It’s not too late to enjoy one of Authentic Florida’s favorite getaways!
Shimmering shades of aqua blues and emerald greens reflect above and below the crystal clear water. I glance down to the white sandy bottom with patches of river grass as I quietly paddle under a thick green canopy of Sabal palms and shady, moss-covered oak trees.
Central Florida’s Rainbow Springs State Park, located near Ocala, three miles north of Dunnellon, is home to the river’s headspring, which feeds into one of the most beloved waterways in the state. The Rainbow River has enjoyed a reputation as a scenic and popular playground since opening in the 1930s as a family-owned amusement park. Years later, in 1990, the spring was purchased by the State of Florida to later become part of the Florida State Park System.
Florida has many rivers–ranging from salty to muddy, and from clear and fresh to dark and tannic–but Rainbow Springs River, the fourth largest in Florida and a tributary of the Withlacoochee River, could be undoubtedly called Florida’s natural swimming pool. The white sandy bottom lies between areas of smooth limestone creating a “pool” like effect. But here you will share the water with turtles as they sunbathe on fallen logs, herons and white ibis feeding along the riverbank.
Children and adults float downstream in inner tubes, or whatever objects will best serve as floatation devices, often stopping to jump off ropes tied to overhanging tree limbs. Slow-moving boats glide by, but no one is in a hurry to get anywhere. The gentle current of the river dictates the pace as smaller springs bubble up and feed into the river creating plenty of areas to get out and swim.
The Rainbow Springs State Park
Situated on U.S. 41, Rainbow Springs has a rich history as one of state’s most popular “Old Florida” tourist attractions. Once populated by prehistoric mastodons and later Native Americans who settled nearby using the waterway for transportation and fishing, it later experienced a heyday as a phosphate mining community.
By the 1970s, “real” Florida attractions, including Rainbow Springs, began losing appeal and closing down as newer theme parks and an interstate highway system diverted traffic away. Concerned citizens led an effort to save and preserve the 1,470-acre park and the State of Florida reopened Rainbow Springs as a state park in 1995. Today, admission to the park at the headsprings is just $2 per person.
While at the Park
As you enter Rainbow Springs, signs will direct you to the entrance to the ranger’s office. Be sure to ask for a map and take time for the walking tour. Shady, fern-lined, hilly pathways with scenic vistas lead to elaborate, luscious green gardens, older (manmade) waterfalls and a roped swimming hole for those seeking a refreshing 72-degree dip. Walkways lead out to the river where there are plenty of areas for picnicking.
Many Floridians recount the earlier park amusement days of glass bottom boats that toured down river as well as the Leaf Ride Monorail, a system that transported visitors through the treetops. As you follow the walkways, you will see the historical remnants of a zoo and even a rodeo arena.
There is also an outdoor butterfly garden which alone is worth the price of admission. Volunteers have done an amazing job of planting a wide variety of plants that attract many species of butterflies and is certainly one of the best butterfly gardens I have ever seen.
Kayaking/Tubing the Rainbow Springs River
Here you have several options. One choice is to rent a kayak/canoe (tubes are not available) at the Rainbow Springs Park–but note that since the current moves from the park headspring downstream, the paddle down river will later become a paddle back up river.
So, here’s my recommended alternative. Begin your travels outside the state park at the Marion County KP Hole Park, a five-minute drive from Rainbow Springs and an ideal launching spot for kayakers and tubers. Rental equipment and tubes are available there. From KP Hole, the easy one-and-a-half mile, one-hour upstream paddle to the state park will land you at the kayak/canoe landing area where you will find restrooms, a picnic area, the main swimming hole and picnic tables. If you start early, you’ll catch some shade on the east side. So, doing the work up front, followed by a slow cruise back downstream, will be a fun ride.
The river is dotted with homes on one side and the state park on the other. While floating along you’ll be with others – paddlers, boaters, snorkelers and, in the winter, manatees in search of warmer water. Alligators may be present but they won’t bother you, preferring to avoid people.
If you wish, you can go directly to KP Hole Park where inner tubes can be rented for $5 (which includes the return shuttle ride) for a three-and-a-half-mile, four-hour downstream ride, but in the opposite direction of the state park. Tubers slowly drift down the river to Blue Run Park and get out there, where the shuttle returns tubers to KP Hole.
You’ll love this authentic Florida park–packed with history, natural beauty and recreation–all in one scenic package.