Set in northern Florida, between the laid back “horse country” of Ocala and world-class resort of Ormond Beach, Juniper Springs Recreation Area is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. The hundreds of springs for which the park is named sparkle under a subtropical sky amidst lush green palms and oaks. Rising out of the arid landscape of the Big Scrub (part of the largest sand pine scrub in the country) like a green jewel, Juniper Springs is a truly unique environment in the US and one of the oldest and most well-loved outdoor spots on the East Coast.
But back to the Springs. Here you could be a million miles from the crowds on the coast. A day here is a day spent out in nature, doing whatever you love best, whether that is hiking, kayaking, swimming, picnicking, wildlife-spotting or learning about the area’s rich history.
If you want to hike, there are several trails that you can follow. The Florida Trail is a National Scenic Trail, one of 11 such trails in the country. It spans 1400 miles across the state, passing through rolling hills, rugged scrubland and pine forest. The trail is divided into segments. From Juniper Springs you can join the 8.5 mile section south through tall pines to Farles Prairie, taking in beautiful views across Farles Lake as you go. Or you could head north through the rougher landscape of the Juniper Prairie Wilderness. As the name suggests, this is an area of wilderness, with no roads or easy access. Stretching for 15,000 acres, it contains a number of diverse habitats, including arid scrubland with pines and saw palmetto, open prairies, lakes and hardwood swamps.
If you’d rather spend your day in the water, canoes and kayaks can be rented in the morning from 8 a.m. Juniper Run has been recognised as one of the top 25 runs in the country and is a highlight of many people’s holiday. A seven mile stretch, it runs through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness and ends in a beauty spot by SR 19. You and your canoe are then picked up by a shuttle and transported back to the Springs. The run, which winds through dense trees, has a quiet and surreal feel. The first section is narrow, passing through lush swamplands, but it gradually widens out and enters the Big Scrub. Paddling through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, you might see otters playing in the water or even alligators. Plants to watch out for include the Coonti fern, a primitive seed-bearing plant, and the needle palm, a cold-hardy palm.
You can learn about the history of the area and flora of Juniper Run on a self-guided interpretative nature trail that runs from the historic mill house. The trail also offers beautiful views of the river. The mill house itself, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, is an interesting place to explore. Developed hundreds of miles from an electricity source, the Juniper Springs Recreation Area needed alternative power, and the mill house was the perfect solution. Water from the springs passed through a sluice and out again, in the process turning a waterwheel that powered a generator. A green energy source that actually enhanced the scenic beauty of the site – now there’s something impressive.