“They’ll kill you,” I was told when I informed people in my parents’ Sumter County, Florida, gated community that I wanted to experience Ocala National Forest, including camping at nearby Juniper Springs Recreation Area for a night.
But they weren’t talking about alligators.
Ever since moving down from Maryland nearly 20 years ago, my parents had heard the stories. Anglers, kayakers, hikers alike told tales of Deliverance-like encounters inside the contiguous United States’ southernmost forest.
“They all have guns,” I was warned. “They’re veterans and they don’t like outsiders.”
I visualized open land with sporadic, crumbling cabins occupied by gun-toting survivalists. But it’s public domain, supported by tax money, and I had a right to it too. So on the last day of April, I packed my Ford Escape with my sleeping bag, Kelty Gunnison tent, and cooler filled with sandwiches, breakfast and a few Bud Lites and headed north, shrugging off everyone’s cautionary words.
Admittedly, the drive north on Florida’s route 25 isn’t the most pleasant trip into America’s wilderness. Gone are the stucco homes with manicured lawns and special garages just for golf carts. In their place appear one ramshackle mobile home park after another, miles of them, complete with Confederate flags waving in the breeze. Trash piles up in the back yards. Plastic toys litter the driveways. Old cars stand on blocks. Muck smears the aluminum siding. Barefoot children, barely moving out of the way for oncoming vehicles, skip down roads that look as if they had been through a harsh northern winter.
This is the turf of native rural Floridians. The variety who actually have southern accents.
I followed the female voice on my GPS, winding passed communities called Weirsdale and Ocklawaha, none of which had any practical facilities for food or gas. Despite the unattractive homes, the lush native palm trees, magnolias laden with full white blooms and pine trees allow some beauty—and shade.
Once across the forest boundary, the high I always experience whenever traveling through America’s backcountry rushed to my head. This was no different from what I had felt in the more rugged regions of Montana, Colorado, or even Alaska. A sense of timeless wonder that follows me into the wilderness affected me in this 380,000-acre central Florida forest too. Now, instead of trailer parks, dense covers of scrub pine and palm trees abutted the road.
After paying the hefty camp fee of $23 and some change, I parked at the natural swimming pool, the star attraction for most of the area’s visitors. That day the air temperature was in the mid 90s, so at a temperate 73-year-round-degrees, the pool invited people to jump in, although most were dangling their feet off the sides. The swimming hole, fed by one of four natural springs in the forest with the aid of an old mill, is what I had expected—a local hangout providing a break from the humidity. Smoke from charcoal fires and the aroma of grilling hamburgers and hot dogs filled the air. Tattooed teenagers gathered by the pool or sat on picnic tables chatting and smoking cigarettes. But no alcohol consumption at the pool. “We reserve the right to inspect coolers,” posted signs warn.
Everywhere I looked, greenery overwhelmed my senses. A large swath of emerald scrub and sand pines reach for the sun along with palm trees that grow in their natural environment. Shrub palms and ferns layer the ground and add to the verdant abundance. The pool reflects this rich flora.
I wandered down the tree-canopied path to the store-slash-canoe launch where I spoke with a forest ranger about boating. Again, the steep cost, $33 per rental to kayak or canoe 7.3 miles of Juniper Creek through pure subtropical foliage, seemed more than I’d want to pay despite the ideal setting. “The creek is real low,” the ranger said. “It’s the drought. Never seen it this bad. It’s a shame.” Wood fires had been banned since April 13, but she confessed her superiors were having an impromptu meeting at that moment about banning any kind of smoking tobacco products and even the use of charcoal fires or propane stoves too. “It’s a shame,” she said again.
Drought had also affected my parents’ home 26 miles south. They live along a man-made pond, and water was so low when I’d left, the black tarp that lines the bottom was beginning to show. But at Juniper Springs, the hot and arid conditions failed to diminish the rich, verdant foliage.
“We’ve been having more than a few bear visits,” the ranger said before I turned to leave. I had already taken note of the black bear and alligator advisories posted throughout the area. “You’ll see some young alligators along the trails, too. The mothers are out there keeping a close eye,” she emphasized. “They come out into the open mostly at night though.” Considering I was camping, I was unsure if I should take that as a comfort.
I set up camp on Loop 35 to 60, again taken back by the lush surroundings, and explored the connecting trails. The Juniper Creek Trail meanders through a scrub forest of ferns and palms until it let me out at the famous springs, where it makes a small loop. Limestone deposits make the water look almost neon. I saw no bears, but turtles of all sizes sunbathed on logs and rocks and alligators were visible resting at the bottom of the clear shallow pool.
Standing on the plank footbridge, I counted three four- to five-footers. They remained still, almost as if they were artificial. Then I noticed motion in the water. Perfect circular geysers bubbled up from the sandy bottom. Directly under the bridge was a spring about the circumference of a hot tub.
A family of four wandered barefoot and in bathing suits down the trail leading from the swimming area and crowded around me.
“Hi there,” the woman I assumed was the mother said. I turned to her and smiled with a hello.
The children, preoccupied with the alligators, seemed to have missed the huge bubbling action under the bridge, so I pointed it out to them. The boy, wearing a baggy Stars and Stripes bathing suit, grew excited. “Look, Mom!” he shouted, nearly tumbling over the side.
“Watch yourself,” the mother said with a laugh and shake of her head.
He then pointed out a fourth alligator on the bank slightly concealed by shrub palms. “They don’t even care about us being here,” he said with a southern drawl. “Just look at them snoozing away.”
“They’re enjoying the water just like we were to get out of this heat,” the mom said.
“His mama might not be so laid-back,” the man who was probably the father said, as he looked around. I noticed on his back many tattoos, the largest a bald eager carrying in its talons what looked like daggers.
But there was no sign of the mother alligator he and the ranger had warned about.
Observing the prehistoric-looking creatures more up-close than I had before made me realize that nothing smart would mess with them, even one only three feet, even if mama was long gone. The adolescent girl told me that they had never seen so many alligators at Juniper Springs, and her family came often for the recreation, especially the swimming hole. We concluded the lack of rain was making them more noticeable in the low water. She repeated our theory to her parents, who agreed.
They headed back to the swimming hole with polite goodbyes and I explored more of the trail system. About a quarter of the trails are on boardwalk. Unfortunately many were posted as closed due to unspecified reasons. Juniper Springs Creek Trail only permitted me to venture about a mile in before I ran into a gate.
I followed another trail and wounded up in the tent-only campground. It looked designed more for large parties than the private, individual sites on the other two loops. The entire area is well-shaded but has scarce ground vegetation. It was difficult to decipher the trail from the dirt loop road and site driveways.
The 1,200-mile Florida National Scenic Trail that traverses the entire state also winds through Juniper Springs Recreation Area. Being an avid backpacker most of my life, I envisioned one day hiking at least part of it. Instead of strenuous switchbacks in the mountains, wading across swamps and creeks would be the hikers’ biggest challenges here.
Back at my campsite, I enjoyed the relaxation of the post-hike comfys as my body temperature lowered. But there was none of the typical chilling off effect. The steamy heat continued unabated into the early evening. I looked forward to the occasional thick cloud that gave a break from the harsh sun. The swift breeze was also welcome. I waited eagerly for the sun to dip farther behind the dense foliage.
Because of the campfire ban, I crawled into my tent earlier than I would have, as soon as I finished dinner about the time the sun fell out of sight. I made sure to open all the tent flaps to let air circulate. Nonetheless, I tossed and turned throughout the night. But the heat had less to do with my fitful sleep than the noise. Traffic from Florida’s route 40 was worse than my fear of Mama Alligator or a bear paying a midnight visit. With light from my cell phone screen filling the tent, I checked the map and realized my site was less than 300 yards from the road. Although only one lane in each direction, route 40 is a major east-west thruway between Ocala and Daytona Beach on the Atlantic coast. Engine breaks, apparently, are not prohibited, even in the middle of the night.
The rumble of traffic partially tarnished my experience, but it could not undermine the lush tropical scenery each of the campsites provide. It wasn’t the most rustic or remote of my national forest experiences, but it’s certainly worth a day trip if not an overnighter in the campground. Next time I would stay in Loop 1 to 34, farther north, to avoid the vehicle noise.
And as far as the gun-toting rednecks? The family I met on the footbridge was full of that southern trait known worldwide. Charm. What their houses might lack in Better Homes and Gardens appeal, the residents make up in personality. I’ve always thought the natives of central Florida, although they may not look the part, could hold court and sweep royalty off their feet. Barefoot and in patriotic bathing suits and tattoos, they converse better than most people with three times the income and education. They were as laid-back and non-confrontational as the alligators.