Our time in Florida has existed in polarity. Crowded RV parks against the peaceful campgrounds in public lands, days spent in civilization backed by weeks in remote places, stints of wading through tourist traps contrasted with the beauty of being nowhere near any kind of commercial building. We have staggered our time between cramped RV parks with full hookups and dry camping in Florida’s incredible wilderness. Towards the end of January, our set plans were coming to a close. We spent two weeks in Fort Pierce in the beautiful Savannas Recreation Area. The spots were tightly packed but we had an exceptional view out of our front window: our RV pulled right up to a gorgeous and active canal and marshland.
We had a reservation there until the 1st of February, and at this point, my vote was for leaving Florida and moving on to our next destination: Savannah, Georgia. I was getting restless and itching to make more drastic ground after spending over a month in one state.
“But what about the springs?!” Jordan asked.
I had no idea what he was talking about, but upon further research, I had completely changed my tune. It turns out that central/northern Florida has some incredible features, including the fresh-water, swimmable, springs… some of which are found in the Ocala National Forest. To be honest, as soon as I read the words National Forest, I was sold. We spent more time in RV parks in January than we had in our entire trip… and they were starting to wear on us. Our favorite campsites in 5+ months on the road have been dry camping spots that were less than $20 a night, and we were both itching to get back to land that is protected and away from civilization.
But back to the springs… beautiful bright blue springs that are fed from deep within the earth. They are scattered all over this part of Florida, and a quick glance at the photos is all you need to say: yes, we must go there, and soon. Better yet, the campgrounds don’t get too packed this time of year, because most of the campgrounds don’t have hookups. From what we have seen, dry camping sites don’t get filled up by winter snowbirds the way full hookup sites do. Basically, the place checked all of our boxes, and we decided to go for it. So on Tuesday, we left our pretty view and full-hookup spot in Fort Pierce, drove one hundred and fifty miles up the coast to Daytona Beach, and then cut across on Route 40, heading into the middle of Florida and right in to the Ocala National Forest. Sure enough, soon after we crossed the “Entering National Forest” sign, we lost cell service completely. Honestly, a huge relief. It is pretty amazing how much free time you find in a day when you don’t have an instant distraction attached to your hand.
We pulled into a great private site in the Juniper Springs campground, surrounded by palms and forest. Bears are active in the area, so we had a bear-safe food box at our site, though we didn’t need it. It felt great to pull into our quiet spot, set up camp, and adjust to life without ready electricity/ connection to the world. We walked the pups around to get them nice and sleepy and then set off to explore Juniper Springs. What we didn’t realize, is how close the springs were to our campsite. Just a quick three minute walk through a palm-lined path in the woods got us to the Juniper Springs swimming area, and we were immediately blown away.
It is a place from another world. The spring here has been harnessed by cement and a mill. It is reminiscent of a European bathhouse— a cross between a pool and a pond. The spring itself is contained by cement. It is not that large but very deep and oh so blue. We stood in awe for at least several minutes, giddy at the novelty of it all. The light was fading in the west, and the dying sun cast a surreal glow on the place. The attached mill-house was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in effort to harness the power of the spring and provide electricity to the attached campground. It is no longer the source of electricity, but is a beautiful feature to the already magnificent place. Plus, the history of this campground as a CCC- era recreation area is pretty neat.
The mill is placed where the spring narrows into a stream. This becomes the Juniper Springs Canoe run, a notorious trail that careens for hours through narrow, crystal clear water but has lots of natural obstacles (they aren’t allowed to clear fallen trees). The run ends in an unexpected rapid. We followed the trail beside the run for a few minutes, before turning on the trail to head to Fern Hammock, another portion of Juniper Springs where — we were told — we could find turtles and alligators.
If we thought Juniper Springs seemed out of this world, Fern Hammock was something else entirely. Swimming is not allowed in this part of the spring, as there is a lot of wildlife (including gators). A picturesque bridge crosses over the spring, and you can lean over and see the boils where the fresh water is rushing from the earth. There were medium sized trout hanging out above the bubbling water the entire time we were there. The water is the brightest blue color, and crystal clear, to the point where we could see tiny baby turtles down at the bottom of the spring.
There is a trail that leads around the spring so you can see the place from many angles. We watched medium to large sized turtles paddling quietly over the boils and into the depths of the spring. We unfortunately didn’t see any gators during our time there, but the turtles were amazing and the place itself was so magical. We walked the three minutes back to the RV shaking ours heads in disbelief of the place we had all but stumbled upon. How was it possible, in the middle of Florida, five months into our trip, that we had found the most incredible place we’d seen yet?
We spent five days at Juniper Springs. We swam in the springs every day. We were amazed that we had them almost entirely to ourselves every time, as it wasn’t super hot out. We got goggles and played around with the GoPro underwater like little kids. There were little minnows everywhere, and as soon as you step inside of the spring they are all around your legs. Such a trip. It was so fun and magical, and we felt so incredibly blessed that we had the flexibility to seek this place out and the time to enjoy it so fully.
We had some rain while we were there and spent some quiet nights in the RV. We had fires at our campsite, and cooked some yummy meals. We hiked the dogs on the Florida trail the day before they roped it off because of a too-friendly bear that was seeking food from hikers a few miles north of Juniper Springs.
But at the five day mark, we needed electricity to recharge our batteries. They are in need of a service, and don’t last as long as they used to. We don’t like to run the generator for more than a few hours in a quiet, peaceful place like Juniper Springs, so at the five day mark we generally try to get a hookup for at least a night. Lucky for us, there was one full-hookup campground in the Ocala National Forest, up at Salt Springs. Luckier still, we pulled in around ten o’clock in the morning and snagged the last available walk-up spot.
The Salt Springs campground was completely different from Juniper Springs and we were immediately disappointed. Because Salt Springs was a full hook up campground that allowed seasonal stays, the place was packed with snowbirds. There was no privacy between the sites, and the terrain in this part of the forest was not nearly as jungl-y and mystical as Juniper Springs. Still, we couldn’t complain. We were relieved to have gotten the last site as we desperately needed the hookup. We got the RV set up, and then went down to explore Salt Springs at sunset.
These springs are unique in the Ocala National Forest because the water is salty. Like the other springs, the water pours out of vertical cracks in the karst topography found in this region of Florida. Unlike the other springs, Salt Springs has potassium, sodium and magnesium in the water, which makes it saline. The day-use area is actually stunningly beautiful, with old oaks dressed in Spanish moss. As we strolled down to the springs, we realized right away how diverse each of the springs are. Salt Springs was completely different from the Juniper Springs. For one thing, it was HUGE. Salt Springs is a lake, with a roped off swimming area that was twice as large as Juniper Springs. A lot of the swimming area was very shallow and wadable, with parts that suddenly get very deep. Jordan learned this change in depth the hard way…
We were swimming in the springs for about twenty minutes before a snorkeler nearby shouted to his wife to check out the crabs. Crabs?! Turns out there were large blue crabs all over the springs, and especially in the crags where the spring water rushes up from the earth. We wandered around until we found some… they were huge and bright blue! It was all pretty fantastical. There were also large fish in these springs, unlike Juniper’s minnows. I startled a school of rather large fish, I think they were trout, and the water was so clear that I watched the group rush away from me and into deeper waters. At sunrise the next morning, we watched an otter maneuver around the springs. It was so amazing being able to experience another spring that was so drastically different from Juniper. We spent a few days in the Salt Spring campground— still without cell service— hanging out, exploring the trails and swimming in the springs.
But the campground was starting to wear on us. We knew that it was almost time to leave Florida, and we felt like we wanted to experience our final days the right way. So we went back to Juniper Springs for just a few more nights before it was time to move on. It was in this last burst of time in Ocala that we discovered the most magical place of all: Silver Glen Springs. In my opinion, this was the most amazing place we’ve been in our entire trip.
Silver Glen Springs is a day-use only area that sits between Salt Springs and Juniper Springs. We got there pretty early, and paid the five dollars each to use the springs for the day. The ranger who helped us was so nice and informative. He said that Silver Glen Springs is the most natural spring left in Florida… it has not been carved out by cement or human technology. He was excited for us, and suggested we take a canoe to explore the short Silver Glen Springs run that leads into Lake George… Florida’s second largest lake. We decided to check out the place before deciding. So we walked down to Silver Glen springs, and immediately saw what he meant. The spring was still very natural looking. It was surrounded by wildlife— not cement— and opened into a larger river that would ultimately lead to the lake. After taking a quick look, we decided that we might as well rent the canoe for a quick spin.
The run was short but oh- so pretty. He said that the manatees had been hanging out in the run last weekend, but we unfortunately didn’t see any. We paddled around the run, and got to a tiny island at the mouth of the lake. We wandered around the island for a few minutes before getting back in the canoe. As we left, we saw a medium sized gator coming our way.
We floated for a few minutes while he passed and crawled up to the shallow water where we had just beached our canoe. We watched him for a little while before heading back. We saw two more baby gators on our way back to the spring. It was peaceful, quiet, and so beautiful. The landscape looked so different from both Salt Springs and Juniper Springs, and the reality of how varied and exceptional the Ocala National Forest is really sunk in.
After returning the canoe, it was time to go swimming. The water was clear, blue, that constant 72 degrees, and the spring was so gorgeous. We spent about ten minutes standing waist deep in the water before getting the courage to dive under. We were alone in the spring again, as it was a slightly chilly day. Jordan went under first, with goggles, and came up quickly, excitedly telling me to put on goggles and go under. I did, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. We were surrounded— and I am not kidding when I say surrounded— by at least one hundred foot-long ladyfish. The entire time we had been standing there, they were swimming all around us and we had no idea. IT WAS SO COOL. We were so blown away by this place. We spent a hours swimming and looking at all of the fish.
We swam all around the actual spring, where the water was rushing up so rapidly that it felt like a strong current. It was SO fun… a truly unique and special experience I will remember for all of my life. I can see why the ranger was so excited that it was our first time there. We found him when we left and spent a few minutes gushing about the place. It was so extraordinary.
We drove home from the Silver Glen Springs wet, tired and happy. There were dark clouds in the distance and we knew that our time in the Ocala National Forest was coming to a close. We left the next day, having spent twelve days without cell service in the forest.
After five months of traveling, I have to say that this was my favorite place we have been. This is hard to say definitively, as we have seen a lot of amazing places. But the Ocala National Forest was so out of this world. The campground at Juniper Springs is my favorite campground we’ve stayed at— hands down. There is nothing like being able to wake up in a jungle, walk two minutes down a forest trail to get to a magical spring— empty in early February— and wade in the warm water while sipping on your coffee. It is a place we will never forget, and that we hope to go back to someday.