(Review added 08/24/13, last update 03/17)
The 7-mile Juniper Creek run is one of the best known spring runs in Florida and probably THE most paddled spring run. It has been named one of the top 25 canoe runs in the United States by ReserveAmerica. (Note that there is another “Juniper Creek” in Florida, in the western panhandle. Technically the name of that creek is “Big Juniper Creek” although it is locally known simply as Juniper Creek.)
Juniper Creek runs from Juniper Springs, a second magnitude spring within the Ocala National Forest. Developed by the CCC in the 1930s the recreation area is open 8 am to 8 pm, 365 days a year. There is a large campground, several short nature trails plus access to the Florida Trail, and an old water mill containing good interpretive information. A concession offers canoe and kayak (both single and double) rentals as well as limited camping supplies.
The run wanders for 7.2 miles through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness Area. As a designated wilderness all maintenance on the run is done with hand tools and that infrequently and only as absolutely necessary to keep the run passable. You will see many downed trees, submerged logs, trees growing in the middle of the run, as well as overhanging trees and vines. Also, due to its wilderness designation NO DISPOSABLE CONTAINERS are allowed on Juniper Creek and there is always a vigilant volunteer at the launch to inspect your coolers (no styrofoam coolers allowed) and another to keep the launches organized. We’ve seen people turned away because of canned soft drinks and bags of potato chips, even granola bars in paper wrappers, so – you’ve been warned. Put all drinks in nalgene or bicycle-style bottles and remove all wrappers from food and store everything in tupperware-style containers or dry bags. Plastic bags are also not allowed. (Although they did allow our group first aid kit which we keep double bagged in zipper-lock bags inside a dry bag – after they took a good look and we explained what it was.) The up side of this vigilance is that you will probably not see a single soda can or paper/plastic litter of any kind on your entire trip.
For paddling Juniper Creek we recommend short (10-12 foot) kayaks over the 15-foot canoes as well as short, inexpensive paddles. You are going to be using the paddle primarily for steering rather than propulsion. Inflatable canoes and kayaks are not permitted. We do not recommend this trip for SUPs because the submerged logs can tear off your fins and overhanging vegetation interferes with a vertical paddle, but a few SUPs have made it down. Note that rentals are arranged with the concession only from 8 am to 11:30 am and the last shuttle pickup is around 5 pm. We also recommend, since paddling is so popular, getting started on the creek before 9 am on weekends and holidays.
The boat launch is just outside the walled swimming area and is accessed from its own parking lot. After paying your day-use entrance fee ($5 + tax), take the first road to the left which will lead you to a circular drive for dropping off your boat and an adjacent boat launch parking area. The concession provides canoe haulers to help get your boat and gear down a long boardwalk to the actual launch dock or you can bring your own wheelies. You can also arrange with the concession for pickup at the Juniper Wayside ($10 for rider + $10 for boat) or you can unload your boats then spot your own car – it’s about a 20 minute drive there and back.
The Juniper Wayside parking area can only handle about 15 cars – fewer if there are any cars with trailers – so if you plan to use it during the summer or on hot weekends we suggest you drop your vehicles there before 8:30 am because after 9 am it’s almost guaranteed there will be no parking spots left. Most folks drop their boats at Juniper Springs then drive a vehicle to the Wayside. You can get a jump on that traffic by dropping a vehicle or two at the Wayside first.
While it is one of the most popular runs, Juniper Creek also one of the most misunderstood by first-time paddlers. Unlike most Florida spring runs which can be lazy drifts, Juniper Creek is shallow, narrow and twisting with swift water. If you search for reviews on the internet you will find people who loved it, people who hated it, and people who say it’s definitely only for experienced paddlers. We believe this is primarily due to the fact that people go with the expectation that it will be a laid-back float trip so they are not emotionally prepared for a fun roller coaster ride with many twists along a narrow way with possible overs, unders, arounds, and throughs.
We like to think of Juniper Creek as an adventure and we try to do it 3-4 times each year. It’s a little different each time you run it, so if you go out expecting an adventure you will find it. In times of low water it can be so shallow for the first mile or so that it’s difficult to get a paddle in the water. During high water you have to take care that your paddle does not become entangled in overhead vegetation. After a wind storm there may be more obstructions that normal. The run is really not difficult – we have taken many first-timers with us in borrowed and rented kayaks – but you can expect to get wet, hit the bank a few times, skooch over submerged logs, speed up, slow down, run into other boats, duck under branches, pull yourself under (or over) low trees, run aground a time or two, maybe even dump your kayak. Accept the stream on its own terms. If you dump, hold on to your kayak and paddle and just stand up (it’s rarely over your head) or float in to the shore – you’re never more than about 10 feet from land. If you expect to encounter at least some of these things on every trip, you can settle back and just have fun with it. If you can relax and laugh at your own antics and those of others, you will enjoy the trip.
TIP: At the 5.4 mile point there is a little “rapid” caused by a submerged spring with some submerged logs. This provides about 20 seconds of “Wheeeee!” Right at the bottom there is a sandy spot on your right to land a boat or two. If you send someone with a camera down first they can stop there and gets some pics of the rest of the group going through the “rapids”.
TIP: After the rapids the creek is wider and has a more open feel. Sweetwater Creek joins from river left. (There are two blocked off creek entrances in this area.) This is also an area where you will occasionally see alligators – and there is one particularly big gator that hangs out in the area. They will usually ignore you, but give them as wide a berth as possible and don’t cut off their escape routes. People have been bitten by gators in this area, so treat them with respect.
0.0 Juniper Springs launch
3.9 Old dock – not much left, you have to look carefully to find it.
5.0 Creek starts to widen and open up
5.4 “The Rapids”, short stretch of shallow water over rock
6.7 To left, Sweetwater Spring run enters
6.8 Pilings from old bridge
7.2 Pass under SR 19 bridge, take-out on right.
Click HERE to download Juniper Creek Fact Sheet with mileage chart and directions to launch sites.
Click HERE to download Juniper Creek gpx file for your GPS unit.
Double-click to zoom in or use mouse scroll to zoom in and out. Drag to change location. Click on icons or river route for more info.