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.
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.
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.
Fortunately, Tim had his phone and had put his case on correctly, so I was able to commandeer it for documenting purposes.
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.
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.
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.
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?
As we neared the end of our route the river widened and the forest gave way to wide grass filled banks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.