Why Go: The setting is unlike any other in North America. Just over an hour’s drive northwest of Orlando, wedged between the Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers, lie the Juniper Springs Recreation Area and the adjacent 14,283-acre Juniper Prairie Wilderness. These subtropical gems are part of the continental Ocala National Forest, the southernmost national forest in the United States. Here, there are springs—large and small, gushing out of cracks in the earth—as well as pine flatwoods, hardwood swamps, shallow lakes, grassy prairies, oak scrub, sinkholes, and sawgrass marsh that represent what north-central Florida looked like before the arrival of Disney World.
Where to Start: Begin your explorations at the Juniper Springs Campground within the recreation area. Tranquil, with a feeling of remoteness, the campground’s 79 campsites (no electrical or water hookups) are tucked among moss-draped forests of live oaks and whispering pines and are within walking distance of some of Florida’s most beautiful springs. This is a highly trafficked campsite, so make sure you reserve a spot before you go.
Hit the Trail: A nearly 100-mile section of the Florida National Scenic Trail takes off from the recreation area and cuts through the center of Juniper Prairie Wilderness to the north. Day hikes are the rule here. But to really go wild, do an overnight trek to Hidden Pond, an oasis for primitive camping in the midst of the lush scrub country. This very secluded spot within the wilderness area is six miles by trail from the nearest road. However, no matter where you hike in Juniper Prairie, you’ll be in scenic, untamed country that’s home to whitetail deer, black bear, bobcat, fox, raccoon, armadillo, and an unbelievable richness of birds.
Grab a Paddle and Go: One of the best paddling opportunities in central Florida is the seven-mile run down Juniper Creek through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness. Launching near the campground, the narrow, twisting creek winds through semitropical scenery not found in any other national forest in the continental United States. A dense canopy of palmetto, palms, oak, and cypress creates a living, jungle-like tunnel. In the constricted channels, be careful of overhanging branches and submerged logs that have tipped many unwary paddlers. If you’re lucky, you may spot a bald eagle, several species of herons, or otters at play. Alligators also ply these waters, which is one reason wading or tubing is not allowed on the creek. Private canoes can be used, or they can be rented from the onsite concessionaire, which also offers shuttle services.
Dive In: Bring a swimsuit. Nestled beneath large live oak trees and ringed with stone steps, the main pool in Juniper Springs is 125 feet long and up to 80 feet wide. With a depth averaging 10 feet and a water temperature averaging 72 degrees year-round, the blue-tinged spring provides a wonderful way to cool off after a hot, humid day of paddling or hiking. And save some time to take the one-mile round-trip nature trail from Juniper Springs to Fern Hammock Springs, a major tributary of Juniper Creek. Together, the springs produce about 15 million gallons of crystalline water each day.
Local Wisdom: For the most solitude and best wildlife viewing, plan your canoe trip on a weekday; weekends and holidays are frequently crowded.
When to Go: Late fall to early spring is best because temperatures are mild, and it is the dry, low-insect season.
Did You Know that the 1946 Academy Award-winning movie, The Yearling starring Gregory Peck, was filmed at Pat’s Island, the site of an 1840 settlement in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness? This sensitive tale, based on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of a lonely 11-year-old boy attached to a young deer, is set on a struggling pioneer farm in post-Civil War Florida. A three- to six-mile interpretive trail system in the area (the “Yearling Trail”) is named after the book and provides access to sites where the family whose stories inspired the novel lived. Access is off of SR 19 to the east of Juniper Springs.
Getting There: From I-75 take Highway 40 East thru Ocala and Silver Springs approximately 36 miles to the Juniper Springs Recreation Area.
Resources: Call 877-444-6777 or go to bit.ly/floridaocala to make camping reservations. To book a canoe or canoe shuttle service, call 352-625-2808.
An avid backpacker and paddler, Larry Rice is a former contributing editor for Backpacker and Canoe & Kayak magazines.
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