DUNNELLON, Fla. - Snorkeling upstream to the main boil of this first magnitude spring, it is easy to forget that we are living in the 21st century. Watching the turtles, fish and plants sway with the current, it's easy to imagine that this place hasn't changed much since woolly mammoths drank here at the end of the last ice age.
Located about 100 miles north of Tampa, Rainbow Springs pumps about 461-million gallons of crystal-clear water each day into a 5.6-mile run that empties into the Withlacoochee River downstream at the city of Dunnellon.
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.
Stone Age and tourist trade
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 larger theme parks opened.
The state takes control
After the tourist attraction closed in 1974, the state eventually took control of the land around the head springs. 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.
The park offers full-service camping (a new campground just opened but is still a work in progress) as well as limited access to the river.
Canoeists and kayakers who want to launch here will have to carry their boats about 500 feet. 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. Inflatable objects - rafts, tubes and balls - are prohibited in the swimming area.
Swimmers can wear life jackets. The average depth is 5 to 18 feet; the water temperature is 72 degrees, year-round.
If you go:
Rainbow Springs State Park
19158 S.W. 81st Place Road
Dunnellon, FL 34432
Tube the Blue Run
Dragonfly Watersports, 20336 E Pennsylvania Ave., Dunnellon, rents inner tubes (and other gear) for a float trip down the Rainbow River. Call (352) 489-3046 or go to www.dragonflywatersports.com .
This Marion County Park located at 9435 SW 190 Avenue Road, Dunnellon, is a favorite put-in point for many tubers and kayakers. The park is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the summer months, but closes at 5 p.m. during the winter. Call (352) 489-3055 or go to www.marioncountyfl.org .
Take I-75 north and take Exit 341. Head West on State Road 484 into Dunnellon and make the last left on to River View. The rental shop is before the railroad tracks at the intersection of U.S. 41.
Keep the river clean
State law prohibits the possession of any disposable items - i.e., plastic bottles, aluminum cans - and alcoholic beverages anywhere on the Rainbow River. All food and drink must be kept in non-disposable containers.
Another popular activity for snorkelers and scuba divers is drifting with the current. But remember, state law requires that divers tow a dive flag.
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