So Max did his usual thing and fell asleep the moment we pulled into the parking lot, and since he didn’t sleep that well the night before on the campgrounds, we decided to let him get his nap; which, of course, left us in a little conundrum.
What to do…? Stay, go, split up, tag-team the nap duty? Oh man—the agonizing decisions of a Florida Explorer!
Luckily, my wife is amazing. She volunteered to stay back and told me to run along and have fun. She wouldn’t mind reading her book for a while anyways. I wasn’t about to argue with it. So I gave her a kiss on the cheek and sped off.
The Rainbow Springs was developed as a tourist attraction in the 1930’s, and in order to compete with the “glass bottom boats” of nearby Silver Springs, they offered submarine tours where guests could have face-to-face underwater encounters with the spring’s abundant aquatic life. Originally, the springs were known as Blue Spring, but the name was changed in order to better compete against its rivals. The Seminoles knew it as Wekiwa Creek. The spring is Florida’s fourth At the admission booth, I was greeted by a gray-haired, friendly old lady. She smiled at me. She knew me from the day before when we took a quick peek at the park after setting up at the campground (which is, absurdly, a four mile drive away—but at least has the redeeming feature of being equipped with a swimming access point to the Rainbow River).
“So where’s the little one today?” she asked.
“Asleep, of course,” I replied, smiling back. “It seems he always decides to begin his nap when we are about five minutes away from our destination. So my wife is staying with him until he wakes up. In the meantime, I’m going to explore the park for a little bit, maybe go on a hike.”
“Well, okay!” she said. “Enjoy your stay!”
“Oh, I’m sure I will,” I obliged, and then I was off.
The first grand view—and also the centerpiece—of the Rainbow Springs State Park is a view of the spring itself. Even though the day was overcast, the water still shimmered. It was clear and inviting. A swimming area had been erected around the spring, the water weeds cleared away, a dock with ladder and stairs was put on the far side. And the spring’s green northwestern slope was made into a picnic area.
I followed some pathways that twisted in a vaguely eastern direction. Some of them dove down and others climbed up. Each of them led to something interesting: manmade waterfalls cascading down rock faces, a boardwalk leading out to the springs, lively gardens, and then eventually—an abandoned zoo from the old days.
I walked further and further into the park, surrounded by cages and defunct displays, imagining what it used to look like, back in its heyday, back before the valuable flow of traffic diverted from U.S. 41 and to the newly built interstate; which was the park’s ultimate demise. The park closed its doors in the 1970s and soon fell into disrepair.
I reached the Butterfly Gardens located at the back of the park. Dirt paths skimmed through the magnolias and other plants. On the other side of the garden were the park’s hiking trails, which is what I really wanted to see. I walked through the gardens to the trailhead and setoff.
There are several trails to hike, but the best one is the Yellow Trail. It’s a 2.5 mile loop that affords overlooks of old phosphate pits (the area was mined for the mineral in the late 1800s) and of the river, and it takes hikers through expanses of pines, oaks hammocks, and sandhills communities.
I knew Max would be waking up from his nap soonish, so I really booked it around the trail, taking in as many sights and sounds as possible for somebody doing a near jog the whole way round while snapping pictures. I had a map that I took from the admission booth. Yellow blazes painted on trees and posts guided me along the way too. So between those two resources, I managed only to get lost a half dozen times, which I was able to quickly resolve by backtracking and finding the yellow blaze I had missed.
The back loop brushes up against the river, and a solitary blue blazed trail spurs off to its banks. I took the path, which was muddy from rain the night before, and admired the Rainbow River from a more private vantage point compared to other places in the park. A few kayakers paddled by, heading towards the springhead. We exchanged waves and smiles, and then they floated off and I renewed my hike.
On the last third of the trail, my phone rang. It was Valarie, “Max is awake! Where are you?”
“Uh…” I began. “In the woods. Be there soon.”
I really booked it then. Because as much as I love hiking and exploring, it’s even better when I’m hanging out with my family. And we were also going to take a swim in the spring. Which, in my opinion, is the whole point of the park: to swim in the spring. I was excited just thinking about it.
So during the home stretch, I thought about how great it was that I could even have the opportunity to enjoy the spring and the surrounding acres like this. There was a time when there was a lot of uncertainty about Rainbow Springs’ future. The land in the area was privately owned. And it was slated for development. But then, to save the springs, the State of Florida stepped in, acquired the land, and reopened it as Rainbow Springs State Park—with much of the work being done by local volunteers, preserving the land for future generations (like my family) to enjoy.
I raced back through the park, past the waterfalls and gardens, and was surprised to see Valarie and Max waiting for me at the admissions booth, and laughing with the gray-haired lady. Max shrieked in glee when he saw me and then ran to me. I swept him up in a hug and gave a kiss to my wife. After chatting briefly with the gray-haired lady, we carried all our picnicking and swimming gear down towards the springs.
The spring was stunning and crystal clear and the perfect temperature for swimming year-round; like all springs are. Talking to park staff, though, they tell me the spring is pretty packed and wild during the summer months when the cool waters would feel the best, but I still suspect it would be a very fun time regardless.
Being a tent camping enthusiast, I was disappointed by the campgrounds. They were four miles away from the park by car, and there was no way to hike there. The ground was hard-packed and we were not allowed to set-up the tent on the grass. It was much more designed for RV camping. The redeeming feature, though, was access to the Rainbow River and a small swimming area that was serene with flowing river grass, fish, and a nearby woodpecker in the trees.
I’d highly recommend a visit to Rainbow Springs. As of now, it’s the best Florida spring that I have visited; and that’s saying quite a bit as Florida is completely filled with gorgeous springs. So if you ever get the chance, don’t pass it up!
Hours: 8:00am-Sundown, 365 days a year
Admission: Car $5 (this was not collected when we went) │ Park Entrance $2 per person │ Children 6 and under are free
Tubers: 8:00am-5:00pm, April-September. All tubers must be in park by 2:15pm to ensure they can complete their float and leave the park by closing. $10.60 per person (includes tax, tube, and tram service)
Camping: $30 per night │ Seniors (65+) 50% discount