DUNNELLON, FL — The water is so clear that schools of shiners and shad seem at times to be patrolling at low altitude instead of beneath the surface. The birds, too, add to the confusion when the anhingas and cormorants take to the water as as easily as the air.
The Rainbow River, fed by one of the world’s largest springs, attracts kayakers from around the world to gin-clear water that teams with birds, fish and natural beauty. “The water clarity is unparalleled,” said Nathan Witt of Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak. “During the last dry season the underwater visibility was 120 feet. Rainbow Springs is pumping out an Olympic-size swimming pool every two minutes or less. That makes it crystal clear and very appealing for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving. Folks are enamored by almost a hundred underwater caves, boils and spring vents that can be seen in the first few miles of the river.”
The 6-mile river in Dunnellon, Florida offers easy paddling in a current that runs about a mile an hour. The bottom, usually just 3 to 6 feet deep, is visible during most of the trip but in some spots drops to dark crevices and spring boils 30 feet deep or more.
The river is also home to an abundance of fish as well as wood ducks, herons, ibises, limpkins, coots, bald eagles and other birds of prey. “Otters are fun to watch, and they’ll always put on a show for you if you can find them,” Whitt said. “We don’t have manatees because there’s a dam between us and the Gulf on the Withlacoochee River.” While gators are not plentiful on the Rainbow River, they’re more common in winter when the constant 72 degree water provides welcome warmth.
In order to protect the natural beauty, the Rainbow River was one of the first in the country to ban disposable food and drink containers, Whitt said. (In addition to operating the outfitter, Nathan Whitt also serves as Mayor of Dunnellon.) Current environmental regulations prohibit new development within a prescribed distance of the river, but many of the homes on the developed west side of the river were grandfathered in when those laws passed.
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While the Rainbow River is the main attraction, Dunnellon sits at the junction of two rivers and the “Withlachoochee is a wonderful paddle, especially this time of year (autumn). It’s the best waterflow of the year because we’re at the end of the rainy season. The Withlacoochee is really a pretty trip through the state forest.” Unlike the Rainbow, the Withlacoochee water is tannic, stained the color of tea by the vegetation.
The ideal time to visit the Rainbow is from October to April. The weather is mild, the tubing concessions have closed and the crowds have mostly gone.
Rainbow River Canoe & Kayak offers a variety of sit-in and sit-on-top kayaks as well as stand-up paddleboards. They started the business with Old Town canoes and continue to provide Old Town sit-in kayaks. “For sit-on-tops, we provide Ocean Kayaks,” Whitt said. “We carry about a hundred boats so we can provide lots of options for folks.”
“Stand-up paddleboards have become all the rage in the last few years. They’re a neat way to see the river and they provide a better perspective, a better view.” He says the Ocean Kayak paddleboards they offer are very stable and durable. “We like these because they’re durable and they track more like a boat. The ‘surfboard’ types don’t track as well and tend to waddle down the river.”
Rainbow River Kayak Rentals
Kayakers have at least three good options to explore the Rainbow River. Rentals are available at the headwaters at Rainbow Springs State Park, at the K.P. Hole County Park and at Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak at the confluence of the Rainbow and Withlacoochee. The best choice depends on how far you want to go and whether you want to paddle upstream, downstream or both.
Rainbow River Canoe & Kayak
12121 River View
Dunnellon, Fl 34432
Phone: (352) 489-7854
Offers rentals as well as shuttle service on the Rainbow & Withlacoochee Rivers. Canoes and tandem kayaks are $51.94. Single kayaks are $40.28. For Rainbow River Trip: canoes and tandem kayaks are $46.64.
Rainbow Springs State Park
19158 S. W. 81st Place Road
Dunnellon, Florida 34432
Phone: (352) 465-3211
If you simply want to enjoy the head spring and perhaps swim or enjoy the walking paths or hiking trails at the state park, this is the easiest option. Kayaks are $22 for 2 hours (1 or 2 people) $33 for 2 hours (3 people) or $44 for 2 hours (4 people.)
KP Hole Park
9435 SW 190th Ave. Road
Dunnellon, FL 34432
Kayaks & canoes rent for $8 hourly or $10 for a double. A shuttle service is offered at $7.00. The park is located a mile and a half south of Rainbow Springs State Park.