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Exploring Rainbow Springs is easy, even for beginner kayakers

Florida’s fourth-largest spring and the ridiculously clear waters aren’t to be missed. Here’s what to know if you go.
Published Apr. 21
Updated Apr. 23

DUNNELLON — When looking for a day trip slightly outside of the Tampa Bay area — about two or so hours north — the lure of Rainbow Springs State Park is hard to resist.

Tripadvisor tabbed kayaking on Rainbow River one of the top things to do in Central Florida — it was awarded Travelers’ Choice in 2020 — so sports multimedia producer Rachel West and I were up for the adventure. Even if we cheated slightly with a tour guide.

After spending a recent Tuesday morning out on the water it’s clear Rainbow Springs — the fourth largest spring in the state — is a special place.

A paddle hangs out from the side of the glass-bottom kayak on Rainbow River. Limestone lines the bottom of the river, helping give off different hues of blues and greens.
A paddle hangs out from the side of the glass-bottom kayak on Rainbow River. Limestone lines the bottom of the river, helping give off different hues of blues and greens. [ Mari Faiello ]

We explored Rainbow River via a two-hour, glass-bottom kayak tour with the help of our Get Up and Go Kayaking guide, Lisa Cox, and a small group of patrons visiting from out-of-state.

We paddled up and down the river in a tandem, oversized, clear kayak, which allowed us to see the incredible hues of greens and blues below and through the sidewalls of our watercraft. I hadn’t seen water that transparent since a study-abroad trip to Mykonos, Greece, that Rachel and I took in 2017.

Don’t worry about paddling fast. Cox, 50, let us go at our own pace as long as we were in earshot. And you don’t want to miss her tales about local wildlife.

Not exactly an expert at kayaking? A guide will give a brief lesson before the tour begins. If you can steer a grocery cart, you’ll be fine in a kayak.

Cox has specialized in eco tours for the past three years, paddling in the Florida waters for 10. She started working at Get Up and Go Kayaking last summer when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of some restaurants, an industry Cox was working in at the time.

Several waterfalls can be seen throughout Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon.
Several waterfalls can be seen throughout Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon. [ Times (2012) ]

A highlight of this particular tour happens outside of the kayak, with a short trek to the “hot” springs (or creek).

Cox explained that the water that comes up through these pockets travels through layers of soil and rock before traversing through underground caves and eventually up through the spring. When you step on the bubbles, you sink into the ground a little and the water is lukewarm (which in 72-ish degree water feels hotter than it probably is in reality).

Related: 15 more Tampa Bay-area trails to hike, bike, explore

Tubing and camping also are offered in the park, but if you’re focused on kayaking, a few tips:

Know before you go

⋅ When purchasing a ticket online, park admission is not included. It’s $5 per person to enter the park, which is paid at the check-in counter near the parking lot.

⋅ If you’re the type who gets hungry after short periods of time, especially when exerting yourself, eat a light snack before departing. Rainbow River does not allow disposables of any kind — including plastic water bottles — while on the eco tour. You can pack your Yeti, Hydro Flask, Ozark Trail Bottle or any other reusable canister with water. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can drink water straight from the river.

⋅ If you’re interested in taking lots of pretty pictures to brag about later on Instagram, it’s not a bad idea to purchase a waterproof phone case (like a LifeProof) and/or a waterproof lanyard (which you can find on Amazon).

Related: Port Richey’s Salty Dog Kayak Rentals makes local park more accessible

⋅ You can pack other belongings in a dry bag or small backpack. There’s room in the rear of the kayak and if you don’t have access to a dry bag, one is offered to guests before the tour begins.

⋅ Bring a change of clothes and use the changing rooms in the attached restrooms so you’re comfortable for the drive home.

Manatee grass lines the bottom of Rainbow River. The greenery can be seen from the surface and through the crystal clear waters.
Manatee grass lines the bottom of Rainbow River. The greenery can be seen from the surface and through the crystal clear waters. [ Mari Faiello ]

Safety first

What should I bring or wear while spending a day on the water kayaking or paddle boarding? Cox recommends sunscreen, long sleeves, a hat and plenty of water.

What should I do if my kayak flips over? These are calm waters and most kayaks are hard to flip, Cox said, because of their design. She recommends swimming to something stable that you can hold onto. From there, someone in your group will help you retrieve your water vessel.

What’s the most common mistake kayak beginners make? Most beginners paddle fast to get around obstacles (like when approaching a tree, grass, etc.) versus braking and turning around. “Your natural reaction is to want to go faster to get out of the situation,” Cox said.

What should I do if I run into wildlife while I’m out? To avoid and protect the wildlife in these parts, use a passive approach. No touching, only looking, and don’t try to nudge the animals with your paddles.

Have an outdoor adventure we should try? Curious about the ins and outs of fishing seasons in Florida? Know a cool business or owner to profile? Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.