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.
It’s no wonder Rainbow River tubing is a sensation and that in winter especially, Rainbow River kayaking is so special.
Rainbow Springs, 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 River 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 Rainbow 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. (This was on a winter day when the river had fewer visitors than during a summer weekend.)
Rainbow Springs tubing is king in summer
In summer, the Rainbow River 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 River has 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 Guest Services. (Tubing details below.)
Rainbow River kayaking 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 one mile.
The Rainbow Springs 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
While a tubing or paddling trip doesn’t general start or even stop here, Rainbow Springs State Park makes a great outing while in the area.
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 Rainbow Springs from development and it became a state park that opened in 1992.
Remnants of Rainbow Springs’ life as an attraction are visible in the landscaping, which includes lushly landscaped waterfalls with hills and bridges. (The hilly landscape actually 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, Rainbow Springs had a monorail and submarine-like boats with underwater windows.
Today, Rainbow Springs State 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.
There is a swimming area at Rainbow Springs, but it’s not for everybody: The 72-degree water is more than 10 feet deep and there is no lifeguard. All inflatables, including rafts, tubes and balls, are not allowed in the park for safety reasons. Swimmers may wear life preservers or use swim noodles.
Also, if you want a shorter Rainbow River kayak experience, 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.
Rainbow Springs State Park
19158 SW 81st Place Road
Dunnellon, FL 34432
Admission is $2 per person to the park.
Rainbow River snorkeling and scuba diving is popular too
The Rainbow River’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.)
Rainbow River 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.
If you bring your own kayak or canoe, there is a 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.
Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak
12121 River View
Rainbow River tubing tips
Both Rainbow River tubing concessions include a shuttle so you tube downstream with the current.
The launch sites for the two operations are on opposite sides of the river and offer trips of different lengths.
At Rainbow Springs Guest Services, tubing season begins in April on weekends. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, tubing rentals are open daily. Then, until the end of October, it’s back to weekends. Tubes aren’t rented from October through March.
You are shuttled two miles upstream and tube about two hours down the river back to your car. The state park’s tube entrance is located on S.W. 180th Avenue Road, Dunnellon.
At KP Hole Park, tubing rentals are daily April 1 to Sept. 30. From this site, you launch your tube and it takes about four hours to float down the river, at which point you are shuttled back to your car. KP Hole Park is at 9435 SW 190th Avenue Road, Dunnellon.
On summer weekends, both Rainbow River tubing operations generally 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 Rainbow River tubing concessions also offer canoes, kayaks and SUPs in the summer, when paddlers can use the same shuttle service as tubers.
Rainbow River tubing resources:
Rainbow Springs State Park camping
In a separate location a few miles from Rainbow Springs headspring, the park has a campground with 60 sites for RVers and tent campers. The campground is at 18185 SW 94th St., Dunnellon.
All sites have water and electric (20, 30 and 50 amp) and are equipped with sewer hook-ups. Maximum RV length is 103 feet. A dump station is located between the upper and lower campgrounds.
The best thing about the campground is that you have easy access to Rainbow River from the campground to fish, swim or paddle. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent from the campground store.
Things to do in Dunnellon and near Rainbow Springs State Park
Here is a Florida Rambler guide of things to do in Dunnellon.
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.
The map above shows the location of Rainbow Springs State Park. Below is a map of KP Hole Park.
Frequently asked questions
How much water flows out of Rainbow Springs? More than 400 million gallons a day.
How fast does the Rainbow River flow? About 1.7 miles an hour.
How deep is the Rainbow River? Most parts are 8 to 15 feet deep. There are some deeper spots, such as Devil’s Elbow, which is 20 to 25 feet deep.
How long is the Rainbow River? From the headspring to where it meets the Withlacoochee, it is 5.7 miles.
Can boats go on the Rainbow River? Yes, at idle speed. The whole river is a no wake zone.
Can I snorkel while tubing? Yes, but bring a dive flag and don’t lose your tube!
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.