JUNIPER SPRINGS STATE PARK, FL — As the sun rises over the tall grass and scrub pines of Juniper Prairie Wilderness, lighting up the mist on Hidden Pond, the only sound is the gentle breeze in the trees and the occasional call of scrub jays or the echo of woodpeckers. Here in the nation’s southernmost wilderness, six miles by trail from the nearest road, dawn comes quietly and reveals a landscape barely changed by the passage of time.
Located in deep in the heart of Ocala National Forest, about half an hour east of Silver Springs, the wilderness if strictly off-limits to motor vehicles. So to experience this untouched corner of Florida, you’re limited to walking or paddling. Either way, it’s worth the effort.
Canoe or Kayak Juniper Springs
The seven-mile canoe run from Juniper Springs is one of the best canoeing opportunities in central Florida. The canopied creek winds through dense, primeval forests that seem untouched by man — on weekdays, anyway. Come early in the morning and you’ll paddle through dappled light that filters through the trees down into crystalline water.
At first glance, the run looks too narrow to navigate, but it grows in size steadily as it meanders past ancient cypress trees and lush semi-tropical forests. The narrow creek is filled with obstacles, and it takes some effort to avoid submerged snags and squeeze under overhanging branching. Whether you find it fun or frustrating may depend on your canoeing skills.
For the best experience, avoid the place on weekends and holidays. As many as 50 or 60 canoes and kayaks may crowd the creek during peak days, but during the week you may only have to share the run with the local wildlife.
Regardless of when you go, you’re bound to spot several species of wading birds during the last half of the canoe run, where the creek is wide and bounded by cattails. With a bit of luck, you may even spot a bald eagle. The creek is also home to a family of playful otters. These animals aren’t shy, and they boldly approach passing canoes. There are alligators too, which is one reason wading or tubing is not allowed on the creek.
The run takes between three and five hours, but it’s worth spending the whole day. The landing at the half-way point is a popular spot to stop for lunch. (Throwaway containers, such as bottles and cans, are prohibited on the run, and violators may be fined $25.)
A shuttle service for canoeists runs between Juniper Wayside Park (at the bridge on U.S. Highway 19) and Juniper Springs. The last shuttle leaves each day at 4:30 p.m. The shuttle is free if you rent a canoe, and $5 per person otherwise.
Hike Juniper Prairie Wilderness
If you’d rather walk into the heart of Juniper Prairie, the Florida Trail cuts through the center of the wilderness. The scenic trail stretches the entire length of the Ocala National Forest (and much of the state), but the prairie offers the best hiking in the area. It’s also the only section of the Florida trail that runs through a designated wilderness area. Eventually the Florida Trail, which was started in 1966, will include 1,300 miles of continuous trail from the Big Cypress National Preserve to the Gulf Island National Seashore.
From Juniper Springs, it’s a 12 mile round-trip hike to Hidden Pond, located in the center of the wilderness area. Here you can rest and enjoy lunch under the shade of the scrub pines, or fish for bass or panfish on one of the nearby ponds. If you bring a tent and a sleeping bag, Hidden Pond makes an ideal primitive campsite. Primitive means no toilets, and water is only available from the ponds — but it must be boiled or treated because of the presence of a parasite called Giardia, which causes diarrhea.
Although the trail itself sees a lot of human traffic, it’s easy to get away from people if that’s what you want. Just be sure you know how to use a map and compass (or GPS unit) because it’s easy to get lost in the network of side-trails.
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Since only a few feet of elevation change can create a dramatic change in the landscape, the trail provides a good overview of the various biological communities in central Florida, from swamp to sand pine to prairie. And this variety of habitats also means a good chance of seeing many types of wildlife. The extensive wildfires in recent years have opened up the prairie in some areas and dramatically increased the bird life.
Save some time before or after your adventure to take the short (3/4 mile) nature trail along the beginning of Juniper Creek and Fern Hammock Springs. Together, Juniper and Fern Hammock Springs produce about 15 million gallons of water a day. (It’s significantly smaller than than the nearby First-Magnitude springs such as Silver Glen Springs, Alexander Springs and Silver Springs.) A bridge over Fern Hammock Springs provides a close look at the sandy boils where the water originates.
And don’t forget to bring a swimsuit, especially during summer. The 72-degree spring is one of the finest old-fashioned swimming holes you’ll find anywhere, and it makes a great place to cool off after a day of exploration.
Juniper Springs State Park Info:
Call Juniper Springs Recreation Area for canoe rental and campground information: (352) 625-0546.