You’d never know it now, but the little town of Dunnellon in northwest Florida was once so prosperous that its nickname was Boomtown.
Today Dunnellon’s fame – and fame probably overstates it – is as the home of the spectacular Rainbow Springs and Rainbow River. In summer, thousands of people come here every week to float down the Rainbow River on inner tubes.
But there’s more to Dunnellon than the Rainbow River. The historic town makes a good base for exploring this unspoiled region, especially in cooler months. It starts with kayaking the Rainbow, but we also recommend kayaking the equally beautiful Withlacoochee River, which joins the Rainbow in Dunnellon. Nearby, there is an outstanding 46-mile paved rail trail for bicyclists, the Withlacoochee State Trail, and there are miles of scenic hiking trails in the surrounding area.
The town itself has a small but appealing historic district and a number of good restaurants.
Dunnellon is also close to other destinations — within 45 minutes are two spectacular Florida springs and rivers – Silver Springs, to the east in Ocala, and Weeki Wachee, to the south.
Dunnellon, a boomtown in the 1880s and ‘90s
Phosphate built Dunnellon. It was actually the first place it was discovered in Florida, in 1888. The hilly terrain of Rainbow Springs State Park, just outside Dunnellon, for example, is the result of phosphate mining. (Phosphate is still being mined in Central Florida –a great concern to environmentalists because of the scars and by-products it leaves. It’s a key ingredient in fertilizers.)
In Dunnellon, evidence of that phosphate-mining boom is present in a cluster of buildings from the 1880s to the 1900s in its downtown area. It’s not big, but downtown Dunnellon has a few cute shops with antiques and gifts that make for pleasant browsing. You could spend an hour just browsing all the stuff at the Grumbles Antique and Garden Shop, 20799 Walnut St, Dunnellon.
For a small town, Dunellen has a surprising number of good restaurants. Perhaps the folks from the huge nearby retirement community, The Villages , come here for dinner enough to support a range of restaurants.
Two restaurants that are particularly “Florida Rambler style” are located on the rivers in Dunnellon — Swampy’s and the Blue Gator, both open-air spots with moderate prices and local specialties. We had good dinners with local beer and fresh fish at each. A third good down-home choice is the Front Porch Restaurant and Pie Shop, where fried chicken and many types of pies are specialties. (Details below.)
Kayaking or tubing the Rainbow River
Of course, you have to start your exploration of the area with the Rainbow River. There are so many ways to enjoy it that Florida Rambler devoted a separate article to experiencing the Rainbow River.
The Rainbow has fantastically clear water and scenic beauty the whole way from the springhead to where it converges with tea-colored Withlacoochee River, 6.5 miles downstream.
There are good outfitters in town for kayak and canoe rentals or just to shuttle your own kayak upstream for one-way trips. And don’t miss the Rainbow Springs State Park, a former roadside attraction founded in the 1930s.
Read about how to do the Rainbow River here on Florida Rambler.
Kayaking the Withlacoochee River, a hidden gem
In the Dunnellon area, few visitors kayak the Withlacoochee River, and it’s a shame. It is a beautiful river, much wilder then the Rainbow. Whereas the Rainbow has houses along the west bank most of the time, the Withlacoochee has long stretches where there is no sign of man. On the Rainbow, we always had people around. On the Withlacoochee, it was just us and nature.
The outfitter we used in Dunellen, Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak, runs trips on both the Rainbow River and the Withlacoochee, so we paddled the rivers back-to-back on consecutive days.
The Withlacoochee is a blackwater river, stained the color of strong tea from the tannins in the decaying vegetation in the cypress swamp along the river.
While nothing beats the clarity of the Rainbow, the dark water in the Withlacoochee is like a mirror for the beautiful cypress trees that line its shores and the spectacular sky overhead.
We loved our day paddling nine miles on the Withlacoochee back to Dunnellon. We passed four or five smallish alligators, a tree full of woodstorks, and so many beautiful vistas with cypress trees draped in Spanish moss that we had to make ourselves stop taking pictures.
We visited in early November 2017, just weeks after flooding from Hurricane Irma. Every view of the shore included the dark stain of a high watermark, which was about two feet above the water level on the day we visited.
Perhaps partly because of the extra water, the current made paddling easy.
With shores lined by cypress swamp and knees, there are few places to stop for a picnic. If you use Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak, they’ll tell you about a great place to stop that is not a public facility but where they have permission to land.
About a half hour into the nine-mile trip, there is a nice stop on the left at Oxbow Recreation Area. It’s early for a picnic stop, but worth taking to stretch your legs. There is a loop hiking trail you can walk there too.
Hiking trails near Dunnellon
Nearby is the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve, an 8,000 acre wild area with 17 miles of hiking trail, including sections of the 1,000-mile Florida Trail. The preserve is named after Seminole leader Hálpata Tastanaki (Chief Alligator) who, along with Osceola, Jumper and approximately 1,000 warriors, took part in the largest battle of the Second Seminole Indian War in 1836.
We spent one morning hiking in Halpata Tastanaki Preserve at the Pruitt trailhead.
The trail is unusual because it follows the route of the ill-fated Cross Florida Barge Canal. This section was excavated and built in the 1930s. (The barge canal was a developers’ dream for decades until President Nixon killed it in 1971.)
It’s a well-marked trail with a developed trailhead (portable bathrooms, picnic tables) that starts in a pretty prairie and then enters the forest and climbs a berm that was part of the barge canal construction. The trail continues along this ridgeline through the forest, so that some tree canopies are at eye level. The canal work was so long ago that mature trees have grown along the ridgeline.
About .6 miles in, a spur trail goes off to the right, leading to a beautiful memorial for a young man who died in a plane crash several decades ago. There is an arrangement of large rocks in a circle that is nicknamed Stonehenge. It’s worth taking a few steps to visit.
We also hiked the Johnson Pond Loop Trail, which delighted us with wildflowers, deer moss, butterflies and a gopher tortoise.
The area has numerous other trails, described here.
Biking trails near Dunnellon
The Withlacoochee State Trail begins just outside Dunnellon and stretches south for 46 miles to near where the Withlacoochee River forms in the Green Swamp.
The former railroad bed is paved to provide one of the best bicycling trails in Florida. We’ve ridden the southern end of the trail, which is reputed to be the most scenic. But we were pleased to see the trail at points near Dunnellon where it passed through forested areas alongside US 41. Here’s the Florida Rambler guide to the Withlacoochee State Trail. It made us wish we’d brought our bikes.
Cabins in Dunnellon
There are only a few places to stay in Dunnellon, a basic motel called the Dinner Bell and a Comfort Suites.
We considered ourselves very lucky, then, to have discovered the Rainbow Rivers Club, a complex that seems more like a state park than a commercial establishment.
We managed to visit during the least-busy time of year – too late for tubing, too early for snowbirds – so we were able to reserve a well-equipped two bedroom/one bath full-kitchen cabin with a big screened porch. Nearby is a large, beautiful clubhouse with a big back porch overlooking the river with rocking chairs and picnic tables.
We made Rainbow Rivers Club our base for three nights and didn’t want to leave. We saw deer every morning and sipped our coffee overlooking mist rising on the Rainbow River. Our kayaking trips and our evening dinners were just 10 minutes away in Dunnellon.
Rainbow Rivers Club also has riverfront villas in town (less appealing to us). Our cabin was one of a dozen in a woody preserve surrounded by cypress forest and rivers.
Website for Rainbow Rivers Club. (Note: The cabins are popular with snowbirds and might be hard to book in the winter season.)
Resources for exploring the Dunnellon area
Florida Rambler guide to the Rainbow River
Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak
12121 River View, Dunnellon
Swampy’s Bar and Grille
19773 E. Pennsylvania Ave., Dunnellon
Blue Gator Tiki Bar and Restaurant
2189 S. Williams St., Dunnellon
Front Porch Restaurant and Pie Shop
12039 N. Florida Ave., Dunnellon
Rainbow Rivers Club
20510 The Granada, Dunnellon