Florida Springs: The Ocala National Forest
By Dawn S.
After our mom-daughter road trip got rained out in South Carolina last year (see our blog “The Rain Won’t Stop Us”), we took a different route back to Florida, stopping for the night just south of Atlanta to avoid rush hour the next morning. We splurged on a hotel with an indoor pool and spa and picked up our Italian food curbside carry out on foot because it was right next door. After crossing back into Florida, we stopped to visit family before heading towards home. But to our delight, on the very last day of our vacation, the rain finally stopped and the sun came out. We jumped at this opportunity to do our favorite paddle, Juniper Run, in the Ocala National Forest.
This seven-mile canoe run through the pristine Juniper Prairie Wilderness is not a paddle for beginners, but if you have a little bit of experience, it is a challenging but super fun place to rent a canoe or single kayak. The put-in is at Juniper Springs Recreation Area on State Road 40, east of Ocala. They enforce some strict rules, nothing in disposable packaging can go down the river, and they do inspect each person and boat, so check online before you go, and pack all water and snacks in reusable containers. Make sure to launch early, times are strictly enforced to ensure everyone is off the water before sunset. You should allow 4-5 hours to complete the trip, which includes a fun surprise after the halfway point, one of Florida’s only “rapids.”
You should also bring a camera, secured in a waterproof dry box because the wildlife viewing is exceptional. On this trip in May, during our paddle and our short hike around the main spring afterward, we spotted a doe, 2 alligators, turkeys, a raccoon, rabbit, swallowtail kite, hawk, countless turtles and mullet, and a black bear.
The spring run starts out as a narrow, shallow, crystal clear stream, with a sandy bottom. There are many low-hanging and submerged tree branches that you must navigate under, over, and around in the swift current. I have only paddled this in a kayak, and recommend using a front rudder paddle stroke quite frequently. The technicality, challenge, and outstanding scenery make this one of the top canoe trips in the United States.
On this weekday we felt like we had the place to ourselves. We would slow down, or speed up to keep our distance from other paddlers as we steered around each bend in the ever twisting and turning waterway. We paddled quietly without talking so we could listen and look for wildlife. A group of turkeys was noisily moving on the bank. A doe standing in ankle deep water looked up from her drink and watched us float by without startling away. We enjoyed listening to the birds and insects as we glided past giant cypress trees, through hardwood forests of moss-covered oaks and palmettos, under branches heavy with resurrection fern, and over swaying eel grass as the vegetation opened up and we entered the prairie. We nosed up on a warm, sunny, sandbar to stretch our legs and enjoy our trail mix under the clear blue sky.
Back in the current, we eventually started to hear the faint sounds of traffic and knew we were getting close to the end of our mom-daughter adventure. The take-out is on the right after the State Road 19 Bridge. Other paddlers eagerly helped us pull our kayaks out of the water and carry them up the hill to wait for the shuttle van to pick us up. We chatted, asking each other about where we were from, what we saw on the water, and shared our favorite places to paddle and camp in Florida.
Relaxing by the Springs
Back at Juniper Springs, we cooked our dinner in the picnic area and then laid in the shade around the main spring and swimming area. We watched the families who were swimming and snorkeling in the crystal clear, 72-degree water, rising up from a blue crack in the limestone. Afterward, we went for a short walk along the Juniper Springs Nature Trail to see the bubbling boils of Fern Hammock Springs. This is where we heard and then spotted a small black bear in the woods. The park rangers were on alert and stationed around the swimming area to make sure the bear didn’t wander too close.
We explored the dirt road through the wooded campground, with palmetto buffers between sites. There were some water spigots throughout, but no electric hookups, and decided we were too close to home to sleep in the van tonight. Instead, we enjoyed a hot shower then drove on through the Forest, so the Adventure Girls could see our husbands and sleep in our own beds. I was so glad that we didn’t let the rain stop us from taking our Mom-Daughter road trip.
Food Storage Tip
NEVER feed wildlife, EVER. This includes seagulls, ducks, squirrels, raccoons, etc. Unfortunately, there were many visitors before you, who did not follow that advice, and the critters have come to know where and how to ruin your picnic. Do not turn your back on, or leave your picnic items unattended, you could attract ants, or see a bandit sitting in a tree enjoying your loaf of bread. Be vigilant, act like you are in bear country, even when you aren’t.
I have had a raccoon try and take a hotdog off the grill right under my nose, a seagull snatch a sandwich out of my hand, and I have seen a squirrel grab a set of car keys off the picnic table and run up a tree with them, just to investigate if it was something good to eat. So please keep your food and trash items secure, and locked away in your vehicle when not in immediate use, and dispose of all food waste properly.
Other nearby springs to check out
Alexander Springs Recreation Area – Altoona, FL
Shady campground with flush toilets and hot showers. Activities include swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, canoe and kayak rentals, mountain biking.
Salt Springs Recreation Area – Fort McCoy, FL
Campground with electric hookups – great for running a small fan when van-camping in warm weather. Other activities include swimming, snorkeling, hiking, and boating.
Head East on State Road 40 to Blackwater Inn and Williams Landing in Astor, for fresh seafood, salads, drinks, desserts and more, overlooking the beautiful St John’s River.
A trip through Central or North Florida should include a visit to at least one of the many natural springs. They offer excellent wildlife viewing, photography opportunities, picnicking and camping. The spring’s crystal clear waters attract swimmers, snorkelers, and scuba divers. They are a constant 72 degrees year round, making them refreshing in the summer and magical when it’s cold out. So jump on it! You can find your Florida Spring here.