The Juniper Creek spring run in the Ocala National Forest has a reputation. People come from all over the US to canoe and kayak this 7-mile stream and most either love it or hate it. IMO, the ones who hate it had no idea what they were getting into. They came expecting a lazy, laid-back float trip on a spring run in warm Florida and when confronted by a narrow, twisting waterway enclosed by low-hanging vegetation with multiple snags above and below the surface and a swift current of cold water, they are confused and disappointed. But if you know what to expect and just relax and enjoy whatever the creek throws at you, you can have a blast.
We did 3 paddles on Juniper Creek in April, 2 Wednesdays and a Saturday and this blog is a compilation of the 3.
First off, if at all possible, go during the week when far fewer people are out there. If you must go on a weekend, try to get on the water before 9:30 in the morning. That may not sound early, but the gate does not open until 8 am, the haul from the unloading zone to the put-in is a long one, all your coolers have to be inspected for disposable containers and alcohol, and you either have to set up your own shuttle or arrange with the concessionaire for a haul back from Juniper Wayside – the take-out. If you are renting a boat you have to add in some time to view the mandatory film which is supposed to give you an idea of what to expect on the run followed by a brief lesson. All this can easily take an hour. But because of all this, folks who arrive with their own boats and have their own shuttle arrangement planned in advance have a huge opportunity to get on the water before the crowds which usually don’t hit the water before 10 or 11 am. BTW, the concessionaire stops renting at 11:30 and the last shuttle is at 5 pm. We always try to be on the water by 9:30 at the latest and the 7-mile trip takes us between 4 and 5 hours depending on water flow, how many “overs” we have to negotiate or downed trees we have to force our way through, and how many breaks we take.
After unloading the boats in the parking area, we ran a couple of cars down to the take-out while 2 of our group went through the rental process. By the time the shuttle car drivers were back our renters were ready and we hauled all the kayaks down to the put-in. There the campground folks checked all our coolers and we got the okay to put our boats on the water.
At times of low water there is quite a drop at the dock at the put-in. Teamwork really helped to get all of our kayaks and gear on the water. And on the first 1/2 mile or so we had trouble staying afloat. Most of us used the stretch to practice our maneuvering strokes by constantly switching from one side to the other, making use of the deeper water on the outside of the bends. But at least one got fed up and just walked his kayak through the sand. It’s best to just take it slow on this section, allowing the current to provide propulsion and using your paddles only steer. Be careful also that you don’t entangle your paddle in the overhead vegetation which can dump you in the water double-quick.
The middle third of the creek is deeper and a little wider, but it also has more obstacles both above and below the surface – downed trees to go under or around as well as stumps, some barely below the water’s surface, that are easy to get hung up or spun around on.
But more sun was shining through and we started to see basking turtles, a few wildflowers on the banks and a small gator or two. And on the first Wednesday we even ran across 2 pair of river otters chasing and eating fish! On Saturday we also saw a large deer browsing right on the bank. She just politely watched us as we went by, largely indifferent to our presence. Perhaps she knew she was in a designated wilderness area and therefore safe from hunting.
After a second break for lunch at another wide spot with a sandy beach we approached “The Rapids”. This is a short section of the creek with mildly turbulent water that gives about 10 seconds of WHEEE! factor. While the groups stopped right at the top, I went down first, beached my kayak, then swam across the stream and anchored myself against the current by backing up against a tree trunk. After a whistle and wave each person in the group came down about a minute apart so I could get their picture coming through the “white water”.
The final third of the creek is wider and more open although the stream-side vegetation has been growing in steadily since a devastating wildfire several years ago. Much of the vegetation is Baccharis with pretty white blossoms in the fall that in windy conditions fly through the air like falling snow. A few wildflowers were also very noticeable amid the greenery. On this stretch we also saw more basking turtles (mostly Cooters and a couple of Yellow-bellied Sliders) and small gators.
Eventually we reached the end of the trip at Juniper Wayside on SR 19 with a few sore muscles but lots of big smiles.
After the paddle and back at Juniper Springs Recreation Area we took a little leg-stretch hike to Fern Hammock – a beautiful boil area in the middle of the campground. It’s only a 5 minute walk from the parking lot, so be sure to visit while you are there. But note that a huge tree has fallen onto the Juniper Springs Nature Trail destroying a large section of the boardwalk, so you can’t get to Fern Hammock on the Nature Trail as of this writing. If you don’t know the campground, get a map at the fee station and have them mark the alternative route which uses several of the campground walking trails.