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Ocala: Four great kayak or canoe rivers within 45 minutes

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 bald eagles to alligators and even monkeys.

All four of these Ocala springs and their 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 Ocala springs and rivers, and here’s a round-up to help you make your travel plans.

Ocala springs: Rhesus monkey at Silver Springs State Park in  are a highlight. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Ocala springs: Rhesus monkey at Silver Springs State Park are a highlight. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Ocala springs: Silver Spring and Silver River are kayaking at its best

If I had to pick a favorite of these four trips on Ocala springs, 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: Of the various Ocala springs, this one is great for beginners: Paddling is easy with the current and little skill in turning is required.

Ocala springs: Juniper Springs is a diamond among jewels of Ocala kayaking. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Ocala springs: Juniper Springs is a diamond among jewels of Ocala kayaking. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Juniper Springs in Ocala National Forest

Juniper is an Ocala 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 wonderful 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.

Here are details on kayaking Juniper Springs Run. 

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” among the Ocala springs if you’ve never paddled before.

Ocala springs: Alexander Springs offers easy scenic paddling with lots of wildlife. (Photo: David Blasco)
Ocala springs: Alexander Springs offers easy scenic paddling with lots of wildlife. (Photo: David Blasco)

Alexander Springs in Ocala National Forest

If you want to kayak an Ocala springs that is 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.

Here are details on kayaking Alexander Springs. 

Tip: If you want to swim in one of the Ocala springs, Alexander is the best choice. The spring basin is broad with a sandy bottom. Snorkelers and scuba divers enjoy exploring the limestone rocks and boulders in the spring boil.

Ocala springs: Our picnic site amid cypress trees and knees on the Ocklawaha River, one of the less-busy spots for Ocala kayaking. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Ocala springs: Our picnic site amid cypress trees and knees on the Ocklawaha River, one of the less-busy spots for Ocala kayaking. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Ocklawaha River along Ocala National Forest

The Ocklawaha is probably the least familiar of the four rivers described here. We include it as an Ocala spring because it receives all the water from Silver Springs and the Silver River. But soon after that clear spring water joins the Ocklawaha, the water 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.

Here are details on kayaking the Ocklawaha River along Ocala National Forest. (The river is quite long and there are other beautiful sections near the St. Johns River.)

Tip: If you want to do kayak-camping in a wild place when exploring Ocala springs, the Ocklawaha lends itself to a multi-day outing with primitive camping.

Planning your kayak or canoe trip on the Ocala springs

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 Six things to do in Ocala National Forest.

We always try to stay in the excellent cabins in Silver Springs State Park, though it can be hard to get a reservation. 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 that are 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. It’s not as wild as the springs in the national forest and state park.

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 and

Hotels in Ocala (West of the forest)

Hotels in DeLand (East of the forest)

Hotels in Eustis (South of the forest)

Hotels in Palatka (North of the forest)

Things to do near Ocala springs and Ocala National Forest

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Caryn Amster

Friday 28th of December 2018

Thank you so much for this very enlightening article! I am excited to explore some of what you have suggested!!!

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