Paddling Juniper Run in Florida’s Ocala National Forest
A roar that sounded like a strong wind rushed towards us and I glanced up, expecting to see the wild sway of limbs that entwined together, creating the thick canopy overhead, but trees remained unmoved. The noise grew louder.
“What’s that sound?” I called to my son. “It’s not the wind.”
A look of excitement jumped to his eyes. “It’s the rapids!”
I had heard about the rapids on the Juniper Run Paddle Trail, but knowing the lack of rocks in the sandy Juniper Prairie Wilderness area, did not think much of it, expecting them to be fast water running over some fallen logs at best, but as the roar rose to a crescendo, I watched as my son and his kayak were swept into the rolling rapids.
Thinking fast, I safely stashed my camera and grabbed my paddle, straightening out my own kayak as I neared the top of the rapids.’Think Fast’ became our mantra of the day paddling on Juniper Run, the challenging seven-mile paddle trail through the Ocala National Forest.
My son swerved at the bottom of the rapids, filling his kayak with water and nearly flipping. He slid onto the sand bar at the base of the swift moving water to safely drain his boat. I paddled up beside him.
“That was cool. Let’s do this at Nantahala Gorge!” He told me.
Nowhere near the Class IV rapids of North Carolina, these Florida rapids were more like the ones we faced while tubing the Chattahoochee through Helen, Georgia, but his excitement was infectious.
The base of the rapids on the Juniper Run Paddle Trail in the Ocala National Forest.
Intermediate Paddle Trail at Juniper Springs Recreational Area in the Ocala National Forest
Definitely a challenge, Juniper Run is a natural water obstacle course in the heart of Florida’s Ocala National Forest.
It was New Year’s Day, and my son and I were on the one-way paddle trail that runs from Juniper Springs Recreational Area through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness and ends at the Highway 19 Bridge across Juniper Creek. This paddle run can take from 3.5 hours to 5 hours to complete. It’s a days’ adventure and a unique experience of wild Florida not accessible by foot.
Florida’s natural water obstacle course for experienced paddlers
Notorious for its’ sharp twists and tight turns, the Juniper Run paddle trail is not for beginners, and the park flyers and rangers tell everyone this. With trees low over the water and stumps to navigate, we spent the first half of our journey concentrating on steering through this natural water obstacle course. There was no need to worry about paddling for speed- in the beginning, the water is so shallow and the creek, fed by the springs in the Juniper Springs swimming area, runs so swift, that all of our efforts were forced to navigational skills.
“A lot of people end up in the water,” a park ranger confessed. “They take the turns too fast or get stuck on the stumps. This trip is definitely NOT for beginners.”
Ironically, Juniper Run was where I had my very first paddle trip when I was in high school- and yes, my friend and I ended up getting our canoe wedged tightly between two trees in the middle of the creek! Luckily she was experienced in these matters and managed to get us unstuck without tipping over, but having taken this particular run several times since then, I have witnessed others taking the unexpected plunge (you know who you are!) over the years. If you try to go fast, you end up crashing into the side, plunging into the bushes or getting caught up in the stumps and branches.
At one point on the run, we took a sharp 45-degree angle turn that sent my kayak careening towards some bushes and to stop myself I plunged my oar into the sandy river bottom in hopes of quickly correcting my course. I did not count on the sand sucking up the end of the paddle and holding it fast. It took both hands to rescue it without dislocating my shoulder in the process. I thought twice about attempting that trick again.
The sandy shallows looked inviting for a swim, but we were warned there was no swimming along the creek due to alligators. We didn’t see many fish at all, but turtles sunned themselves on logs along the run.
Gator encounter on Juniper Run
“I think there’s an animal up ahead,” my son said. He motioned towards the couple in the red canoe further up the creek. They paused at a bend to take a photo before continuing their journey.
I readied my camera for a photo and as my kayak approached the a large log stretching out into the water, I could see the tail of an alligator. Great. I’ll get a gator shot, I thought. My son had already paddled on. I let the kayak float, lifting my camera for the perfect shot- and came even with the log. On the other side was a giant alligator- maybe five feet, not the two-three footer I had been expecting- (apparently I had only seen the tip of his tail) and he was staring right at me.
Think fast. I quickly set down my camera and picked up my paddle without hesitation, moving my kayak past the prehistoric giant. Call me chicken (yes, gators like chicken!), but there would be no gator picture today.
Juniper Run Paddle Trail
We started in a narrow shallow channel with beautiful clear water and white sandy bottom. Our kayaks are 10.5 feet- anything longer would be difficult to manage on the turns. There is a wooden boardwalk path that follows the river to the edge of the park, and then you enter the Juniper Prairie Wilderness and you are on your own- with no sign of civilization for hours.
As my son put it, it was like a ride at Disney World- when you get tired of the darkness, it goes into the open, then back to the dark, with a waterfall at the end. Okay, that was a teen’s take on the journey, and yes, the trail is clear cut. And it takes you into a dark canopy- the water becomes dark from the leaves in the creek and eventually clears up back to crystal clarity. There are no areas to stop along the run, and swimming is prohibited due to alligators.
The take out at the end is to the right, after you pass under the Highway 19 bridge. You’ll hear the cars as you make your approach. After 4 hours of sitting, it’s a difficult and stiff exit, but there is one canoe holding bay for the weary. From there either the shuttle will take you back to Juniper Springs Recreation Area, or you can get your ride back. There is a stinky compost toilet in the adjacent parking area for those who need it (really stinky).
Things to Know Before You Go:
- Juniper Run Paddle Trail is located in the Juniper Springs Recreation Area in the Ocala National Forest at: 26701 FL-40, Silver Springs, FL 34488
- Day use fee for the Juniper Run Recreation Area is $5 + tax per person.
- You can rent canoes or kayaks for a fee, which includes the shuttle back to the park
- You can use your own kayak/canoe on the run for no fee, but they will charge to use their shuttle back to the park.
- The paddle trail take-out is on the Highway 19 bridge over Juniper Creek
- Much like the Rainbow River in Dunnellon, Juniper Run has a strict, non-disposables allowed policy, so remove all packaging from items and place in Tupperware containers.
- Use only non-disposable water bottles.
- Alcohol is prohibited.
- The rangers will search your coolers/bags before they allow you on the run.
- Swimming on the run is prohibited. There is a camp store in the Juniper Springs Recreation Area, picnic tables and a swimming area around the springs, and camping (reservations for camping need to be made through Reserve America).
Other Posts That May Interest You:
- Exploring Juniper Springs
- Kayaking the Chassahowitzka River
- Kayaking Florida’s Rainbow River
- Adventures at Homosassa Springs State Park
- Florida Spring Hunting 2016
- Best of 2016 Adventure Review