Hiking the Blue Run Historic Railway Trail
Bright yellow inflatable tubes emblazoned with the words “K.P. Hole” across the sides greeted us first. My daughter and I skirted around a group of bikini-clad girls on our way to the Blue Run Trail trailhead at Blue Run Park in Dunnellon. A pair of teenage boys trailed in the girls’ wake, hoisting a two-person kayak between them. They lifted the kayak, still wet from their river adventure, onto a waiting trailer. Another vehicle waited in the queue behind with a paddleboard strapped to its roof.
It was a typical summer’s day.
Blue Run Park in Dunnellon
The bustling Blue Run Park in the riverside city of Dunnellon is best known as the tuber exit for the Rainbow River. In a city that has been called the ‘Treasure of the Nature Coast’, Blue Run is one of the main hot spots for outdoor adventure.
Its paddle launch at the highway 484 bridge provides access to both the Rainbow and Withlacoochee Rivers. After the popular 4.5-hour river tubing float from Dunnellon’s K.P. Hole county park, the sight of the exit by the bridge at Blue Run provides a great relief to many a tuber.
Hiking Blue Run Trail by the Rainbow River
The sounds of splashing and laughter grew distant as we followed the paved, straight path into the woods. A trio of cardinals flitted through the green canopy, their bright red feathers a splash of color among the greenery.
To the left of us, worn foot paths trailed off from the tarmac. They lead to benches overlooking a pond among the trees. These are places of quiet contemplation for enjoying a picnic lunch surrounded by nature, or hidden fishing spots to cast a line into still waters.
Blue Run Trail runs parallel to the lower Rainbow River. The Rainbow is a National Natural Landmark, an Aquatic Preserve, and an Outstanding Florida Waterway.
Through the trees we could see pontoon boats slowly making the run north on the crystal-clear waters of the river. Brave kayakers ventured into hidden watering holes, closer to the trail, where turtles sun on logs, enjoying their peace.
Hiking the Blue Run Trail at Blue Run of Dunnellon Park
One Trail: Many Faces
The trail begins at Blue Run Park in Southwest Marion County and follows a historic railroad bed 2.4 miles to the CR39 trailhead on County Road 39, east of highway 41 in Citrus County. A portion of it serves as part of the 1,300-mile Florida National Scenic Trail. The orange blazes painted on the tarmac, unnoticed by many, mark the way for FT hikers on their cross-Florida trail journey.
A lone cyclist shot past us, a fine sheen of sweat glistening across his face. Not only is Blue Run Trail a hiking trail, this multi-use trail for cyclists, hikers and in-line skaters is also a part of the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Greenway, a 110-mile linear park and wildlife corridor stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. John’s River with over 300 miles of trails and 70,000 acres of greenspace.
We came to a crossroads in the path. Going left would take us away from the river along a winding trail through the woods. We’ve hiked it on a prior occasion, finding a field of wild flowering clematis. Today, we turned right to continue following the river.
The Floodplain Swamps of Blue Run Trail
Cypress trees rose from the swamp along the left side of the trail. Beneath them the dark water swirled with green algae like spots of color on an impressionist painting. Upon closer inspection, the water in the swamp was clear and we could see the leaves, twigs, and dark mud of the swamp bed. The overhead canopy had cast a reflection over the water, giving it the dark appearance.
This floodplain swamp stretches out through the trees before dry land rises in the distance. When the trail opened in 2015, it seemed like the swamp had been a mere channel beside the trail. With the aid of clearing storms and time, the swamp has reclaimed its territory.
A white ibis picked its way through the shallows of the water in search of food. Beyond, two squirrels chased each other through the trees, chattering. The sounds of cicadas filled the air. Abundant with birdlife, the Dunnellon Trail is a popular destination for birdwatchers.
Up ahead, an older man in running shorts rested on a bench. He nodded a friendly hello as we passed. These benches are thoughtfully placed along the trail. Some at the pond overlooks, and others providing rest stops for the nature adorers or the weary.
The Withlacoochee Railway Bridge
The path rose in elevation as we reached the bridge crossing the Withlacoochee River. The Withlacoochee trail bridge marks the line between Marion and Citrus County. It was built with a nod to the historic railway bridges of the 1800’s.
We stopped to rest at one of the overlooks on the bridge. Each overlook provides a different vantage point of the Withlacoochee River. In the water below, a spotted alligator gar slid from the open dark waters and into hiding beneath the lily pads at the river’s edge.
Hearing the roar of a boat motor in the distance, we watched as an airboat flew down the river at top speed. Unlike the Rainbow River, which has slow speed & no wake restrictions its entire length, there are no such rules on this portion of the Withlacoochee. However, the underwater logs and rocks on the river provide a natural obstacle course which keeps many boaters at bay. Airboats make the best form of transport here, with their unique ability to glide over the unseen obstructions.
We crossed over the bridge and down to the nearby overflow pond. This portion of the trail to County Road 39 is known as the Dunnellon Trail and is owned by the Florida State Parks system. A turtle scuttled off a log and disappeared beneath the green algae that covered the water’s surface. In the winter, the leaves of the trees around this pond turn bright red and yellow and the water a deep blue. We usually see an alligator or two as well, but not today. The air was too hot and the algae too thick.
My daughter slapped her leg as the sun was beginning to dip in the sky. It was that time of day when the mosquitoes begin coming out to play and feed. We decided to forgo the remainder of the hike to the CR39 trailhead where the path there leads away from the river through open meadows and forest.
Instead we retraced our steps back to the parking lot at Blue Run Park.
Blue Run Trail is one of three hiking trails at Blue Run of Dunnellon Park.
Blue Run Trail Fast Facts:
- Blue Run Park is located at 19680 E Pennsylvania Ave (HWY 484) in Dunnellon, FL 34432
- Dunnellon Trailhead is located at 1239 West Withlacoochee Trail, Dunnellon FL 34434
- Contact number: 352.671.8560
- This a fee-free park.
- Toilet facilities: porta potty
- You may launch paddle crafts only at this park.
- It can get extremely busy at the launch site on the weekends and during the tubing season on the Rainbow River from April to September. Weekdays are usually a quieter time to visit.
- There is an overflow parking area around the corner at San Jose Boulevard. Park your car and take the pond loop trail (stay right) to return to the main park entrance.
- This is a waterside trail. Bring mosquito spray.
- Other Hiking Trails At Blue Run Park:
- The Pond Trail is a dirt hiking trail around a 3-acre pond with bench overlooks and fishing spots. It can get very muddy along places.
- The Sandhill Loop Trail is another dirt hiking trail through the upland mixed forest and sandhill communities.