How could anyone resist an invitation to a spot called Rainbow Springs? Certainly not us, especially once we learned that tubing on a spring-fed river was involved. So we recently loaded up the SUV and headed northwest to Rainbow Springs State Park in near Dunnellon in Marion County — despite a weather forecast of a 60 percent chance of rain. (We learned long ago never to base our outdoor plans in Central Florida on what might happen weatherwise.)
It was a pleasant almost-two-hour drive from Orlando, and we all delighted in the rolling hills scattered with brown, white and spotted cows. The nearer we got to our destination, the more we noticed the landscape’s resemblance to my husband’s home state of Kansas. Definitely a change of scenery!
Rainbow Springs State Park has two equally exciting attractions: the Rainbow River and the headsprings. Our first stop was the campground area, where my parents were staying just a stone’s throw from the Rainbow River. We followed the path to the river to find the rental truck. For $11 each, we got oversized tubes for our slow, two-hour float trip down the glistening river. (The price also includes a tram ride back to your car.) The twins brought their own child-sized tubes (it was still $11 each for their tram ride — boo!), and my husband and stepson rented a kayak ($11 per person for two hours — yay!)
We plopped into our tubes, a tricky task with a crowd and a current, and shivered in the 72-degree water. Then we took off on our river adventure, the twins, at first, clinging a bit frightened to my and my parents’ tubes. My husband did a bit of fishing from his kayak.
We floated blissfully for half an hour or so, and the sun even peeked through the thick clouds making the nippy water feel more rewarding. Then my mother saw something float behind us in the river. “What is that?” she asked me. I looked and then turned back to my mom and said “Oh, that’s exactly what you think it is.”
Yep, an alligator. And it wasn’t the only one we saw on our adventure. But they left us (and everyone else) alone. We kept a wide berth from the grassy areas where they like to lurk. I spotted two gators during the float, but my hubby in the kayak saw many more. (NOTE: When I got home I Googled “Rainbow River alligator attacks” and was relieved to find that there haven’t been any reported.)
Other wildlife was out in droves: blue herons, turtles and grommets. And we had a front-row seat in our tubes.
We also saw paddle-boarders and boaters, gorgeous river-front homes and brave teenagers jumping into the river from a tree swing.
After our tubing trip, we made drove about six miles over the headsprings, which features a swim area, kayak and canoe rentals, waterfalls, picnic areas and abundant room for some R&R. Admission to the headsprings is $2 per person (unless you’re camping, then it’s free). Thick, dark afternoon clouds had rolled in, and with them, thunder. And that meant no swimming. Instead we explored the gorgeous grounds and then called it a day.
As a parting treat, this little family of deer peeked out from the woods to check us out as we drove from the park.
IF YOU GO: If you want to camp, make your plans well in advance, especially if you’re hoping to visit on a holiday. Florida state parks take reservations 11 months in advance but usually hold a few sites open for drop-ins. In the spring, the park is aglow with the pinks and purples of azaleas in bloom. Bring a snorkel and mask to check out the underwater life in the springs. There’s a concession stand at the headsprings, but you’re also welcome to bring snacks and drinks with you. There’s no fee to enter the park, but swimming and tubing cost extra. Address: 19158 S.W. 81st Place Road, Dunnellon. Phone: 352-465-8555