When I was little I remember going a canoe trip with my family that was long and challenging and tiring. My sister and I complained a lot, paddling was hard, and we were scared of being eaten by an alligator (standard fear growing up in Florida?!)
Even though canoeing the springs tested our young strength, when I think back to this trip the main thing I recall is how absolutely incredible the entire experience was.
I mentioned this childhood memory to Andres so many times that we decided to make a weekend adventure out of it. On a Friday evening we headed to the Ocala National Forrest to take on the Juniper Springs Canoe Run. According to Trails.com Juniper Springs is considered one of the best canoe trips in Florida and 1 of the 10 must do canoe runs in the US!
After a 4.5 hr drive, we arrived at our “fancy” accommodations for the weekend. Normally I would prefer to camp but if you go anywhere in Florida and it’s not winter the mosquitos will eat you alive. On this trip we opted for the recently renovated Sun Plaza Motel with the best beds in town and bikers are welcome.
We were staying right outside the park and it still took another 20 minute drive (and a few wrong turns) to get to Juniper Springs entrance.
This canoe trip is technically not for beginners (hence why I recall it being really really hard as a kid). The park calls it an intermediate route, not because of the dangerous water but mostly because of the constant twists and turns.
You could say this is not only a fun adventure but a great relationship test. Communication is key to avoid crashing into branches. We crashed into a few but we made it through!
The run is about 7 miles and takes between 4-5 hours to complete. Canoeing here is extremely popular throughout the whole year. Rentals are available between 8 a.m. and 11:30 a.m every day. If you get there early enough you may get lucky to reserve a kayak instead of a canoe. The kayak is much easier to maneuver around the trees and winding curves which makes a big difference on this trip.
We made sure to stop at Publix before the ride to grab some sandwiches to pack into our Tupperwear. Can you imagine a 5 hour canoe ride without food? Hangry Suz on a long canoe ride = no fun for Andres.
After signing waivers and getting all of the necessary info we picked our kayak and walked it to the launch dock. The park will not let you launch the canoe without taking a short class to get all the information about the route, wildlife, and possible emergency situations. Note: Calculate an extra 30 minutes for all of this!
In the first 2.5 miles of the run the water is so shallow you feel like you are pushing the kayak through the sand at times. So even though there is no risk of drowning here, it is not an “easy” ride. Eventually the stream opens to a wider area with the water staying calm throughout the entire ride.
All I wanted to see that day were turtles. Ok and maybe an alligator too. Within the first mile we saw a 3 ft alligator swim quickly past our kayak. I tried keeping count of all the turtles we saw but eventually lost track, I would say we saw at least 25.
As the run continued we saw an amazing amount of wildlife, including more alligators. About half way through the ride we saw 3 baby alligators – so cute! And then around the corner was the 10ft long mama alligator – cool but not so cute.
It took us about 4 hours to complete due to slow-moving currents and a few obstacles like low branches and tree trunks. It is possible to do as a family though, just like I did!
You know you are done with the 7 miles when you go under a small bridge with a little inlet to easily get off the kayak. The park shuttle will pick you up and bring you back to the park when you are done. Shuttles pick up every hour until about 4pm.
Once the shuttle drops you off at the park, make sure to spend some time swimming in Juniper Spring! The water is 72 degrees all year round and feels very refreshing after a hard kayaking morning.
If you have more time to spend in Ocala and the Ocala National Forrest there are tons of other outdoor activities. Florida Rambler has a good post with ideas of a things to do in the area including hiking, horse back riding, and even zip lining. This area of Florida is so beautiful, the landscape is so different from Miami.
We brought our bikes along for the weekend (Skyler and Chicken Fried) so on Sunday we decided to go for a ride around Ocala Horse Country. We found an article in USA Today that listed some long ride options. We used this as our base and ended up making up our own ride of about 8 miles.
By lunch we were ready to drive back to South Florida with some great new experiences to keep us smiling.
- Great recap and video of the canoe run in the Tampa Bay Times
- You can visit in winter or summer and the park is beautiful. Summer makes it better for swimming in the springs while winter is better for camping
- Make sure to start the canoe run early in case there are a lot of people that day so you can avoid “traffic” on the water
- The park is very strict with not allowing people to take garbage onto the water so if you are packing snacks make sure you put them in a re-usable food containers. No coolers allowed either unfortunately. You can take 1 ziplock per canoe for cell phones.
- More info about Juniper Springs here