A Paddle Down Juniper Run Ocala, Florida


Ocala, Florida

Florida is a paradise for water-loving creatures and enjoying outdoor activities.  With over 700 freshwater, natural springs, Florida has more springs than anywhere else in the world; 33 of which are first-magnitude springs!  You’ll find abundant paddling opportunities here with over 1,700 miles of river, streams and creeks.  One of the prettiest I’ve encountered is Juniper Springs Run in Ocala.

History Of Juniper Springs

Juniper Springs Recreation Area dates back to the 1930’s when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed this Ocala National Forest’s campground, along with its trails and picnic areas.  Hundreds of tiny springs bubble up, along with its first magnitude spring gushing up from the limestone caves beneath the surface that Florida is so well known for.

Before You Launch . . . Things to Know

This 7-mile, one-way trip is considered moderate.  It will keep your arms busy paddling and ensuring the kayak or canoe is in a forward, not sideways, motion.  You’ll find the water’s current peaceful, however, also continual.    If you’re new to kayaking or do not feel as though you’ve experienced enough maneuvering around twists, turns and over occasional trees, this is not the trip you want to start with.  If you’re ready to get your paddle wet, here’s what you’ll need to know.

Spring runs are best appreciated when paddling downstream.  A few miles here or there upstream is certainly doable, but to enjoy the paddle and your surroundings, why not figure out the best put-in and take-out spots for your adventure.  There are outposts or shuttle services most anywhere in Florida where paddlers gather.  For this 7-mile run, you’ll want to put-in at Juniper Springs Recreation Area and paddle downstream to Juniper Wayside, a small park and boat ramp at the Highway 19 Bridge in Ft. McCoy.  You’ll find free parking and restrooms there as well.

You can accomplish this by having at least two vehicles and doing your own shuttle, or the park service does offer shuttle services.  Since we had one vehicle, we chose to make arrangements with the park service when we checked in to take our own vehicle to Juniper Wayside.  The park’s shuttle vehicle picked my husband up, while I waited with the kayaks, and drove him back to the park’s launch area where we began our trip.    

The park charges a $6 put-in fee when launching your own canoe or kayak.  The shuttle service fee to bring you back is $12.  The park offers canoe or kayak rentals which will include your shuttle back to the park.  Canoe rent is $42/day or can be rented by the hour; with single kayaks most likely being a bit less.  

The launch area is 500 feet from the unloading zone abutting the parking lot.  Carts are available to wheel your vessel to the put-in spot. 

Before you step foot in your canoe or kayak, be aware that a park employee is stationed at the launch area.  In order to keep Juniper Springs Run as pristine as possible, your vessel is subject to a search.  You’ll be asked if you have any alcohol, and that answer should be, no.  You’ll also be asked if you have any plastic bags, bottles, cans or wrappers.  Again, this should be a big, fat, NO.  Be sure you bring aluminum or non-disposable type bottles for water or non-alcoholic beverages.  Sans the granola bar wrappers, chip bags or plastic wrapped lunches.  Bring Tupperware-type containers for food storage.  The policy is enforced, as well it should be, to keep Juniper Springs trash-free and untouched by humans.

Prepare to Paddle and Be Amazed

As you set off on this voyage, you’ll find the crystal, clear waters inviting and welcoming.  The waters are just as clear at Juniper’s headsprings at the near-by swimming area within the park.  The first canopied 1.5 miles encompasses narrow, winding, sparkling waters and stunning scenery.  You’ll definitely feel the current due to the narrowness in this section.  In fact, hang onto your paddle as you are likely to encounter it getting hung up in the brush and trees in certain spots.  The park service does a good job of keeping the paddle trail clear of obvious obstacles, however, it is kept “wild.”  This isn’t Disney World.  If you have any canoes or kayaks in front of you, it is difficult to pass here as well.  

Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife.  We had no sooner put in when we were visited by two playful otters popping up and down along our way.  Don’t even think you can stop to get a great photograph—that current will keep you paddling or you’ll find yourself floating backwards, sideways or into the thick tropical forest along your way.  If you are canoeing this run, it’s important to keep that canoe in a forward position.  You could totally block the run if you end up sideways, thereby, causing a potential traffic jam if it’s the weekend (which is sure to be busier than going on a weekday). 

The middle section gives you a variety of expectations.  It can be wider and deeper in some areas, which will also be more tannin and darker looking, and then returns to a narrow run but not as narrow as the upper section.  You’ll have some open skies to view as well as more canopied territory.

The lower section widens once again as you travel through clear waters among the grasses and wetlands.  This is an excellent place for viewing birds and wildlife.

Florida isn’t one known for rapids, right?  I think we can count 2 or 3 small ones in the entire state.  Being in Ocala National Forest, you might not expect such things.  But listen for it just after Mile 5.  You’ll hear the rush of water ahead of you.  This slight rapid was formed by a small underground spring and a submerged log that just happened to, coincidentally, lay itself there.  It’s known by enough people who’ve kayaked here, so that log does not appear to be moving on anytime soon.  Don’t be alarmed, the sound is worse than the bite.  Keep to the right as you traverse this 30-second rapid.  

Along your way you will undoubtedly encounter twists and turns, or an occasional downed tree and submerged logs.  Watch the current as it will give you clues as to your best paddle point to get past and beyond a tree that is submerged just beneath the water.  Remember, still waters run deep.  Many a canoe or kayak has found itself sitting on a point of a downed log, spinning around, with the paddler doing their best to set it free.   Accomplishing the skill of back paddling, using your paddle as a rudder to make 45º turns, or understanding a quick maneuver will come in super handy as you navigate sharp curves or slice your way through trees that may be in your path.

You’ll also get a perceptive on timing – that’s in how long you have to gulp down some water or take a photo, before you find your kayak careening off to the side  You must take that paddle up again in order to right whatever wrong direction you are now finding yourself in.

Plan to be on the water approximately 4 hours to make the 7-mile journey.  There are a few places you’ll find to make a pit stop, savor your surroundings and relax for a spell. 

Wildlife, Flora and Fauna

If you are new to Florida, you may be wondering about our most famous and interesting inhabitant–the alligator.  Well, yes, they really are in our lakes, rivers, ponds and streams.  It’s not uncommon at all to see them lazily lounging on the side of the river when you are kayaking.  Really though, just paddle on by, do not attempt to get too close (or you’ll then be worrying about an alligator swimming under your kayak who’s trying to just get away from you) and NEVER feed an alligator.  As with all nature, there’s a balance, and you are visitor in this wildlife habitat.  Keeping an alligator fearful of people, keeps that balance.  A fed gator will be a nuisance and dangerous.  It will lead to the alligator having to be euthanized as it will see you as a food source.  

So, be on the lookout for alligators, turtles, deer, otters, raccoons and a variety of birds.  Black bear live in this area, however, seeing one would be a rare sighting.  Due to alligators, swimming is prohibited along Juniper Springs Run, although people do enjoy swimming in many other spring runs, rivers and lakes throughout Florida 

Juniper Springs releases a daily water flow (DWF) of 7 million gallons.  Fern Hammock Springs releases a DWF of 8 million gallons.  Fern Hammock is located within Juniper Springs Recreation Area and merges with the outflow from Juniper Springs.  It thus allows an abundant flow of 13 million gallons daily that forms Juniper Springs Run.  You get the idea now why this run has more current than many others in the state.  Water temperature remains a constant 72º F.  The combination of DWF and consistent temperature supports many plant species.  Cypress trees and eel grass are predominantly seen in this habitat.  Palms, sand pines, oaks, water lilies and Carolina jasmine are just a very few of the tree/plant species living in this sub-tropical environment.

Weather Conditions

Depending on the time of year, you’ll want to carry insect repellant with you.  Summers are rough in Florida, even on the water.  The sun is hot, the humidity high and biting insects love it!  Throw some repellant in your kayak along with a good sunscreen and a hat.  Be sure to drink plenty of water.  Fall, winter and spring weather is more forgiving and an excellent time to be on the water.  You’ll still want your sunscreen but a sunny, winter day in Florida is kayaking at its best.

Insight into Florida’s Aquifer

To appreciate and respect how special Florida springs are, you first need to understand Florida’s aquifer system.  It is one of invaluable importance to the state’s survival and environment.  The upper and lower aquifer system underlies all of Florida which provides not only water for springs, rivers and wildlife, but also for much of the potable groundwater needed throughout the state.  Florida’s vast underground is made up of caves and porous rocks, such as limestone, sand and shells, that continually filters and cleans the water seeping through its system.  This is not a quick process and the speed of seepage depends on which areas it is filtering through.  Scientists have “age dated” waters in the aquifer to be between 17,000 and 26,000 years old.  

Due to development of the state, the aquifer is stressed in efforts to keep up with a water supply needed to quench a thirsty state as well as salt water intrusion which is seen as an issue from pumping out fresh water, thereby allowing salt water to seep in from the lower aquifer zone.

Preservation and protection of our springs and aquifer is one on the mind of many Floridians.  Citizen involvement, staying abreast of environmental news and writing state legislature to make our voices are heard, is our hope for conservation.

Back to Civilization

All too soon you’ll see the Highway 19 Bridge in the distance.  This is when you know your peaceful, wilderness trip has come to an end.  Being among pristine nature, even for 4 hours, and relishing in the quiet sounds of wind, birds and water, can bring about a calm that you are not ready to quite give up, not yet.  

You have to admit though your legs are a bit stiff, you’re ready to stand up and that bathroom in the parking lot is looking like it will be your first stop.  

You did it!  Juniper, one of many gorgeous spring runs in Florida, but one of the most remote.  You kayaked through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness in this National Forest.  Well done!  And though you are back to civilization, you’ll be anticipating your next trip down the amazing Juniper Springs Run.

Run is an intermediate paddle trail in the Ocala National Forest from the launch site at the head springs in Juniper Springs Recreation Area, through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness and to the take-out at the Highway 19 Bridge. This 7-mile one-way trip can take from 3.5 to 5 hours to complete.

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Nancy Ferri

Nancy loves traveling with her kayak and camping wherever life takes her.

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