It’s clear: The Rainbow River is exceptionally popular because it is exceptionally clear.
It’s so clear that when you gaze into the river from a kayak, you can see the shadow of your boat on the sandy bottom. You peer into the water and the fish look like they’re in an aquarium, and they too cast shadows on the sandy bottom.
Rainbow Spring, Florida’s fourth largest spring, has dozens of bubbling vents producing a swimming area at Rainbows Springs State Park in Dunnellon that looks like one of the cleanest pools you’ve ever seen.
As you paddle with the current from the headspring, the 72-degree water stays clear for 6.5 miles until it merges with the tea-colored Withlacoochee River in Dunnellon.
While the Rainbow isn’t a wild river – there are houses along the west bank the entire run – it is an aquatic preserve and is full of wildlife.
It may be the most reliable place to see otters in a Florida river. (We saw two, separately, and other kayakers we met spotted at least one that day.) The river is also full of birds – we enjoyed darting kingfishers, a tall snag with 20 woodstorks decorating it like ornaments, great blue herons and little blue herons, among many others.
We kayaked on a cool and sunny November day, and while we saw two or three dozen other kayakers and divers, the river was quiet and the atmosphere was peaceful.
Tubing is king on Rainbow River in summer
Be aware, however, summer is different because the Rainbow sees hundreds of people on tubes float down its pristine waters every day. Tubing season runs April to October.
To minimize the impact of so many people, the Rainbow puts extensive limits on what you can bring on the river – no coolers, no alcohol, no food or beverages in disposable containers, no paper towels or bags.
Perhaps as result, we saw very little litter. For a river that is extensively used and visited, it looked healthy and natural.
There are two locations for tubers to put in – KP Hole County Park and the state park’s tube entrance, which is operated by Nature Quest. (Details below) The tube ride is about four hours.
Kayaking the Rainbow River during the quiet season
From fall to spring, the Rainbow River belongs to kayakers, and it makes for an outstanding outing.
We used Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak to transport us and our canoe to KP Hole County Park. From there, we paddled upstream a mile to Rainbow Springs State Park, where there is a kayak landing, and then paddled with the current back to our car at Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak. Paddling against the current is a bit of work, but not bad for a mile.
The springhead itself is not as dramatic as some first magnitude springs, such as Silver Springs in Ocala. It is surrounded by tall grass and wetlands and there is no single vent that can be identified as “the spring.” Instead Rainbow Springs has a hundred different small vents along its headwaters.
On the paddle downstream, there are just a few public places you can get out and stretch your legs.
The scenery never stops being stunning the whole way.
Be sure to visit Rainbow Springs State Park
Rainbow Springs State Park makes a great stop on a kayak outing, both for a picnic and because it is worth visiting on its own behalf.
Rainbow Springs was a commercial roadside attraction from the 1930s to 1973, but when the newly built Interstate system sucked traffic out of small towns, it could not compete with the likes of Disney, which opened in 1971. After shutting down, the community rallied to save the spring from development and it became a state park that opened in 1992.
Remnants of its life as an attraction are visible in the landscaping, which includes lushly landscaped waterfalls with hills and bridges. (The hilly landscape comes from when the area was mined for phosphates.) There was a zoo and a rodeo show, and signs mark the foundations of these buildings. In its heyday, the park had a monorail and submarine-like boats with underwater windows.
Today, Rainbow Springs Park provides a pleasant shady walk through gardens, several picnic pavilions and a snack bar and gift shop. There are a few miles of trails beyond the landscaped area too.
Also, if you want a shorter kayak trip, when tubing season is over, you can rent kayaks, canoes and SUPs at the park and paddle downstream as far you’d like and return. (One or two people can rent a canoe or kayak for two hours for $30. SUPs are $50 for two hours.)
Rainbow Springs State Park
19158 SW 81st Place Road
Dunnellon, FL 34432
Admission is $2 per person to the park.
Rainbow River is popular for snorkeling and scuba diving
The Rainbow’s clarity makes it popular with divers too, and the Rainbow has an unusual arrangement that caters to them. A water taxi can pick up divers at KP Hole Park and transport them a mile to near the springhead, from where they swim back to the park. We saw several divers, some in wet suits, with diver-down flags floating along our paddling route. (Make arrangements in advance to use the water taxi.)
Kayak and canoe rentals and livery service
Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak is located near the confluence of the Rainbow and the Withlacoochee rivers in Dunnellon. They drop paddlers off at KP Hole Park, from where it is a two to three hour paddle back. Add an hour if you paddle upstream to the park, as we recommend. Rates for single kayaks or SUPs are $35 and tandem kayaks or canoes are $47.
If you bring your own kayak or canoe, there is a $15 (single) or $20 (double) fee to have it hauled to KP Park and you paddle back to your car at your leisure. There is a $5 per person fee charged at KP Park. (All prices as of winter, 2017.)
Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak
12121 River View
There are other kayak and canoe outfitters, including Aquatic Wilderness Adventures, adjacent to the popular Swampy’s restaurant on the Rainbow in Dunnellon.
How to go tubing at Rainbow Springs
In summer, you can rent tubes from the state’s concessionaire, Nature Quest ($15 per person plus $5 to park) or from the Marion County concession at KP Hole Park ($20 per person.) Both concessions offer shuttles to take you back to the park.
It takes two hours to float down the Rainbow River from the state park’s launch site and about four hours if you launch from KP Hole Park.
The launch sites are located a few miles downstream on opposite sides of the river. On summer days, both tubing operations may reach capacity, so early arrival is essential.
The county has developed an extensive dock and launch area at KP Hole in order to minimize impact on the river. It includes changing and showering facilities as well as lockers for valuables.
Both tube concessions also offer canoes, kayaks and SUPs in the summer, when paddlers can use the same shuttle service as tubers.
Other outfitters rent tubes and provide shuttles using the KP Hole Park launch. Aquatic Wilderness Adventures, adjacent to the popular Swampy’s restaurant on the Rainbow in Dunnellon, offers similar services and prices. Tubers leave their cars at Swampy’s, are shuttled to KP Park and float back to Swampy’s.
Rainbow River tubing resources:
Camping at Rainbow Springs State Park
In a separate location from the headspring of the Rainbow, the park has a campground with 60 sites for RVers and tent campers.The campground is at 18185 SW 94th St., Dunnellon.
Things to do in Dunnellon and near Rainbow Springs State Park
The Withlacoochee River is another excellent kayaking river, and you can use the same service, Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak, to rent gear or livery service. We paddled the 9-mile “Forest Float.” It is a much wilder, more remote paddle with far fewer people than the Rainbow River. The water is not clear (it’s stained with tannin) but it’s a beautiful paddle.
The town of Dunnellon has a small, charming historic district with a few shops to browse. There are a surprising number of good restaurants too.
Silver Springs State Park is 45 minutes to the east. It’s another gorgeous spring and spectacular river for paddling. Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to Silver Springs.
Crystal River, home of “swim with the manatee” tours is 20 minutes away. It’s the site of the beautiful Three Sisters Spring, which can attract hundreds of manatees on cold winter days. Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to Crystal River.