One of Florida’s largest springs, the headsprings of the Rainbow River originates in this beautiful 1,472-acre park. Rich in natural beauty and cultural history, it is also a popular spot for swimmers, kayakers, tubers, and campers. The magnificent azaleas bloom in early spring, attracting visitors from around the country.
Rainbow Springs is a wonderful mixture of Central Florida’s natural and cultural heritage. It is a popular destination to swim, snorkel, tube, fish, canoe, picnic or stroll the gardens. The day-use headsprings area, tube launch area, and the campground differ in the activities they allow, so be sure to ask in advance.
The gardens and waterfalls are cultural assets that remain from the days when the headsprings were a private attraction. They have been renovated and replanted while preserving their historical significance. In early spring the entire headsprings area bursts into pinks, purples, and whites with its famous azalea blooms. Nature trails meander into the park’s natural areas.
The headsprings and campground have a variety of programs, such as ranger-guided walks, snorkeling expeditions and canoe trips at different times of the year. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent at the headsprings. A food concession, gift shop and visitor center add to the pleasure and education of visitors. The picnic pavilions are perfect for family reunions and weddings.
The campground, about six miles from the headsprings, provides access to the river. More nature trails wind through the sandhill and oak hammock communities. Campground activities are for registered campers only. A camp store offers further amenities for overnight guests.
The area surrounding the park has been inhabited by human cultures for at least 10,000 years. People we now call the Timucua lived here at the time of European contact. The city of Ocala is named after a nearby Timucuan village and chief called Ocale. Pioneers first settled the headsprings in 1839.
By 1883, about 75 people lived in this agricultural community, which had a railroad station, sawmill, hotel, stores and a post office. In the 1920s, Blue Springs and Blue Run were favorite spots for tourists and locals. As the attraction grew, the river was dredged for glass bottom boat tours; and waterfalls were built on piles of phosphate tailings. A zoo, rodeo, gift shops and a monorail with leaf-shaped gondolas were added. In the mid-1970s, when larger theme parks lured the tourists away, Rainbow Springs was closed.
In the mid-1990s, it reopened as a state park. In 1972, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated Rainbow River as a National Natural Landmark. It is also an aquatic preserve and an Outstanding Florida Water. The river supports abundant wildlife, including otters, alligators, many species of turtles and fish, and every variety of waterbird—waders, divers and dabblers. Osprey, hawks and swallowtail kites soar along the river corridor while smaller birds and animals hide in the lush vegetation. Many animal species, including the endangered gopher tortoise, Florida pine snake, indigo snake, Sherman’s fox squirrel and the Florida mouse inhabit the uplands surrounding the springs and river.