(Review added 09/02/13, last updated 07/16)
The Rainbow River rises from a first magnitude spring in Rainbow River State Park and ends 5.7 miles later at its confluence with the Withlacooche (South) River. The springs issue 400-600 million gallons per day at a constant 73 degrees and are the 4th largest spring in Florida. The Rainbow River was designated as a Registered Natural Landmark in 1972, an Aquatic Preserve in 1986, and an Outstanding Florida Waterway in 1987.
Only little Gissy Spring run enters the river on its short course but there are several smaller springs. This yields a stream that is almost crystal clear until its waters start mingling with the Withlacoochee. Underwater visibility can be over 100 feet and you will see lots of fish and turtles. If you’re really lucky you might even see a river otter. If you don’t have a waterproof camera, you might want to consider picking up one of those disposables for this trip. You won’t regret it.
The headspring was developed as a tourist attraction in the 1930s with seawalls, a lodge, gift shop and glass-bottom boat rides. With I-75 bypassing Dunnellon and all the tourists proceeding non-stop to Disney World, the attraction closed down in 1974. The state bought the area of the old attraction in 1990 and opened Rainbow Springs State Park in 1995.
While the interpretive center, gardens, and swimming area in the state park are definitely worth a visit, the put-in for kayaks is a looooong walk from the parking area, even with wheelies. You can however rent canoes and kayaks there to avoid the long walk, but since the park offers and allows no shuttles, all trips must be an out-and-back.
We generally put in at K.P. Hole County Park ($5 entrance fee), paddle 1.5 miles upstream to the head spring, then float back down to the Blue Springs/CR 484 launch. K.P. Hole County Park rents canoes, kayaks and SUPs. From late spring through early fall they also offer shuttles so you do either linear or out-and-back paddles from the park.
Note that both K.P. Hole and the state park run tubing operations. The state park runs tubing on the weekends from April to Memorial Day then daily from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. The state park tubing entrance and exit are on the east side of the river (not at the head spring) and a tram runs between the two. K.P. Hole runs tubing year round from their location down to the take-out on CR 484. Unlike on the very narrow Ichetucknee, we don’t find the tubers on the Rainbow too much of a distraction. The river is wide enough for them to spread out and unlike the Santa Fe there is no alcohol allowed, so everyone is generally in a good mood and we usually enjoy paddling with them. However, if you want to see any wildlife on weekends and holidays during the tubing season you will need to get out early.
NO DISPOSABLE CONTAINERS OR ALCOHOL ARE ALLOWED on the river and while open to power boats outside the state park boundary (marked by a prominent sign) the entire river is a no wake zone and we have only rarely observed a power boater disobeying this rule. The State Park runs a volunteer river-watch boat and a Sheriff’s Dept boat can also frequently be seen on the river, enforcing the rules.
Also note that on a hot weekend or holiday, the K.P. Hole parking lot may fill up by 10 am. It’s best to get there early. To launch at K.P. Hole Park go past the main park entrance/exit and turn right onto the first road. Follow the fence line down to the launch area. There is a small load/unload zone, a concrete boat ramp and a hand launch area on the dock with wooden ramps. Once unloaded take your vehicle back through the main entrance for parking and get in line to pay your entrance fee.
K.P. Hole also rents canoes, kayaks and SUPs. But note that they ONLY run shuttles for them April 1 through September 30 and you are not allowed to personally shuttle their boats. Outside of their “season” with rentals you will be restricted to paddling up to the head spring and back to KP Hole. Another option if you need to rent a canoe or kayak is to use Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak Company or Aquatic Wilderness Adventures in Dunnellon. They will shuttle you up to K.P. Hole and you can paddle back to their facilities and your vehicle. Both of these outfitters rent and shuttle year-round.
Another thing we love to do is snorkel in the Rainbow. Just south of the state park boundary sign is a shallow area in the center of the river where it is easy to jump out to start snorkeling. (You are not allowed to swim or snorkel within the state park except within the buoyed swimming area.) We swim, towing our kayaks, about a mile to Gissy Spring where we can easily re-enter the kayaks. That’s also usually about all the cold water we can stand, so taking a break to soak up some rays is easy there at Gissy.
There are a number of options for paddling the Rainbow, so we’ll give you mileage points from the headspring to the public ramp in Dunnellon at US 41.
(Remember, “river left” is the left side of the river headed downstream.)
0.0 Headspring in Rainbow Springs State Park
0.1 Rainbow Springs State Park canoe launch, river right
0.3 Cove, river right, usually large fish, sometimes a large gator.
—- Rainbow Springs State Park boundary
0.4 Start snorkeling
1.3 Entrance to Gissy Spring, river left. Good lunch break area.
1.4 Rainbow Springs State Park tube launch, river left
1.5 K.P. Hole, river right
2.9 Rainbow Springs State Park tube take-out, river left
4.7 Large cove, river left, usually full of turtles, ducks and other water birds, sometimes a gator
5.0 Swampy’s Restaurant and AWA kayak rental on river right,
5.1 Pass under CR 484, Blue Springs Run take-out on river left.
5.9 Junction with Withlacoochee River
6.1 Rainbow River Canoe & Kayak launch
6.4 Cross under US 41, Centennial Park boat ramp, river right
Click HERE to download Rainbow River Fact Sheet with mileage chart and directions to launch sites.
Click HERE to download Rainbow River gpx file for your GPS unit.
Double-click to zoom in or use mouse scroll to zoom in and out. Drag to change location. Click on icons or river route for more info.