Kayaking Florida’s Rainbow River
Tips & Tricks for Kayaking on the Rainbow River
‘The noise of the busy KP Hole faded into the distance and it was just us and the river, paddling through the wide channels cutting through the marshland. Anhinga birds perched on overhanging trees to dry their wet feathers in the early morning sun. A cormorant tagged alongside my kayak, before diving deep into the river in search of a fishy breakfast. A trio of otters played and danced in the water ahead of us, shyly ducking into the weeds as we approached. The sandy bottom of the river turned a beautiful blue as the river bed dropped some 20-odd feet down to a cavern spring. We had reached the Devil’s Elbow, the deepest point on the Rainbow River.’
I’ve learned from experience to kayak upriver so that when the family is tuckered out, we can just float back with the current. The Rainbow River is no exception. This 5.6 mile run located in Marion County’s Dunnellon, Florida, begins at the head springs in the Rainbow Springs State Park, meanders through Dunnellon and mixes with the tannin stained dark waters of the Withlacoochee River to head out to Lake Rousseau in Crystal River and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. With history dating back 10,000 years, the Rainbow River has seen it’s fair share of civilizations, from Native American Indians to Phosphate miners to the tubers of today. A sailor we met in St. Augustine told us he was surprised about the Rainbow River: unlike other Florida Rivers, there were houses along the banks of the Rainbow, and yet the water managed to maintain it’s crystal clear clarity. This sparkling water is due to the fresh water springs located along the river, adding to the first magnitude springs of the head springs, which shoots out 400-600 million gallons of fresh water daily.
Kayak Launch Points Along the Rainbow River
Kayaking on Florida’s Rainbow River can be an hour out or an entire day’s adventure. Here is a run down of the public kayak launch points along the river:
Centennial Park & Public Boat Ramp
While there is a launch point at Dunnellon’s Public Boat Ramp behind their city hall (across from The Blue Gator- local hotspot), you are actually on the Withlacoochee River. Drop your kayak off and park up. Head up river (left), under the highway 41 bridge and continue for about a mile. You will come to the spot where the Withlacoochee and the Rainbow River join up- you can actually see the line in the water where the dark Withlacoochee meets the blue waters of the Rainbow! (You can read about our mis-adventure on the Withlacoochee at: Stranded on the Withlacoochee.) Keep left to stay on the Rainbow River. The City Beach is on the left as well. Centennial Park has toilet facilities, a floating dock & picnic tables. Boat ramp for motorised boats as well. Free. The Dunnellon Public Boat Ramp is located at: 20750 Rivers Drive, Dunnellon, FL 34431
Insider Tip: This boat ramp is extremely busy on weekends. There is over-flow parking at Datesman Park around the corner- 12050 S. Ohio St., Dunnellon, FL 34431
Chaplin A. Dinkins III Memorial Park
Better known as “City Beach,” this riverside park just off of the road right behind the SunTrust Bank on E. Pennsylvania Ave. From the park you can see both the Withlacoochee River and the Rainbow River. You have to carry your kayak down the hill to reach the water, but this is the end point of the Rainbow before it mixes with the Withlacoochee. Kayak around the island directly across from the beach (many locals swim it) or just head upriver to Blue Run Park. The park is free during off-season (October to May) and $1 per person during season. City Beach also has toilet facilities, little kids playground, and a swim area. City Beach is located at: 12100 Palmetto Court, Dunnellon, FL 34432
Insider Tip: City Beach has the only shallow swim area of all the parks on the Rainbow River, making it a great swimming location for families with younger children.
Blue Run Park
The official put-in for the lower part of the Rainbow River, this city park is located beside the bridge on 484/E. Pennsylvania Ave. The nice boardwalk and kayak/canoe launch also serves as the tuber exit, so it can get crowded during the warmer months on the weekends. Unload your kayaks and then park up. Kayak downriver to see where the Withlacoochee meets the Rainbow or upriver, past the riverside houses, side swamps and little islands. There is a lake on the left called Blue Cove. It used to be a phosphate pit. You have to go under a very low bridge to get to it. It’s right after the swamp on the right. Blue Run Park has porta-potty toilets (2), hiking/biking trails. Swimming is prohibited according to the sign, but lots of people seem to accidentally fall into the crystal clear water. Free. Blue Run Park is located at: 19680 E. Pennsylvania Ave, Dunnellon, FL 34432
- Kayak/SUP rentals are available right on the other side of the bridge from Blue Run at Aquatic Wilderness Adventures (19783 E Pennsylvania Ave, Dunnellon, FL 34432)
Insider Tip: Parking is limited at Blue Run Park, but there is a little known over-flow parking area around the corner at San Jose Boulevard. You can walk back via the road or on the ‘Pond Trail.’
The K.P. Hole County Park
This county park is located only a mile and a half down river from Rainbow Springs State Park. This is the tubing place on the river, and a 4.5 hour float to Blue Run Park, but upriver is where all of the action is, with Devil’s Elbow, the deepest place on the river with a 22 foot depth, and springs galore. There are nice swimming/snorkeling areas north of the KP Hole too. Kayak upriver to the State Park for a glimpse of wild Florida and float back for a 3 mile run, or all the way back to Blue Run Park. The KP Hole has a shuttle (for an extra fee) that will collect you and your kayak at the end. $5 per person entry fee to the KP Hole (shuttle extra). This county park has toilet facilities, showers, lockers, picnic tables & concessions. Kayak & canoe rentals too! The KP Hole is located at: 9435 SW 190th Avenue Rd, Dunnellon, FL 34432
Insider tip: Pay for one ticket on the shuttle back to the KP Hole, then kayak to the head springs and then downriver to Blue Run Park. Let the car driver return to the park on the shuttle ticket and bring the car back to pick up everyone else. If you get bored, you can always paddle to Swampy’s and grab a bite to eat while you wait for your ride. This, of course, only works if you have two adults in your party. Don’t leave your kids waiting alone!
Rainbow Springs State Park Campground
Hurricane Hermine tossed a tree onto their dock, but they have been working hard at repairs. This kayak launch option is only available to campers at the State Park Campground. The campground is a short kayak run upriver to the state park itself and included in your stay. Kayak to the head springs in the park and float back. The Rainbow Springs State Park Camp Ground has kayak/canoe rentals, swimming, primitive & RV camping. Fees: $30 campsite. Reservations must be made ahead of time. The facilities in this park are only available to the campers. The campground is located at: 18185 SW 94th St. Dunnellon, FL 34432
Rainbow Springs State Park
Rainbow Springs State Park is the start of the Rainbow River. No motor boats are allowed within the park boundaries, but these are some of the most pristine areas you will see, with abundant wildlife and aquatic vegetation. The entry to the State Park is on Highway 41, just north of Dunnellon. It’s a $2 fee per person, but the canoe/kayak launch is a distance- down the hill and to the right, just beyond the swimming areas, so bring your kayak cart (steep downhill stretch). Rainbow Springs State Park, a former historic Florida attraction, has hiking trails, waterfalls, nature walks, butterfly garden, concessions, canoe/kayak rentals, swimming & toilet facilities. Rainbow Springs State Park is located at: 19158 SW 81st Pl Rd. Dunnellon, FL 34432
The Rules of the Rainbow River
The Rainbow River has been an Outstanding Florida Waterway & Aquatic Preserve since 1987, and the locals plan to keep it that way. This is by far one of the strictest rivers we’ve kayaked.
- No disposables of any nature. No wrappers, pieces of paper, cans, etc. Put your water in a non-disposable sports bottle, unwrap any food item you plan to take and store in Tupperware containers. They have police patrolling the river, and a single granola bar wrapper can land you a hefty fine. Take no chances. Juniper Run in the Ocala National Forest has rules like this!
- No alcohol on the river.
- The entire Rainbow River is a No Wake Zone. Which means idle speeds for motorized boat owners. Slow for them, but nicer for us kayakers! If you do have a motor- watch the shallow zones, as there are protruding rock hazards.
- Plan on diving? You must put up a flag.
- No hanging out on other peoples’ docks. Yes there are beautiful docks along the length of the area, but if they aren’t public ( like the ones on the list above), then you can get arrested for trespassing.
Places to Eat Along the Rainbow River
- Swampy’s Bar &Grille: Located next to the bridge on HWY 484/East Pennsylvania Ave, Swampy’s is walking distance from Blue Run Park. They have a dock on the river to tie up your boat (or use one of the trees). Outdoor casual dining with views of the river. Also an indoor dining area for those wanting to escape the Florida heat/bugs. Serves lunch & dinner. Swampy’s Bar & Grille is located at 19773 E. Pennsylvania Ave, Dunnellon, FL 34431
- The Blue Gator Tiki Bar &Restaurant: Though technically on the Withlacoochee (after it meets the Rainbow), the Blue Gator is a popular local spot. Next to the bridge over the Withlacoochee on HWY 41 and across from the City Hall and the Public Boat Ramp at Centennial Park. Dock on the river to tie up your boat. Deck over the water for views of the river, outdoor casual dining & indoor dining area as well. Live music. And yes, you can even eat gator there! Serves lunch & dinner. Pontoon boat rentals & river tours. The Blue Gator is located at 12189 S Williams St, Dunnellon, FL 34432
- There are plenty of non-riverside eateries as well and lots of fast food. The Front Porch, a family owned establishment, serves up fantastic home-style meals and pie- lots of fresh pie! You can find The Front Porch at 12039 N. Florida Avenue, Dunnellon, FL 34434. For Mexican food lovers, try Don Pepe (20744 W Pennsylvania Ave, Dunnellon, FL 34431). Sonic ( 11351 N Williams St, Dunnellon, FL 34432) makes for a good quick bite if you are soaked from kayaking- the tables are outside or you can stay in your car (fast food). You’ll find the chains like McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, Hungry Howies, Pizza Hut along Highway 41.
Places to Stay in Dunnellon
- Comfort Suites: the newest addition to Dunnellon. 20052 Brooks St, Dunnellon, FL 34432
- Two Rivers Inn: Mini-suites & cabin rentals. Daily, weekly, monthly lets. Minutes away from Centennial Park & Public Boat Ramp. Look for the iconic Blues Brothers Statue out front. 20814 W. Pennsylvania Ave, Dunnellon, FL
- The Rainbow Rivers Club Rental cabins & river front villas. Has its’ own private marina! 20510 The Granada, Dunnellon, FL 34432
- The Dinner Bell Motel: Daily & weekly room lets. Right next to Centennial Park & Public Boat Ramp.
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