Rainbow Springs State Park, Florida
Robert Wallace, continues re-tracing the footsteps of his long-ago family travel adventures through Florida’s Nature Coast ( In a State Not So Far Far Away) when he was just a knee-high “Jedi” knight.
A Stranger, A Folded Napkin, and a New Discovery
Sometimes the kindness of strangers makes all the difference. In my last (very damp) transmission from Florida’s Nature Coast, I mentioned that someone told me about a secret place where I might find other life forms (wildlife!) unafraid of the "Dark Force" (rain) that had been my constant companion on this trip. If not for the kindness of a stranger in the diner (the only dry spot to be found) and the note he slipped me, folded into a napkin and complete with coordinates hand-written in small script, I might never have discovered Rainbow Springs State Park.
Who: Families, kids, seniors. Not fully accessible.
What: Natural springs, birds 60+ species, Butterflies 40+ species, walking trails, canoe & kayak rentals, tubing & swimming, Camping available.
When: Open all year, October - March best for migratory birds. Some water activities closed March - October
Tip: Use headspring entrance for easiest trail /waterfall access.
Where: Dunnellon, Fl. Marion Cty. on Florida's western gulf coast
How: US 41. Minutes by car: Tampa 105, Orlando 90, Crystal River 30.
Why Responsible: The region is under constant pressure for additional development. Responsible tourism makes it economically valuable to preserve these fragile natural ecosystems.
Itching for adventure, I jumped into my vehicle and quickly sped northward. What surprised me was the fact that as late as my teens I had been on the Rainbow River more than once but never knew (or even heard) about the state park. Better late than never.
A Little History of Rainbow Springs State Park
Cool Fast Facts:
1. Rainbow Springs State Park takes its name from the first magnitude spring (any spring that can discharge 2800 liters (740 gallons) of water/ second) located within the park.
2. The name-sake spring is at the starting point of the 6 mile (9.7km) long Rainbow River.
3. Rainbow Springs is, in fact, the fourth largest spring in Florida for its sheer volume, 400-600 million gallons of crystal clear water every day.
4. The Rainbow Spring isn’t one enormous vent but instead is made up of several vents.
Rainbow Springs, From Theme Park to State Park
From the 1930’s thru the 1970’s Rainbow Springs Park was privately owned and operated as a theme park. Part of the Park was mined for phosphate and the waterfalls that still stand today were created using the mines’ tailings.
Among the offerings of the original park were glass-bottom boats, a tree level monorail - and a zoo. The advent of interstate highways and other new and flashier tourist attractions culminated in the close of Rainbow Springs in 1974.
The state purchased the property in the 1980’s, but it didn’t reopen to the public until the early 90’s thanks to the help of a group of volunteers (now called Friends of Rainbow River State Park). Thankfully, the mines, zoo and other “activities” are gone, only the waterfalls remain. So, that is why I didn’t know about it. The last time I was on the Rainbow River was back in the 1980’s.
Exploring the Secrets of Rainbow Springs State Park
About 25 miles north-northeast of that fateful lunch-time diner and its helpful stranger sits one of the most beautiful state parks that I have had the pleasure of visiting…ever.
By the time I arrived the rain had gone from a downpour to a light drizzle.
I took a last look at the weather radar. The heavy rain bands had passed. Being that it was late afternoon already and I had never been here before, I chose to bring only my go-to Nikon D500 and my Tamron 150-600mm G2 series lens. I was there for creatures of the forest, wasn’t I?
After paying $2 for the entrance fee and a crudely drawn map, I made my way to where the forest started. I was not prepared for the beauty that unfolded before me.
When you use the “head spring day use” entrance, the first thing you see is the namesake spring that feeds Rainbow River. The river itself runs 5.6 miles (9km) and connects to the Withlacoochee River. Little springs run the whole stretch of the Rainbow making it one of the clearest, most magical rivers you’ll ever see.
And Then There are the Flowers of Rainbow Springs State Park
If you love flowers, well, they were everywhere. I walked the paved-pebbled path that curves through this tropical landscape passing three beautiful waterfalls and babbling creeks. There are a couple of boardwalks connecting to the path and leading down to the river. It was on one of these boardwalks that I came across three other lifeforms. My feathered friends were gracious enough to allow me to photograph them and without requiring anything in return!
Remnants of the Old Rainbow Springs Zoo
I kept walking and beyond this initial tropical paradise found the area where once creatures big and small were housed. I’m using “housed” in the loosest of terms, in reality, the small brick and fenced enclosures are remnants of the old zoo. I wish I could report that all the wildlife once held here were rescued and relocated to the best of facilities, but that was information I was not able to obtain.
No matter, it was good to see the earth reclaiming what was hers in the first place. I wanted to believe the old zoo occupants had been well cared for, but it seems that this part of the park might still hold much sorrow. I did not encounter a single wild and free being either winged or on four legs here.
The path finally led away from this gloomy alcove and brought me to an area where an obvious battle between the Forces of Nature had taken place. The park, on the whole, had won but not before the damage was done. Last winter had unleashed a couple of cold fronts that proved to be too much. An area created for some of our smallest of Jedi, butterflies, was no more than dead plants. The Park folks assured me they were preparing to replant the butterfly garden to its full glory. I will be back to see its resurrection.
Begin Your Forest Walk with the Bear Facts
The paved path ends where the forest begins. At the beginning of the forest trail is a sign indicating that Florida’s black bear is not a stranger here and one should know what to do if they ever come face to face with it.
I contemplated whether to continue. It was getting late after all, and the trail that I was most interested in (there are three) was a two-mile loop that takes you into the heart of the forest.
I chose to walk on down my present pine needle covered trail taking in all the peace, solitude and shade the tall pines and oaks offered.
For a short distance, this first section of the trail system has wood fencing on both sides to keep you out of protected areas. Back in the old days, this was the area mined for phosphate, but all you’ll find now are pits that have been reclaimed by mother nature.
A few steps into the forest, just past the Bear sign, it became apparent that I was being watched…and led. I felt no menacing vibes coming from this new feathery species, so I followed.
An Overcast Day in the Forest
I tried to photograph the birds even if just for my records. Even on a perfectly sunny day, it is quite a challenge to photograph small busy-bodied birds while hiking, but when you add an overcast sky plus the lower light of dense woods, you have the recipe for fuzzy, out of focus photographs. Not only will having the right camera settings help but (when not using a tripod) proper hand-holding techniques make a difference too. To help keep your camera steady, tuck your elbows in tight to your torso.
Tips For Photographing Flighty Birds on a Dark, Rainy Day
When you are trying to photograph very flighty birds in these lighting conditions, you will probably be shooting at an ISO 2000 or higher. I was going between ISO 2000 and 3200 for the most part and shot with a shutter speed of 1/400th of a second. The max aperture of my Tamron lens zoomed out to 600mm is F/6.3 and while I normally would shoot all birds and wildlife at f/8 for the sharpest image, I chose f/7.1 because it would give me a sharper image than f/6.3 and a little more light than f/8 and thus allows me to keep the ISO as low as possible while maintaining a shutter speed fast enough for hand-holding a long-reach zoom lens.
The Forest Beyond the Fence
The wood fence eventually ends but the trail continues on, leading further into the forest and further away from any help if the need should arise. My brain was telling me the light was fading too fast and that I should heed the signs warning about being caught out here at night (bears!) but my heart urged me to explore just a little further. I’m glad I did!
I found myself about 50ft (15m) away from a “guy” that has been an old friend ever since I learned to lace my shoes. It is one of my favorite woodpecker species…the Pileated Woodpecker. Did you know that the Pileated Woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America? They have a wingspan that can reach around 29.5 in (75cm)! So, it’s always exciting when I get to meet up with this stunning bird.
Finally, I was ready to turn and head back when I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. Two deer bounded away from me.
I had been so focused on photographing my old feathered friend, that I didn’t notice those two amazing animals coming through the brush. Now, all that remained to see was their white tails growing small and then vanishing into the dense brush. It was this close meeting that convinced me that I needed to call it a day and next time get an early morning start, but first I had to make it back to my transport vehicle safely - or there may not be the next time.
Two Months Later, Back in Rainbow Springs!
As you can see, I made it out of the park safely that day and back again.
The park lost none of its lush beauty and leading up to where I had last stood the dark greens and bold colors of the many flowers were even more striking. Here in the dense foliage, beyond the fenced trail, it’s all about the sounds and sights of the forest.
The Photography Equipment I Brought for a Nice Day in the Forest
This time I brought along my go-to camera AND my Nikon D810 married to a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. My main reason for toting the extra weight was to photograph the waterfalls near the park’s entrance, but I also wanted it for any potential landscape scenes that catch my eye. This time the day was perfect. Sunny with only the occasional puffy white cloud. This allowed me to keep my ISO on the D500 camera set no higher than 1000, shutter speed between 500th and 800th of a second and my f-stop at my preferred setting of f/8. My D810 was set at its lowest ISO setting, f/14 to f/22 for the aperture and around 3 seconds for the shutter. I was able to obtain such a slow shutter speed (which is great for giving water a sense of motion) by adding a dark polarizing filter to the front lens element. It was also very early morning, so that made this possible too. If it were mid-day, then I would have to have used a neutral density filter instead which range in different light-cutting intensities.
On this day's warm sunny walk, I found a few more birds fluttering around but had no more deer sightings. Never the less, it was beautiful and captivating. At one point the main trail brings you out if the trees and onto a path leading you on a short route with a filed of tall golden straw grass on your left, and the forest on your right. Keep going and eventually, you end up surrounded again by the tall pine and oak trees.
Throughout the hike, there was no shortage of singing birds and chattering squirrels. The native wildflowers sprinkled here and there, caught the interest of passing butterflies and honey bees.
Unfortunately, it was nearing early evening already when I made it to the end of the trail. I wished I could have made one last loop around (because you never know!) but I knew that was not a smart idea. All it would take is for me to see one or two intriguing birds or animals and I would lose track of time and be potentially too far out on the trails to make it back to safety before dark.
Saying Goodbye to Rainbow Springs - for Now
Finally, back in the transport vehicle (my truck), I stared at the Park’s entrance, wondering. Back in the day, was there wildlife in the Park as there is now? Would I have “known” about this paradise when I was just a small “Jedi” exploring Florida’s Nature Coast with my family? And what about the zoo animals? I know looking back and asking those questions now does no good, but as a nature photographer with such a love of all things wild (domesticated too) it’s hard not to. Especially knowing that Florida Black Bears have been spotted here and after my own glimpse of the beautiful whitetail deer.
Just as with my recent time on the Chassahowitzka River (Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge), I knew this would not be my last visit to Rainbow Springs State Park. So, I smiled at that thought and gave a friendly salute to the park as I zipped away.
Thank you all for joining me on my journey as I revisited my childhood’s “Jedi” paths. I hope if you are ever in the area of Florida’s Nature Coast you find time to squeeze in a visit to this stunning park. You will not be disappointed.
May the Force be with you, my friends.
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