Rainbow Springs State Park
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
A Slice of Pure Florida
Rainbow Springs is rich in natural beauty and a rich source of freshwater. Rainbow Springs is the fourth largest spring in Florida based on volume of discharge. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Rainbow Springs is a first-magnitude spring which means the spring discharges more than 400 million gallons of water per day. The spring discharge comes from several vents along the first mile of the run instead of one large vent like most springs. Rainbow River is 5.7 miles long and empties into the Withlacoochee River.
“The day-use headsprings offers a variety of activities including swimming, snorkeling, paddling (kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, canoeing), sunbathing, picnicking, birding, and hiking.”
Rainbow River is a designated National Natural Landmark, a Florida aquatic preserve, and an Outstanding Florida Water. Twenty-three species of fish live in the river. Another very interesting fact is that archaeological evidence shows that humans have been inhabiting the area and using the river for more than 10,000 years. In the 1920’s, the headspring area was developed as a tourist attraction with a glass bottom boat tours, waterfalls, botanical gardens, a zoo, a horse rodeo, and gift shops. However the park closed in the 1974 after the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971. After being unoccupied for almost two decades, the Florida Park Service opened Rainbow Springs as a state park in 1995.
Rainbow Springs State Park is located in Central Florida in the town of Dunnellon, west of Ocala and I-75. It is 1 ½ hours (90 miles) northwest of Orlando International Airport and 2 ½ hours (158 miles) north of Sarasota. The state park covers more than 1,470 acres and has 3 main entrances: the headsprings day use area, the tubing facilities, and the campground. Since the park is so large, you cannot walk between the different facilities. Each facility entrance has its own separate address:
Headsprings & Visitor Center: 19158 SW 81st Place Rd, Dunnellon, FL 34432
Campground: 18185 SW 94th Street, Dunnellon, FL 34432
Tubing Facility: 10830 SW 180th Avenue Road, Dunnellon, FL 34432
The day-use headsprings offers a variety of activities including swimming, snorkeling, paddling (kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, canoeing), sunbathing, picnicking, birding, and hiking. To view a short video highlighting all the activities at the headsprings, click here.
There is a canoe and kayak launch in the headsprings park. Visitors may launch privately owned kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes from the launch area. However, the launch is 1,800 feet (0.34 miles/0.55 km) from the parking area so be prepared to carry your equipment a long distance. If you don’t have your own equipment, you can rent canoes, paddle boards, and kayaks at the little shop within the park which is next to the launch site. The rentals are available by the hour or for the day. See the photo for rental rates. The launch and rental shop are located a very short walk (1 minute) from the swimming area. While paddling, you may see river otters as well as fish and a variety of birds. Also you will be amazed by the supreme clarity of the water.
The pure spring water is crystal clear; therefore, it is a special treat to snorkel in water so perfectly clear…just like glass. I’m not a fan of cold water and the springs are 72°F year round but I really wanted to check out the clarity of the springs. So I braved the frigid water and was NOT disappointed and found it very refreshing on a hot summer day. The water was so stunningly clear…it was like I wasn’t even underwater. Even though there are many species of fish living in the river, I only saw a few fish since they avoid noise. I enjoyed looking at the rocks, sandy bottom, and swimmers. Although snorkeling is permitted in the headsprings, it is only allowed in the buoyed swimming area.
The spring water is 72°F so some may find the cool temperature refreshing. My husband and I did a hike in the morning and worked up a sweat so we were looking forward to an invigorating dip in the cool water. It was more like chilly since it took my breath away when I first entered the water. There is a large wooden swimming dock about a foot above the water with two sets of ladders. There is also a set of wooden stairs to enter and exit the water. Besides a very small wading area for toddlers, the water is 5 – 18 feet deep. There is NO lifeguard on duty. Tubes and other inflatables are NOT allowed in the headsprings park and swim area but you can use life preservers and noodles. If you want to escape the sweltering Florida summer, then Rainbow Springs offers you a refreshing respite from the heat. So just jump in!
Tubing is NOT allowed within the headsprings area of the park. There is a separate section of the park for tubing. The tubing facility and rental place is located at 10830 SW 180th Avenue Road, which is 9 miles from the headsprings. Tube rental and shuttle service is $20. The fee is still $20 even if you have your own tube. The tubing facility has 70 parking spaces but due to the pandemic, the capacity is limited to 35 cars. The parking lot closes when the lot reaches 50% capacity. However, they re-open the lot to newcomers as tubers exit the tubing park. The state park employee told me that the tubing rental is very busy in the morning but gets quiet in the afternoon so it is easier to get into the tubing park in the afternoon. The last start time is 3:00 pm. In the future, I will put together a blog post about my tubing experience.
The park offers several walks and hikes throughout the headsprings area. A walkway starts at the Visitor Center and meanders through a lush landscape of native flora and flowering shrubs and plants. There is an abundance of azaleas which put on a spectacular show of blooms in the early spring. Following the walkway, you will pass three waterfalls. The gardens and waterfalls were created when the headsprings area was a private attraction. On the day we visited the first waterfall was dry which was a disappointment. However, the other two Rainbow Falls had water cascading down over 60 feet which was very picturesque. This walking path is made of a mix of brick, concrete, and asphalt surfaces so it provides easy accessibility. One wooden walkway leads you to a scenic overlook of the river. There are benches along the paved path allowing you to relax and enjoy the lovely scenery.
The trail continues to the Butterfly Garden which is not a cultivated, maintained garden but has been allowed to revert to its natural state. Continuing further you pass the area where the zoo and rodeo were once located and then the nature trails begin. There are 3 trails:
Yellow Trail: 1.73 miles
Blue Trail: 0.72 miles
White Trail: 1.96 miles
The trails are well marked and easy to follow. We decided to hike the Yellow Trail which starts off through as a quiet canopy of trees offering shade. The path was packed dirt. It was an easy stroll and so peaceful and serene. After about ¾ mile, the trail turned into a sandy path mostly without trees shading the trail so the hike was in the full sun. I recommend a hat and bring some water. In about another ¼ mile, the trail became overgrown and since I’m afraid of snakes and I couldn’t see the ground underneath my feet, I decided to turn around at this point. During the hike, we only passed two families so hiking the trails is a good way to be in nature without the crowds and to get in some healthy and soul rejuvenating forest bathing.
If you spend the entire day at the park, you and your friends or family may get hungry. Currently the concessions are closed so pack snacks, meals, and beverages. Make sure you and your children stay hydrated. There are picnic tables and grills which are available on a first come, first served basis. The picnic tables are uncovered so you may wish to bring an umbrella for shade. Personal chairs, tables, tents, and coolers are permitted; however, be prepared to carry your belongings a long distance from the parking lot (about 1/4 mile). There are covered pavilions which may be reserved in advance. There is a large grass lawn perfect for a picnic, sunbathing, and playing frisbee.
Bring your binoculars to get a closer look at a variety of birds. Red-shoulder hawks, swallowtail kites, barred owls, and wading birds call the area home.
Rainbow Springs State Park offers a campground with 54 sites for RVs, trailers, and tents including 8 designated ADA sites suitable for RVs and trailers.
Address: 18185 SW 94th Street, Dunnellon, FL 34432
I’m not into camping so my husband and I stayed at a hotel in Ocala. We spent the night at SpringHill Suites Ocala which is 20 miles (30 minutes) from the state park. I will be putting together a post about lodging and dining in Ocala.
Website: SpringHill Suites
Address: 4100 SW 40th Street, Ocala, Florida 34474
The headsprings is operating at reduced capacity. The park closes when 50% capacity is reached and does NOT reopen or allow new visitors in to the park even if the park is completely empty later in the day.
Capacity in the first week of August 2020
According to the park employee, on 8/4/20 and 8/5/20 the park was at capacity (50% of normal) at 11:00 am and the parking lot closed to new visitors at this point. The employee told me that the lot reaches capacity earlier on the weekends. We arrived at 10:10 am on 8/6/20 (Thursday) and the cordoned parking area was about 75% full.
If you leave the park in your car during the day, you cannot reenter the park unless you are a registered camper. However you have unrestricted access to your vehicle in the parking lot just be sure to obtain a receipt to show upon your return to the park kiosk. When we arrived in the morning, we left our picnic lunch and cooler in our car. We went out to the parking lot at lunchtime to retrieve our lunch. We only had to show our receipt to reenter the park.
The gift shop and concessions are closed. You are allowed to bring in your own food, drinks, coolers, chairs, umbrellas. No alcohol is permitted.
Headsprings Address: 19158 SW 81st Place Rd, Dunnellon, FL 34432
Hours: 8:00 am – 5 pm daily
Admission: $2 per person, children under 6 are free
*Exact change is required or you may use a debit or credit card
Free, paved parking lot
Economical entrance fee ($2/adult)
Canoe and kayak launch
Canoe and kayak rental
Uncovered picnic tables
Covered pavilions (may be reserved in advance)
Large grass lawn
Paved path to swim area and waterfalls
Benches in the shade
Rainbow Springs is an absolutely gorgeous first-magnitude spring in central Florida. The park offers a day full of beauty, fun, and adventure. Florida is rich in lovely gems like this state park so put it on your Florida Bucket List to experience a slice of Pure Florida.