Spectacular crystal clear water, gorgeous flowers, a relaxing stroll/hike through oak hammocks, and a couple hours in a canoe watching otters play as well as admiring birds, fish, and turtles - all this and more can be experienced at Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon, Florida.
We stumbled upon Rainbow Springs State Park more or less by accident. All we had been looking for was a place to camp from which we could easily make our trip to snorkel with the manatees... we got that - and a whole lot more. (By the way, it's a 50 minute drive from the campground to Air Tank Diver's shop in case you're planning a trip yourself. See my separate journal entry for that highly recommended experience.)
It was our last day in Florida... and we weren't sure what to do. Another dive? We thought about it - almost did it too (in the Rainbow River) - but opted instead for a quiet and relaxing day. We're here at the park, so... why not explore the park? Admission was free if you're camping (and a whopping $1/person if you're not), so it was in line with our goal of a vacation without a lot of expense. It turned out to be a superb decision.
To begin with a little history and facts... Rainbow Springs used to be a small private Florida attraction dating back to the 1930s. In general, Florida has more natural springs than any other state (a new trivia fact for us), and some of these springs were developed to capture the early tourist dollar. Rainbow Springs is one of the largest springs the state has - with literally crystal-clear water (measured horizontal sight distance of 244 ft!), so it was an ideal choice. Developers added a swimming area, small waterfalls, trails, amusement attractions, and literally thousands of flowers - especially azaleas (which are at their peak in Feb and March - right as we were there). However, a certain famous mouse opened a BIG amusement park not far from here, so doom came to the springs in the 1970s and it closed.
Enter the Florida Park system in the 1990s... remove the rides and caged animals, refurbish the rest (some of this is still ongoing), and reopen to tourists allowing access to the water and trails. What do you get? A mostly non-crowded beautiful "escape" to "old" paradise - EXACTLY what we were looking for.
Note to those reading... we were there on a Friday in the middle of Feb. Crowds are probably larger on weekends - and perhaps in the summer. However, the day we were there, I'm guessing there were less than 50 people total in the park - and that might include the workers. Some retired folks were walking the trails and admiring the views. A couple younger folks brought their kids to swim. A handful of each rented canoes in the afternoon. Other than us... that was it. We were truly loving our escape.
So, what do you DO? Well, there's the swimming hole... a section near the headwaters of the spring that's roped off for swimming. The water is roughly 72 degrees year round and 5 - 15 feet deep (though the clearness of it makes it LOOK 2 - 3 feet deep - a remarkable sight even for non-swimmers). Some hardy folks were swimming. We enjoyed the underwater view to the bottom from above with no snorkeling necessary.
We had canoeing in mind, so set off for that. There was no line at all in the morning. Signs are posted telling folks it gets more crowded after lunch. We rented two canoes ($55 total for two hours) - divided up - and set off down the river. Kayaks are also an option to rent.
At first we paddled, then we allowed ourselves to drift downstream. Along the way, take the time to see nature as she really is. It's super easy in the clear water to see fish, turtles, and the variations in the bottom. Among the cypress trees on the riverbanks we quizzed ourselves on the tropical birds we saw and looked for more turtles sunning themselves. We looked for gators, but didn't see any. Ditto that for snakes. We did find otters - 3 of them - they swam along the bank parallel with us, then found their shoreline "spot" to hop out of the water and play - perhaps foraging too. In all of our travels, this was our first time seeing wild otters really up close and for a long time period. Eventually we turned around and paddled back to explore some more of the park. This is an activity that can be suitable for all ages - as long as young children have the attention span for it.
Lunch was next... they have a small concession stand there - carrying the basics for really reasonable prices - and again - no line. Picnic areas abound if you bring your own food. There's a small visitor center and a gift shop as well (a stuffed otter came home with us).
Then we're hikers... so off to the trails. Close to the entrance you pass the man-made waterfalls and small pools, all set in really pretty settings. You also go by the headwaters to the spring. Stop and look carefully and you can see where the water is percolating up through the sand - and it's all natural - coming from a large underground aquifer.
Continuing on, back where they used to have amusement attractions, the state is now setting up a native plant garden. Plants that are there are all named to take the guesswork out of wondering what is what. Beyond this is a trail through the oak hammocks and past some old phosphate pits that used to be the source of the town's boom days. More history on that is available in town. All in all, it's a quiet walk in the woods - 2 1/2 miles round trip from the visitor center - closer than that if you merely want to go to the native plant garden.
Dogs (on leashes) are allowed here. Swimming is allowed in the enclosed area of the headwaters - and beyond a certain point in the river (depicted by a sign). Some folks bring snorkels and opt to snorkel part of the canoe trip. If you want to do this - you NEED a dive flag - rentals available with the canoe/kayak.
We also camped here - but a BIG note - the campground is NOT with the actual park even though both are part of the same entity. By car, they're 6 miles apart. Along the river it's 1 1/2 miles. Large areas of the campground were also under construction while we were there, so look on the website, www.floridastateparks.org/rainbowsprings for updates.
What I can tell you... spots #1 - 35 (the only ones open when we were there) are obviously meant for RV's - though they let anyone camp there including us tenters. All of these spots have water and electric - some have sewer, too. What they don't have is shade or privacy - absolutely none - so, if you're tenting... either check out the areas that were under construction for better options or pick an edge spot to have some semblance of a tenter's campground.
As for other things at the campground? There were nice hot showers, nice laundry facilities, a rec room with a reading area, game area, TV, and computer, and a swimming pool. There was also a very small store, but shopping for groceries in nearby Dunnellon is easy. When construction is done, you're also able to rent canoes/kayaks, etc, right from the campground or bring your own. A couple trails will be available as well.
We saw an armadillo at night along the woods - and our neighbors unwittingly left their cooler out overnight - feeding the local raccoons. Keep food secure. Ground grills are provided, so bring firewood - or buy it there. Cost was a mere $20/night. Reservations are definitely recommended and like all Florida State Parks, are available through reserveamerica.com
All in all, we highly enjoyed our last couple days in this area - relaxing - and enjoying our time with nature. If you're looking for the simple enjoyment of life - perhaps this spot is also for you.