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 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.
A practical guide to kayaking or canoeing Juniper Springs Run
Note: As of Aug. 29, 2022, canoe rental and the shuttle service are still closed due to the pandemic. 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
- 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.
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.
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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.
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.
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
Monday 2nd of January 2023
Hi, We are visiting Ocala in February. Will the shuttle service for Juniper run will be open? Thanks.
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!
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.