Surrounded by the dryness of the Big Scrub, the world’s largest scrub forest, Juniper Springs is a playground of hydrological wonders, the center of a jungle-like oasis of riotous growth. Here, you’ll find every sort of Florida spring imaginable: a massive outpouring from a cavern at the headspring, tiny bubblers along the bottom of the run, constant seeps along the loamy slopes, eerie flat boils like video screens, and giant boils thrusting perpetual clouds of sand skyward.
To present this symphony of hydrology to you, the Juniper Creek Nature Trail winds between Juniper Springs and Fern Hammock Springs.
Location: Ocala National Forest
Length: 1.4 miles
Fees / Permits: recreation area entrance fee $5 per person
Difficulty: wheelchair accessible
Bug factor: low to moderate
Dogs are NOT permitted in the Juniper Springs day use area.
From I-75, take exit 352, Ocala, and head east on FL 40 into the Ocala National Forest. After 31 miles, the entrance to Juniper Springs Recreation Area is on the left. From I-95, take exit 268, Ormond Beach, and head west on SR 40 through Barberville and Astor. After you pass the blinker at SR 19, keep alert for the park entrance on the right. There is a per-person entrance fee.
Developed in the 1930s as a swimming and camping area by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Juniper Springs offers many options for recreation. As you drive in the entrance road, you cross the Florida Trail along one of my favorite segments, the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, great for backpacking. Get out of your car and walk up between the buildings, where you can rent canoes for the four-hour journey down Juniper Run. If you’ve brought your swimsuit, a plunge in this shimmering spring – a constant 72ºF – is a must. An old mill sits at the outflow of the basin, shaded by a dogwood. The mill once provided electricity for the campground.
The nature trail officially starts behind the mill. Look down, and you’ll notice tiny spring boils below the “Nature Trail” sign. These small bubblers throw up perpetual fountains of sand. By keeping the streambed in suspension, they create a tiny pool of quicksand. Crossing a bridge over a slender drainage into the run, you follow the interpretive trail, now a boardwalk through the lush subtropical hammock. Watch for unusual blonde squirrels, a genetic aberration in the gray squirrel gene pool in these woods. Needle palms grow lushly on both sides of the footpath. Dense patches of marsh fern and sword fern crowd along the waterway. The air is thick, always humid, always feeding the greenery.
At 0.5 mile, you reach Fern Hammock Run, which flows to your left, towards Juniper Run. Fallen cabbage palms choke the streambed. Like giant feather dusters, royal ferns emerge from the tops of rotting pilings for an old bridge across the run. At the T intersection, turn left. A broad bridge crosses the waterway. On the left you see a giant boil in aquamarine and turquoise. These are my favorite springs in Florida for their distinctive look—like puddles of paint, they ebb and flow on the bottom of the pool. Lean over and look beneath the bridge to see sandstorms in miniature, enacted on the bottom of the spring. It’s nature in motion, forming performance art that changes every minute. I’ve stood here for an hour and more, mesmerized by the shapes and patterns that emerge.
Although you’ll spend most of your time looking down, look up, too. Pines and hickories stand tall around the spring. Wander around to the far side for different perspectives. The water is so clear, you’ll see turtles and fish very easily.
This is a round-trip hike, so retrace your path back over the bridge to the boardwalk to return to Juniper Springs. After you pass the spot where you can see the canoe launch, you arrive at the stone bridge in front of the old mill. A spring eroded the base of the bridge, so walk back along the path to the left to return to the parking area.