Rainbow Springs, FL
Beat the heat in one of Florida’s best-cultivated freshwater spring parks
By E. Adam Porter
People have been returning to what is now Rainbow Springs State Park for 10,000 years. One trip and it’s easy to see why. You could put a picture of the park in the dictionary next to “idyllic” and no one could argue. To say this nearly 1500-acre natural wonder is unique and unexpected is to indulge in understatement.
You may anticipate the crystal clear freshwater springs and the shady natural surround, but the mixture of natural headspring, meandering river and gently cultivated gardens washes over you with surprises at every turn.
The hiking trails lead to misty waterfalls, where you can pause for portraits that end up in frames.
An easy sidewalk ramp to the observation tower offers guests an ideal vantage point to view wildlife and the falls. That handicap-friendly ramp is an especially nice touch, offering views typically reserved for the younger or more ambulatory.
Stroll the brick trails beneath the shade of overhanging branches. Up the hill at the café families snack on cheeseburgers and kids excitedly lick ice cream from fingers, pruney from a refreshing swim in the 72-degree spring.
The depth at the steps leading into the spring gets deep quickly, so if your young ‘uns aren’t great swimmers, vests or other swim assisters is a must.
HISTORY OF RAINBOW SPRINGS
When Europeans first “discovered” the headsprings in the 1500s, a native people called the Timucua were already well established here. The nearby city of Ocala is named for a chief of this tribe, Ocale. Over the next three centuries the armies and pioneers of three nations claimed ownership. By the late 1800’s there were only 75 permanent residents. In the 1920’s the spring was converted into a natural theme park luring tourists and locals alike. A zoo, rodeo, monorail and gondolas were added. Eventually, when larger theme parks enticed the clientele, Rainbow Springs was closed. It reopened in the 1990’s – absent the contrived attractions – as a state park.
Rainbow Springs, like most other state parks is a great multi-disciplinary learning opportunity. We practiced reading maps and compasses, as well as spotting and naming wildlife and plants.
The park is a Florida naturalist’s dream. One can expect to see otters, turtles, fish, alligators and wading birds in and along the river. On hikes, you may encounter gopher tortoises, pine snakes and fox squirrels. Keeping a good pocket-sized field guide on hand is a good idea. It will help you identify which animals are safe and which may be potentially dangerous.
Climbing the stone “steps” can be great fun.
WHAT TO DO @ RAINBOW SPRINGS
IMPORTANT: The campground, tubing entrance and headsprings (park) entrance are 3 separate locations.
Visit without convenient transportation and you may become quickly frustrated. Access to the campground is restricted to registered campers, but anyone can access the headwater springs and the tubing area.
My sons and I pausing for a picture in front of the headspring swimming area
THE HEADWATERS SPRING
19158 S.W. 81st Place Road, Dunnellon, Florida 34432
- Ranger guided park tours
- Nature trail hikes offer a close up look at Florida’s sandhill and oak hammock environments. Trails are roughly 3 miles long.
- Snorkeling trips
- Canoe and kayak trips (call ahead for availability, which has been hit or miss recently)
- Picnic down by the springs in a shaded pavilion or under the trees with a blanket tossed down in the grass
- Cool off in the headwater springs, always 72 degrees
- In the springtime, stroll the gardens and enjoy the blooming azaleas
18185 SW 94th Street Dunnellon, FL 34432
The day we visited the campground groups of children took turns invading the nicely appointed gift shop to fill their pockets with sweets before heading off down the trail on their bikes. The scene had all the joy of summer in the early spring. Yet another reason to love it here. Then there was the guy in the gorilla suit. He looked funny cruising the campground on his bicycle, and the thought of him relaxing on an inner tube was downright hilarious.
- Swim in the river
- Fish from the dock
- Launch a canoe or kayak or tube down the river
- Picnic pavilions and children’s playground
The tube Entrance is located 1.4 miles south of the campground Entrance on SW 180th Avenue Road. Bring your tube, sunscreen and your best relaxed grin. You can also rend a tube on site. Fees, schedules and availability vary. In the summer, come early. Seriously…come early.