Dunnellon’s Rainbow Springs: Then and Now
A roar filled the air. Torrents of water rushed over the moss-covered limestone rocks, a never-ending cascade into the pool below. Overflowing and spilling over another limestone rock barrier, the water cuts through channels in the earth in a furious race, past thickets of ferns and fronds before joining the river.
Waterfalls in Florida? You aren’t imagining things.
Florida’s Rainbow Springs State Park boasts three large waterfalls and several micro-falls tucked among the lush vegetation and seasonal blooms in the gardens around the headsprings of Dunnellon’s Rainbow River.
And although man-made, the historic falls, like the park, date back to the late 1930’s, and have become a part of the area’s history.
The History of Rainbow Springs Park
Long before Walt Disney World lured Florida visitors to Orlando, vacationing families stopped at smaller theme parks and attractions throughout the sunshine state. They tasted the waters at the Fountain of Youth, rode glass bottom boats at Silver Springs, watched mermaids perform in an underwater theater at Weeki Wachee and wandered the zoo of Homosassa Springs. And then there was Rainbow Springs.
Rainbow Springs, a privately owned nature park, opened to the public in 1939. Built around the sapphire waters of the Rainbow River headsprings, guests walked the trails that wound through blooming gardens and over bridges, past waterfalls and natural springs in a tropical paradise
Eager kids clutched their parent’s hands and descended into submarine-type cruise boats, where they could see the river and all its wonders beneath the surface at eye-level.
And even before people boarded the monorail to reach the Magic Kingdom, they rode the Leaf Ride, a monorail with leaf shaped gondolas that glided through the green canopy on the hillside and through an aviary at Rainbow Springs Park. Visitors lunched in the shade of a covered pavilion overlooking the river and took river paddle boat rides down the sparkling crystal-clear Rainbow River.
Through the years, the park changed hands. Attractions were added: animal enclosures for a small zoo and a rodeo demonstration area. Unfortunately, the ease of I-75 travel and the Florida Turnpike enticed visiting tourists down the more direct route to Orlando’s growing theme parks. The attractions in the small towns couldn’t compete and in 1974, Rainbow Springs Park shut its gates.
Friends of Rainbow Springs Rescue the Park
Rich in history, the area dates back to prehistoric times. Mastodon and mammoth fossils were found in the Rainbow River. Native Americans used the river for transport and food, leaving behind their arrowheads and stone tools.
Later, phosphate was mined from pits dug into the earth and the river served as transport waterway for the phosphate mining boomtown of Dunnellon & the smaller town Juliette.
The Rainbow river, used as a place for food, fresh water, and recreation, was- and still is- an important local resource. It was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1972 by the US Department of Interior.
The fresh water discharge from the springs around the spring head, about 400 million gallons of water daily, makes it the 4th largest spring system in Florida.
With those thoughts in mind, local citizens banded together forming the Friends of Rainbow Springs, a Citizen’s Support Organization. Their efforts helped to save the former Florida attraction from developers. The state of Florida purchased the park lands in 1990. With volunteer efforts, paths were cleared from years of overgrowth and neglect, waterfalls and ponds were repaired, and the park was restored to its natural glory.
Rainbow Springs State Park Today
Today Rainbow Springs State Park welcomes visitors from around the globe to explore the winding paths through blooming azaleas, wooden bridges over hidden spring boils, overlooks by the waterfalls and a boardwalk to the river.
A paved path weaves through the old zoo enclosures, now abandoned to wild creatures. Squirrels chatter in the trees and scurry through the stone ruins. Flowering bushes rise from the remnants of the old rodeo stables and butterflies frolic in a sunny restoration habitat.
You can go beyond the paved paths to the nature trails at the back of the butterfly habitat to explore the area’s more natural landscape. Stay bear-aware and wear hike-friendly footwear on these dirt nature trails. Hikers often spot deer in the open field and otters by the river overlook.
One trail leads past the former site of the town of Juliette, the unfortunate twin of Romeo. Unlike Romeo, though, the only reminder of Juliette that remains is a filled in well. A trail leads through the sand hills and around an old phosphate pit. Follow the colored blazes marked on the trees and posts to navigate your way.
You can still sit beneath the shade on the terrace café overlooking the river, though the view is more overgrown than in yesteryears. The concession stand has limited hours, and you can bring your own lunch to the tables or eat on the grassy sloped picnic area near the swimming hole.
Swimming at Rainbow Springs is Amazing
Swimming is permitted in a roped off swimming area at the springhead. The swim area is deep, but the water is a cool 72°F year-round and crystal clear.
In the summer, the local kids rush to a pile of limestone rocks on the sandy river bed, the only place to stand and catch a breath. Due to the fragile environment and habitat restoration efforts, swimming is not permitted beyond the ropes. Restrooms nearby provide changing and toilet facilities.
Kayak Rentals are Available for Exploration
If you wish to explore the river, kayaks, paddleboards, and clear-kayaks are available to rent at the concession hut just beyond the swim area.
The Rainbow River is a non-disposable river, so disposable plastics and paper are not permitted. If you are planning on a river trip, use a reusable water bottle and remove your food from the wrappers and store them in reusable containers.
The entire 6.5-mile length of the Rainbow is also a no-wake zone, and aside from the State Park Ranger Boat, no power boats are allowed within the park’s boundary. Local law enforcement patrol the river and they do enforce these laws.
Rainbow Springs still remains beloved by locals and visitors alike and volunteer opportunities are available to help maintain this park and its gardens for future generations to enjoy. Visit the Friends of Rainbow Springs website to learn more.
Things to Know Before You Visiting Rainbow Springs State Park:
- Rainbow Springs State Park is located at 19158 SW 81st Pl. Rd. in Dunnellon, Florida
- Entry fee is $2 per person collected by staff at a walk-up booth in the park.
- There is a gift shop, but at the time of this writing, due to COVID-19, it is currently closed.
- Concessions are located next to the gift shop with limited hours. There is a soda/water machine by the concession stand.
- Rainbow River State Park Campground entrance is located on a different road, at 18185 SW 94th St, Dunnellon, Florida. RV and tent camping are available. Reservations must be made through Reserve America. The campground has river access and paddle launch.
- Rainbow Springs State Park is dog-friendly, but your pet must stay on the leash and you must pick up any presents it makes along the way.