Clear as a spring day
Time is right to kayak or canoe 4 great rivers from a base in Ocala
Florida beaches get all the tourist attention, but some of the state’s most remarkable assets are the aquarium clear freshwater springs in Central and North Florida.
There’s no better way to appreciate their splendid beauty than by kayak or canoe, and winter and spring are the best times to do it.
A great place to base yourself for a getaway devoted to paddling the springs and the rivers they form is Ocala.
In the Ocala area, you can paddle four rivers in four days, and all are well-served by outfitters that rent gear and livery service. At all four, you can launch your own kayaks, too.
Beyond the beautiful water and vegetation, on these rivers you have a good chance to see wildlife — from manatees to American eagles to alligators and even monkeys.
Here’s a guide to help you make your travel plans.
Silver Spring and the Silver River
If I had to pick a favorite of these four, it would be the Silver River.
How can you beat this trifecta of wildlife experiences, all from a December trip? Rhesus monkeys scampering overhead in the tree tops, manatees lolling around in water so clear you can see every scar on their broad backs, and hundreds of ibises, white wings flapping against brilliant blue sky?
You begin your kayak trip at Silver Spring State Park in Ocala, where the outfitter rents clear-bottom kayaks as well as other kayaks and canoes. You can see the best of the river in two
hours of out-and-back paddling. (It’s not hard to paddle upstream.) But, unless it is an off season weekday (as it was for us in early December), the outfitter will pick you up five miles downstream and livery you back to the state park. If livery service is available, I recommend the downstream trip.
Tip: This is a great river for beginners: Paddling is easy with the current and little skill in turning is required.
Details: floridastate parks.org/silversprings
Juniper Springs in Ocala National Forest
Juniper is a Florida spring with a distinction: It’s the healthiest, most natural spring in the state, according to a recent assessment. The water at the springhead is so clear and shallow that boats appear to float above white sand. Because the spring-shed is largely within Ocala National Forest, the Juniper isn’t affected by fertilizer and septic tanks, as are most Florida springs and rivers.
Juniper Run is also among the narrowest, with twists and turns that create intimate spaces where the cypress trees and foliage surround you.
And therein lies the controversy about paddling Juniper Run. If you read online reviews at sites like TripAdvisor.com, a number of people call paddling here the “worst day ever.” There were enough comments about how difficult this run is and how miserable the experience, we were prepared for something very challenging. We had paddled it a few years ago, but we figured the trail must have deteriorated.
To our surprise, this run was as delightful as we remembered. It does require a paddler to be able to make some tight turns and inexperienced kayakers and canoers might find it frustrating. I say: Just bounce off the edges and laugh.
Tip: Get an early start, as no boats are allowed down the run in the afternoon, in order to ensure everyone finishes by closing time. Also: This is not a good “first river” if you’ve never paddled before.
Alexander Springs in Ocala National Forest
If you want a relaxing, easy paddle with lots of birds and wildlife, Alexander Springs is a good choice.
If you only have an hour or two but want to experience a river with crystal clear water, Alexander is for you.
If you want to see how two spring-fed rivers 20 minutes apart can look and feel quite different — then paddle Juniper and Alexander back-to-back.
We hadn’t planned to paddle Alexander, but when Juniper was closed due to a black bear family hanging out at the canoe launch, it was an easy substitute. And we’re glad we got to experience Alexander.
There are no motor boats on this river and it is less intensively used than Juniper, so it was a quiet, birdfilled
trip whose highlight for us was seeing an American eagle.
Tip: If you want to swim in a spring, Juniper is the best choice in Ocala National Forest. The spring basin is broad with a sandy bottom. Snorkelers and scuba divers enjoy exploring the limestone rocks and boulders in the spring boil. Details: bit.ly/2T5dP3F
Ocklawaha River along Ocala National Forest
The Ocklawaha is probably the least familiar of the four rivers. Although it receives all the water from the clear Silver River, only the lower portion is clear spring water, as the Ocklawaha begins to darken as tannins seep into the water from vegetation.
The Ocklawaha forms the western border of Ocala National Forest and thus it passed through wild and natural scenery with an abundance of birds and wildlife.
The best part? Fewer people paddle the Ocklawaha and the space seems vast. There are no telltale highway sounds or power lines to bring you back to daily life.
Tip: If you want to do kayak-camping in a wild place, the Ocklawaha lends itself to a multi-day outing with primitive camping.
Details from an Ocklawaha outfitter, where you also can rent cabins: outpostresort.com/
Planning your kayak or canoe trip to Ocala
If you’re a camper, your options are many, from Silver Springs State Park to the campgrounds in Ocala National Forest.
We always try to stay in the excellent cabins in Silver Springs State Park. Reserve cabins via reserveamerica.com.
Other cabins are available on the Ocklawaha from Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost. Info at outpost resort.com
Juniper Springs near Ocala is the healthiest, most natural spring in Florida.
A manatee is easy to spot in the clear water of Silver River near Ocala.
The Ocklawaha River runs through Ocala National Forest.