My son and daughter-in-law have been suggesting that we visit Rainbow Springs for over a year and I am so grateful for their persistence during our pilgrimage to here. This is the headwaters of the Rainbow River, which is fed by the Rainbow Springs. The Springs are a critical part of the fresh water aquifer that is essential to the future of Florida. There are more than 600 freshwater springs in Florida. Some are small — barely noticeable — while others, like Rainbow Springs, are big enough to feed a river. Rainbow Springs delivers about 400 million gallons of clear, fresh water on a good day. And it is a constant 72 degrees. Heavenly. Priceless.
Archeological evidence shows that humans have been visiting, living, and hunting at this site for about 10,000 years. In 1539, the conquistador Hernando de Soto and several hundred men slogged their way up the Florida peninsula and stopped by this spring-fed river to rest. No doubt, it was a highlight in their otherwise disastrous journey up the west coast of Florida and into Mexico.
Back in the 1800s, the state’s first towns popped up around the most popular of the fresh water springs, including Ocala near Silver Springs, Jacksonville near Green Cove Springs, and Daytona Beach, northeast of De Leon Springs. In the 1920s, Rainbow Springs was a tourist attraction with glass bottom boats, a zoo, a rodeo ring, waterfalls built on piles of phosphate tailings, and even a monorail with leaf-shaped gondolas. By the 1970s, with the construction of I-75 and the lure of the large theme parks not so far away, the place fell on hard times and closed down. In 1990, after some concerns expressed by local activists, the state of Florida purchased the property and it re-opened in 1995. Kudos to the state of Florida for the foresight to preserve these 1,400 acres of pristine water and beauty.
The waterfalls that were built in the 1920s have matured with grace and even if not native to the place, the rocks forming the waterfalls were from the onsite phosphate quarry and the water is piped up from the river and returned to it after cascading down to the point of origin. A butterfly garden has been added and we toured it this morning under the direction of a knowledgeable volunteer guide.
The state added a new campground about six miles from the springs and we had a nice spot here. The trees and foliage have grown in since the early 2010s when there were lots of complaints about the lack of privacy. One of the great things about this climate is that stuff grows FAST and now there is good privacy between the sites as palmetto, manzanita, cabbage palms and other plantings have filled in. This is one of the rare parks where water, electric and sewer are available so it fills quickly on weekends with RVs (not too many tents).
There is a tubing park here on the river which is closed for the season but the paved tramway route makes for miles of pleasant and safe bike riding down to the brilliant, clear Rainbow River through mature forests of live oak.
This park is one of the bright lights in the stellar constellation that is Florida State Parks. No wonder these are called among America’s Best State Parks. Next, we are off to the Pinellas County park of Fort Desoto near St. Petersburg, one of the treasures we uncovered last year when we first came through Florida.
Peter and Liz are continuing their pilgrimage to here, spending about ten weeks driving back and forth across Florida visiting its beautiful state parks, and visiting family, before heading west on their tour of the U.S. in their Airstream.