Paddling the Juniper Springs River Run

There is no shortage of great places to paddle a kayak or canoe in central Florida. A quick Goggle search results in options ranging from serene lakes to multi-day river excursions. The two popular routes that come up over and again are Juniper Run and Alexander Run. Both are rivers that flow from natural springs in the Ocala National Forest. The Juniper Springs River Run is longer, faster, and rumored to be more exciting than Alexander, making it the obvious choice in our minds.

We snagged a last minute reservation at the Juniper Springs Campground, pulled out of O’ Leno SP super early on Saturday morning (left the dump station at 8 am!) and made it to the springs by mid-morning. Juniper Springs is perhaps that most well-known spring in the Ocala National Forest. With millions of gallons of water bubbling from the ground every day, the clear, 72-degree year-round spring attracts people in droves.

Juniper Springs, FL
A quiet evening at Juniper Springs

Over many, many years water from the bubbling springs has formed a narrow, winding waterway that eventually makes it way to the larger St. John’s River. While it is possible to make this a longer multi-day trip, most people only paddle the first seven miles to the take-out off SR19. Becuase the current in the river is fairly strong and there are lots of obstacles to maneuver around, paddling up-river is not allowed, which means you need a second car at end of the run for transportation. Fortunately, the campground not only offers canoe and kayak rentals but also a reverse haul out service that will transport you (or you and your boat) from the take out back to the spring. They charge $10 per person and $6 per boat. To save money, we unloaded the boats at the spring and Tim drove the truck down to the take-out point and then got a ride back on the shuttle bus. It only cost us $10 and the truck was waiting for us when we finished the paddle.

Juniper Springs Recreation Area
Lots of rental kayaks in case you don’t have your own (or in case you have an inflatable kayak which is not allowed on the river)

While Tim was taking care of the transportation, I loaded the boats one-by-one onto wheeled carts and rolled them down a long boardwalk to the river. I had some really cool pictures of the boardwalk and launch point, but unfortunately, my phone took a tumble into the river almost as soon as I launched. As a result, I not only lost all the photos from that morning but also ruined my phone. Ooops. It turns out that if you want your waterproof phone case to be waterproof you need to make sure it’s on correctly. I have been using this same case for over a year and a half with no issues, so I can only blame myself. Huge bummer.

Juniper Springs, FL
The end of the boardwalk near the launch point

Fortunately, Tim had his phone and had put his case on correctly, so I was able to commandeer it for documenting purposes.

Juniper River Run
Shallow, clear & swift moving

When we first launched the river was very, very shallow and we feared this would be a repeat of our O’Leno experience when we got stuck on the bottom over and over again. Fortunately, it soon deepened enough for us to at avoid hitting bottom.

Juniper Springs, FL
Like paddling through a jungle

Despite the shallow water, the river moved very swiftly. So swiftly that we didn’t have to do much paddling — lots of steering — but much paddling. I read many reviews for this popular paddling route, and while most were glowing, a few people really hated the fast moving, obstacle-filled river. I can understand where some of the frustration comes from. This is not a lazy river by any means. You constantly need to be on the lookout for submerged logs, low hanging branches and bent over trees. It’s also narrow and better suited for shorter boats. Most of the negative reviews came from people who had rented a canoe and end up spending more time in the water than on the water. If you’re going to rent a boat here my advice would be to go for a kayak over a canoe as it will be easier to maneuver around some of the tight turns. A kayak also rides lower in the water making it much easier to slide under the numerous logs that stretch across the river.

Juniper Springs Run, FL
Watch your head!

The Juniper River Run travels through a remote section of the Juniper Prarie Wilderness where the use of power tools is prohibited. Consequently, when a tree falls across the river the only way to remove it is with hand tools. In short, this means that for the most part the river was left in its natural state, down trees and all.

Juniper Springs River Run
Obstacles

Even though there were numerous obstacles that kept us on our toes, lots of ducking under branches, and a bit of frantic back-paddling when the current pushed us into the shore yet again, overall, we LOVED our journey down the Juniper Springs River Run. With sparkling, clear water, palm trees overhead, birds chirping, and the sun shining down…what’s not to love?

Juniper Springs River Run
Palm trees straight ahead
Juniper Springs River Run
More palm trees, lunch on board, and a rare selfie
Juniper Springs River Run
Into the jungle
Juniper Springs River Run
Through the palm tree arch
Juniper River Run
Not sure where this guy thinks he’s going?
Juniper Springs River Run
Cypress trees add color to the forest
Juniper Springs River Run
This canoeing trio was doing a great job maneuvering until they ran into the bank and tipped over. By the sound of their loud gasps, the water was quite cold!

As we neared the end of our route the river widened and the forest gave way to wide grass filled banks.

Juniper Springs River Run

Juniper Springs River Run
It seemed to me that if we were going to see an alligator, now would be the place. Just look at that muddy bank perfect for alligator lounging.

Juniper Springs River Run
Prime alligator habit…but no alligators

There were no alligators anywhere — I was half relieved and half disappointed. It was on the chilly side with temps only in the 60s, so I suspect it was too cold for them to be out and about. Soon the river narrowed again and we came upon a very small section of mild rapids. The fun was short lived and soon we were back to dodging trees and branches.

Juniper Springs River Run
Tim tackles the rapids

I was still scanning the shore for alligators, but not holding out much hope when suddenly I came around the corner to find Tim frantically back paddling away from the bank. His boat was sideways in the river and I, of course, crashed right into him. As I apologized and tried to back up, he pointed in front of us and there was giant (okay, he was probably only 5-feet long) alligator. Apparently, Tim came around the corner, was pushed up agasint the bank by the current and looked up to find himself only a few feet from Mr. Gator. This is probably the worst photo in the entire history of aligator photos, but I had to share because it really tells the story. Not only can you see how close we were, but also how Tim is holding onto my kayak so I can snap a quick picture without drifting any closer. Sadly, the bright sun straight in front of us ruined any chance of getting a good shot.

Juniper Springs River Run
Gator alert!

What you can’t see are his giant teeth and beady little eyes staring right at us. Needless to say, we didn’t stick around very long. This was to be our one and only alligator sighting. In fact, we saw very little wildlife the entire time. The final tally was one alligator, two turtles, and one white bird. Not very impressive, but still a great time. Soon after our gator encounter, we paddled under the road bridge and pulled up to the take-out dock almost exactly four hours after we left the springs.

Juniper Springs River Run
Back in civilization.

The Juniper Springs River Run ranks up there as one of the best kayak trips we’ve ever taken. I really hope we can find more of these longer paddling adventures during our winter in Florida.

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9 Responses to “Paddling the Juniper Springs River Run”

Comments

  1. Metamorphosis Lisa

    This looks awesome (except for the cell phone disaster!) Your desire to see, but not too close!, an alligator is just like our bear sighting desires/worries in the mountains!

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Exactly! We went into it with the same mentality as when hiking in bear country – with caution, common sense and a bit of curiosity.

      Reply
  2. Jodee Gravel

    Such beautiful paddle pics! So many folks kayak and canoe with the alligators and I’ve heard they are only aggressive toward humans if they’re disturbed during mating season – uh, yeah! Still those big teeth and beady eyes have to be intimidating sitting in a thin plastic wrapper :-))))) Looking forward to seeing more of your adventures in Florida.

    Reply
    • Amanda

      I read the same thing about mating season. Also, that you never want to come between a mama gator and her babies! Still, freak attacks do happen so keeping our distance is my preferred method of survival.

      Reply
  3. Shannon

    We’ve been following your blog for a while in anticipation of going full-time in a few years – I love your photos and descriptions! Since you are in our area for the winter I hope you will help us find hidden gems that even we natives are not aware of. I see you are parked at DuPuis — I hope you took the opportunity to kayak the Loxahatchee into Jonathan Dickinson SP. It’s another great full-day trip, and includes a stop at a historic homestead. And if you are looking for gators, we recommend the 15-mile bicycle trail at Shark Valley in Everglades NP. We were there for Thanksgiving and saw dozens of the lazy reptiles laying around!

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Thanks so much for the kind words Shannon :) We didn’t have time to do any kayaking while at DuPuis and are now down in the keys, but will definitely keep that in mind the next time we’re in the area. Also, we hope to hit up the Everglades on our way north (we’re in the Keys now) and that bike trail sounds perfect for us. Thanks for mentioning it!

      Reply
  4. Gail Stenger

    Hi Amanda! Hope you are enjoying warm FLA. Areyou going to be in the Keys for awhile? We head down there soon and would enjoy meeting up. Safe travels! Gail

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Yes, we’ll be in the Keys at least through February. Give us a holler when you get here and hopefully we can meet up!

      Reply
  5. David Longton

    Canoeing with the alligators, not for me, you are braver than I…..Dave

    Reply

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