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Rainbow Springs State Park: Florida’s magical back-country getaway

Rainbow Springs State Park: Florida’s magical back-country getaway

Rainbow Springs State Park is just like it sounds: rainbowy and beautiful. One of the lesser known state parks due to its off-the-beaten-path location, it’s worth planning an adventure to visit. We love hitting up our favorite Florida springs for manatees and swimming in the summer, and Rainbow Springs is at the top of that list.

So much of what we share is National Park-centric, but we’ve really come to love Florida’s state parks, and some, like this, contain some of the most beautiful sights we’ve ever seen.  Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon, Florida is the type of place you’ve seen in fantasy movies or whimsical paintings.  Seriously pretty beyond pretty.  And it’s so much fun for a visit too!

Rainbow Springs State Park is one of the prettiest places in Florida. Everything you need to know for planning a visit, including kayaking, swimming, trails and more. Perfect Gulf Coast spring destination!

When you do a Florida Gulf Coast road trip you’ll see some pretty incredible sights, from manatees in Crystal River to fiddler crab colonies in Fort Myers Beach, but nothing is quite like Rainbow Springs State Park.  Being the headwaters of the Rainbow River, you know it’s bound to be beautiful and a bit magical.

Where is Rainbow Springs State Park

About an two hours north of Tampa and St Petersburg or an hour and a half from Orlando, Rainbow Springs State Park is easy to add to either a Florida road trip or a visit to the Tampa Bay or Disney World areas.  You get to drive through the rural parts of the lush Florida back country and check out some small towns along the way.

In the same relative area are Homosassa Springs State Park and Crystal River, both with some remarkable sights (aka manatees!).  Each of these spots also has its own spring, just like Rainbow Springs State Park, providing the some of the most beautiful, clear water you can imagine.  You won’t be aching for activities when you’re planning your visit to any of these places, for sure.  Heck, you can even incorporate a visit to the beach really easily!

Map of Rainbow Springs State Park Florida

Things to do at Rainbow Springs State Park

Being one of Florida’s “attraction” parks, you’ll find all kinds of things to do at Rainbow Springs State Park. If you’re visiting with a larger group, you can even book up one of the picnic shelters for doing a barbeque or party to add to the fun.  Here are the other activities that’ll make for an awesome time.

Taylor Family in Rainbow River at Rainbow Springs State Park 4

Swimming at Rainbow Springs State Park

Yep, you totally can go swimming at the headspring itself. Rainbow Springs is pretty amazing when you consider how clear and blue the water is.  There are designated swimming areas to protect the natural, beautiful phenomena of Rainbow Springs, but the experience isn’t compromised at all.  There is even a warning upon heading into the water that despite the rocky river bed looking exceptionally shallow, due to the clarity of the water it’s much much deeper than you think.

Baby feet in Crystal Clear water at Rainbow Springs State Park 1

We really loved sitting on the swimming platform and jumping in repeatedly.  It kind of felt like we were teenagers again…except we had the kids with us in their floaties, also having a blast!  

Note:  even though the waters of Rainbow Springs State Park look very similar to many of the springs and geysers you see in Yellowstone National Park, these (and Crystal and Homosassa) are cool water and non-sulphuric.  That’s one reason you can swim here and you CAN’T SWIM in Yellowstone’s springs.  Blue Spring State Park is another awesome spring to visit but it’s on the Atlantic side by Daytona Beach and Saint Augustine.

Tip:  if you choose to head down river beyond the designated swimming area be aware that there are some varieties of snakes that you make encounter, as well as alligators.  The Rainbow River does have gators in it, so swim with caution.

Taylor Family at Rainbow Springs Florida State Park 2

Kayaking and SUP on the Rainbow River

While there are lots of ways to get on the water near Rainbow Springs State Park, when you’re actually visiting the Park your options are slightly more limited.  Within the sate park you can rent canoes, kayaks and stand up paddleboards (SUP).  Canoeing on the river is a great way to explore beyond the immediate area of the Rainbow Springs, including a variety of mellow oxbow lakes and shallow shores.  

Note:  there are age restrictions to the passengers in boats rented from the state park.  The current age limit begins at three years old, so plan appropriately.

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If you’d like to paddle into Rainbow Springs State Park from downriver, that’s an option too and you can use your own equipment for that or rent it.  The closest access you’ll find for this is at K.P. Hole, which is also a vendor for rentals.  They can provide information and services to actually explore the underwater caverns of the Rainbow River, similar to the water source at Rainbow Springs.  

When you visit Rainbow Springs State Park and the Rainbow River you can plan to float the river with a guide.  Lots of locals will tell you that this is the best way to experience the Rainbow Springs State Park area, including snorkeling in the river to explore the underwater caverns.  

Tip:  rental information from the private approved concessionaire located within State Park boundaries available here.

Crystal Clear water with Kayakers at Rainbow Springs State Park 2

Clear Kayaking at Rainbow River and the Springs

Yes! There are actually clear kayak tours that you can book to explore the Rainbow River. This is one of the best spots for clear kayaking on the Florida Gulf Coast. Putting in at KP Hole and paddling upstream navigating the Rainbow River in a clear kayak gives you a totally different view of the underwater world.

Book Rainbow River Clear Kayaking here!

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Trails at Rainbow Springs State Park

We mentioned that Rainbow Springs State Park is one of Florida’s “attraction” parks.  Once upon a time in the 1920s the area that’s now the State Park was built up to showcase more than the incredible Rainbow Springs.  

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Rainbow Springs Waterfall Trail

Quarrying stone from the surrounding area, an entire waterfall park was created.  With three different cascades and a few more babbling brooks all surrounded by lush vegetation and winding paths, today the waterfalls make for a nice stroll to cool off between picnics and swimming.

Note: as of March 2022 there is only one waterfall that’s fully operational. Hopefully the Rainbow Springs waterfall trail will be back to its full glory soon!

Lush Waterfall Garden at Rainbow Springs State Park 2

Rainbow Springs Zoo Ruins

You read that correctly. Part of the old attraction park was a large zoo that has since gone out of commission. Most of the cages have been removed, but the stone and concrete structures that once houses bears and lions still stand. Much of the zoo ruins are covered in vegetation now, but if you’re into unusual and slightly creepy sights, you’ll love the Zoon Ruins trail at Rainbow Springs State Park.

Zoo Ruins at Rainbow Springs State Park Dunnellon Florida 2b

More Trails and Sights at Rainbow Springs

Continuing on past the waterfalls and zoo ruins is a whole collection of trails.  There is a boardwalk to take you over to one of the head-water areas, a loop to guide you through more of the ruins of the zoo that used to exist, hiking paths through the subtropical forest, and a sustainable butterfly garden.  We loved exploring the quiet, overlooked part of Rainbow Springs State Park and the kids loved spotting cardinals and butterflies.  The whole park is just the coolest.

Taylor Family on Trail System at Rainbow Springs State Park 3

Picnicking at Rainbow Springs State Park

There is a ton of open grassy area for enjoying a picnic at Rainbow Springs State Park. There are also both covered and exposed picnic tables throughout the park. You’ll find designated picnic spots on the grassy hill, by the swimming platform, in the butterfly garden area and in the group picnic shelter area.

The best spots for a picnic are the grassy area and by the swimming platform, as these have the best views and most direct access to the restroom facilities.

Tip:  if the picnic areas directly next to the springs are full or crowded, the trail areas also have picnic tables and lawns.

Picnic Area at Rainbow Springs State Park Dunnellon Florida Keys 1

Where to stay at Rainbow Springs

You have a few options in the Rainbow Springs area when it comes to over-nighting.  We opted for a nice stay at the Plantation on Crystal River.  It’s a very nice hotel directly on Crystal River with lots of great amenities that are perfect for kids, from a nice pool to lawn games.  And they have their own dive company for getting to experience the manatees.

There area several camping areas outside of the the state park, and if you head up the Gulf Coast a little, you’ll come to some sleepy beach towns that make for a nice transition to a Florida Panhandle trip.

Crystal Clear water at Rainbow Springs State Park 1

Camping at Rainbow Springs State Park

If you’re camping, you can actually stay at Rainbow Springs State Park itself.  We have never gotten to due to never booking a reservation far enough in advance, but with the proper planning, staying either at the State Park or one of the privately owned RV campgrounds are good camping options.  The town of Crystal River also has some more RV camping and hotel choices if you would prefer to have a home-base in a larger town than Dunnellon.  You’ll figure out what works for you based on your other travel plans and every place’s availability.

Tip:  Florida State Parks’ campgrounds fill up quickly and far in advance.  Give yourself at least six weeks lead time to ensure you get to camp where you like.  You may be able to secure a site with less advance notice, but it’s unlikely.

True, you might not have been planning to go so far north or so remote on your Florida road trip, but visiting Rainbow Springs State Park is totally worth it.  You’ll be wowed by the color, awed but the overall beauty, and bummed to return to city life after seeing this otherworldly place.  Make the time to visit; you’ll be so glad you did!

And feel free to pin this for later for when you’re planning your own Florida family road trip!

Rainbow Springs State Park is one of the prettiest places in Florida. Everything you need to know for planning a visit, including kayaking, swimming, trails and more. Perfect Gulf Coast spring destination!

Keesha

Thursday 14th of April 2022

Visited the park last Sunday was very very disappointed that it was not at all marked, as for any of the facilities Just seen more reading just now then actually being there. My husband and I are both seniors and needed a restroom which we couldn't find. Would have loved to see what I didn't see.

2td-admin

Thursday 14th of April 2022

I'm so sorry that was your experience. Our experiences have been very different from that. I know the park is undergoing some updates, particularly in terms of the waterfall paths and non-spring areas. Hopefully it'll be fixed up more and better suited for all guests soon.

Your name

Friday 21st of September 2018

When did you go and did you see a lot of manatees on the trip?

2td-admin

Friday 21st of September 2018

We have been in January, February and April. The most manatees were for sure in January. It's kind of amazing!

Robin Kublick

Friday 18th of August 2017

It is a beautiful park. A couple of points...1. The water is 72 degrees, year round, so chilly!!!! 2.You can bring a "noodle" into the park, but not other floats.3. Go on a week day and there won't be as many people, once the park reaches capacity, it shuts down and weekends are crazy busy! 4. It's only $2 per person and parking is free. But it's a bit of a walk to the entrance, but sooooo worth it!

2td-admin

Sunday 20th of August 2017

Great tips and info. Regarding the water temp, for us being from the PNW, anything over 60 degrees feels warm to us, so the 72 degrees was like bath water. Blue Spring was also wonderfully refreshing, and it seemed like there were fewer people over there.

Crazynegrins

Wednesday 5th of July 2017

This place looks like fun! Thank you for the details and ideas. Hoping to visit soon with my family. My boys like to fish… did you guys see any fishing areas in the park??

James

Tuesday 30th of May 2017

The water looks gorgeous! So clean and clear. Must also be a great fishing spot.

2td-admin

Tuesday 30th of May 2017

We saw people heading out in kayaks with poles down river some. Blue Springs outside of Daytona had HUGE gar.