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Juniper Springs in Ocala Forest: Fab kayaking at pristine spring run

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.)

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.

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

Even better, Juniper Springs run is exceptionally beautiful and accessible to kayak or canoe.

We’re happy to offer this guest post from Richard Barrett, a Florida native who studied at Florida Atlantic University and University of Central Florida College of Medicine.

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.)

A practical guide to kayaking or canoeing Juniper Springs Run

Note: As of June, 2023, canoe rental and the shuttle service are still closed. Check the National Forest Service website for updates.

Logistics: The logistics are easy. You can rent a canoe or bring your own and launch for a $6 launch fee and a $12 haul-back fee.

Shuttles are available at the end of the 7-mile run and shuttle you back to headwaters. If you rent a canoe, the fee is $45 including the shuttle.

Shuttle times vary slightly but tend to pick up every hour on the 30 minute mark. (i.e. 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., etc) Carts are also available free of charge to help you walk your canoe/kayak down to the water where they will check your bags and coolers before launch.

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

Note: Since the run is 7 miles long, the cutoff for daily launches is by 11:30 a.m. The route generally takes four to five hours to complete, including the frequent need to “limbo” under low branches. Canoe rental info: 352-625-2808.

What to/not to bring: I underestimated the advice I got on “no disposable items 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.

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)

Scenery: 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!

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)

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.

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

Flora and fauna: 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 4 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.

A note about the difficulty of the run from Bonnie: 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 there’s nothing to be afraid of if you’ve paddled a few times before.

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 not strong enough to easily capsize a canoe or kayak that gets sideways. The “rapids” was tiny, mild, quick and fun. It hardly counts as a rapids.

Guest blogger Richard Barrett.
Guest blogger Richard Barrett.

Richard Barrett: I am a Florida native. I was born and raised in north Orlando and spent most of my outdoor time playing in the Ocala National Forest and surfing around New Smyrna area. I spent six years at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, where I was a part of the collegiate sailing team and an active research diver for the university. I also managed to get a B.A. in biology and a M.Sc. in Biology Neuroscience in between surfing, spearfishing, and mountain biking time. I currently work as a Graduate Research Assistant at the UCF College of Medicine and am finishing up a PhD in Biomedical Sciences. Outdoor adventures are the perfect way to recharge 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

Things to do near Ocala and Ocala National Forest

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The information in this article was accurate when published, but changes may occur.

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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?


Thursday 14th of September 2023

@KT, Did you figure anything out? We will be visiting and are trying to figure out how to make this work!

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.


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

Tuesday 15th of June 2021

Thanks! Right now, Juniper Springs is still closed from the pandemic. (There is no shuttle service, which is necessary because it is a definitely a one-way paddle.) I am not sure paddleboards are allowed. Before you go I would check. There are alligators present. Also, it is extremely tight quarters -- I would wonder about clearance.

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