active research diver for the university. He earned a B.A. in biology and a M.Sc. in Biology Neuroscience in between surfing, spearfishing, and mountain biking. He was also a Graduate Research Assistant at the UCF College of Medicine, where he is working on his PhD in Biomedical Sciences. Outdoor adventure is how he recharges after endless hours in the lab.