DUNNELLON — On a steamy summer afternoon, there is no place I would rather be than on the Rainbow River. Located about 100 miles north of Tampa, Rainbow Springs pumps 461 million gallons of cool water into a run that eventually empties into the Withlacoochee River just 5.6 miles downstream.
For more than 100 years, this "blue run," so named because of the color of the water, has been a magnet for tourists and locals alike. Humans have gathered around watering holes such as this for more than 10,000 years. Archeologists have found numerous prehistoric animal bones in the river itself as well as stone tools made from the area's first inhabitants.
At the time of the first European contact, the land around what is now known as Rainbow Springs was inhabited by Timucua Indians led by a chief named Ocale. His name would later be used for the modern city of Ocala.
Pioneers first settled the area in 1839 and developed a thriving agricultural community, complete with a railroad station, sawmill and hotel.
By the 1920s, snowbirds rediscovered the waterway that was known by several names, including Blue Springs and Blue Run. A tourist attraction with glass-bottom boats, a gift shop and aviary catered to visitors from the 1960s until the early 1970s, when the larger theme parks opened.
After the tourist attraction closed in 1974, the state eventually took control of the land around the headsprings. Land managers removed much of the exotic vegetation and replanted native species. Rainbow Springs State Park now offers some of the most scenic nature trails in Florida.
Snorkeling is allowed at the headsprings, but only in the designated swimming area. Your best bet is to call ahead and sign up for one of the ranger-guided snorkeling tours. But most folks spend their time on top of the river, floating lazily downstream with the gentle current.
Ride the tube
The tube facility is located at 10830 SW 180th Ave., Dunnellon. Dragonfly Watersports, with services at the tubing facility, offers a two-hour float down the river from 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m., seven days a week, Memorial Day through Labor Day, and on weekends from Labor Day through Sept. 30. The tubing facility is closed October through March. To reach Dragonfly Watersports for tubing, call (352) 465-4035, but for kayaks and canoes, call (352) 465-2100.
Tubes rent for $10 a piece; $20 for a double. A $25 refundable cash deposit is required per item. Tubers are transported upriver then they float back to the state park facility. The state park also charges an entry fee of $5 per car for up to eight people. Tubes are rented on a first-come, first-served basis; arrive early if you want to beat the crowd.
Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak (12121 River View, Dunnellon) offers canoe, kayak and tube trips out of K.P. Hole County Park (9435 SW 190 Avenue Road, Dunnellon). Call (352) 489-7854 or go to Rainbow rivercanoeandkayak.com.
K.P. Hole County Park also offers tubing and kayaking. The park is open from 8 am. to 8 p.m. during the summer, though the shuttle services and rentals stop have an earlier cutoff. Call (352) 489-3055 or visit www.marioncountyfl.org.
Rules and regulations
Alcohol is prohibited on the river. A local Marion County ordinance also prohibits disposable containers of any kind. That means no sandwich storage bags, cans, glass, wrappers, Styrofoam or water bottles. Instead, use an aluminum or plastic, reusable sport bottle. Please note that fines are issued for possession, not littering.