Juniper Springs Creek: a "must do" scenic and fun kayak trip in the Ocala National Forest
This run starts right below the springs and is surrounded by nothing but forest. It even offers an unexpected, surprise "rapid."
SKILL LEVEL: Advanced beginner. Beginners will be banging into the narrow banks, but will still have a blast.
SCENERY: A real Florida creek with crystal clear water and palm trees.
LOCATION: In Ocala National Forest near Ocala, Florida.
ONLINE GAUGE: No gauge.
There are several beautiful creeks in the Ocala area, but Juniper Springs Creek is my favorite kayaking destination. The spring water is crystal clear and reveals a white, sandy bottom. The abundance of palm trees along the creek let you know you are in Florida. Well, both the palm trees and the alligators give you a hint as to your location. This splendid creek is also loads of fun to paddle, and it provides plenty of opportunities for wildlife sightings. On our most recent trip here, in addition to alligators, we saw an otter, a raccoon, a pair of deer, and lots of interesting birds. We have not seen any bears or wild hogs, but they are also in the area.
The trip down the creek varies from heavily canopied to full sun. When you think you've seen all there is to see, Juniper Springs Creek tosses a small Florida rapid into the mix. This isn't a real challenge, but it's enough to bring a smile to your face. If you come to a fork in the creek as you paddle your kayak downstream, don't panic, there are several islands. Take whichever route looks best to you -- or take the route less traveled, and you may spot some snoozing wildlife.
The creek is so narrow that it may be difficult to pass another boat for long stretches. The Forest Service rents tandem canoes, and you should not be surprised if you round a bend in the creek to find one guided by hapless paddlers and turned sideways, blocking the whole creek. The creek is also very shallow, so getting stuck, particularly in the first few miles, is not uncommon. The Forest Service does a great job of maintaining the creek, but they keep it "wild," not butchered. There are plenty of trees to limbo under and lots of obstacles in the water to dodge. The mild current keeps the challenges to a minimum, though.
There is a canoe livery operating at Juniper Springs Recreation Area. They will rent you a tandem canoe or shuttle drivers who have their own boats. There is, of course, an admission charge for entering the recreation area. Check here for more details from the Forest Service.
Cooler Note: Nothing disposable is allowed on the creek. That means no soft drinks, disposable water bottles, or prepackaged snacks like breakfast bars. You should expect to have your cooler checked. Pets won't be in your cooler, but they aren't allowed either.
Juniper Springs Creek flows just over 10 miles before emptying into Lake George on the St. Johns River. We kayak just the first 7 miles, starting at Juniper Springs Recreation area and taking out at Hwy 19. This will keep you almost fully within the Juniper Prairie Wilderness and away from any sign of development. The only problem with this trip, aside from summer crowds, is that you will wish it was longer.
We love Juniper Springs, but it really isn't an ideal beginner trip. Although the current is mild, the creek is narrow and filled with plenty of obstacles. New paddlers may spend a lot of time bumping into the shore and logs in the water. Tandem canoes, which are what the Forest Service rents, are tough to maneuver in tight quarters without practice. However, if new paddlers are prepared to ram a few obstacles and keep a positive attitude, then they will still have a great time.
River Miles reflect the approximate distances from the previous launch site.
LAUNCH SITE MAP (See next section for clickable directions)
LAUNCH SITE DETAILS & DIRECTIONS
Juniper Springs Recreation
Launch: There is a paved unloading zone and then a 500-foot carry on boardwalk. Be sure to get one of the many free carts they have to haul your boat. Once you get your boat properly centered on the cart, it is a nice walk, but with a few turns where you will need to watch your wheels.
Parking: Plenty of paved parking. Visible.
Facilities: Restrooms, picnic tables, concessions, campground, swimming, and more.
Notes: Fee to enter. Crowded when the weather is nice. Coolers checked for disposable items.
Launch: Short carry from nice landing platform to paved loading zone.
Parking: Paved parking for limited number of cars. Parking area is too small for the use it gets. Expect to park roadside instead. Visible.