Get away to Rainbow State Park in Dunnellon, one of Florida’s hidden gems, where you can float down a crystal clear lazy river, grub on gator bites and explore waterfalls.

Florida is home to many beautiful yet under-the-radar destinations -- and Rainbow State Park, which is home to one of Florida’s largest natural springs, tops the list of hidden diamonds in the rough.

Unlike the bright, city-lined beaches of South Florida, Rainbow State Park -- a popular spot for swimmers, kayakers, tubers and campers -- is nestled in a small woodsy town in central Florida called Dunnellon.

From paddling through moss-draped cypress trees to witnessing the headsprings area pop with colors of pink, purple and white when the famous azaleas bloom in the springtime to transforming into an Indiana Jones explorer with Geocaching, an outdoor game using hand-held GPS devices, there’s something for everyone on this adventurous weekend getaway.

Even if swimming isn’t your thing, it’s hard to ignore the lush beauty of this 1,470 acre Florida state park.

Grab a buddy (or two!), load up your backpack with day trip goodies (you’ll need a camera for sure), and head to Rainbow State Park for all-day exploration.

Get your stuff together

Once you arrive at the park you won’t want to leave so consider this to be a full-day trip, which means packing is essential.

Here’s a list of suggested items to help you conquer Rainbow State Park:


Binoculars (for viewing a variety of birds on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail)
Your furry friend (Heads up, dogs are allowed in the campground but are not permitted in swimming areas or buildings)
Swimsuit/wetsuit
Goggles
Water (staying hydrated is a must)
Camera (the area is bursting with Instagram gold)
Sneakers for hiking

If you’re planning on camping overnight at the campground that’s about six miles from the headsprings, don’t forget your suitcase and snacks. An overnight stay is a perfect way to wrap up the day if you just can’t say your goodbyes.

Stop along the way

Before you head out, you’ll want some background info on this landmark, which is rich in cultural history.

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The park may be new to you but the area surrounding the park has been inhabited by cultures for around 10,000 years and has served as a vital natural resource for humans and animals.

Think that’s a throwback? Get this, mastodon and mammoth fossils were found in the Rainbow River at one time. Relics discovered on the property indicate that American Indians used the river for transportation and fishing.

And to all the Florida history fans, you’ll love this. A group of people, who are now known as the Timucua, lived in the Dunnellon area when the Europeans traveled to the land. The next-door city, Ocala, which you’ll stumble across while visiting Dunnellon, is named after a nearby Timucuan village and chief called Ocale.

Want to know more about the origins of Florida cities and counties and how they were named? Take a look at this Florida Time history rewind.

Around 1883, about 75 people lived in this agricultural community, which was stocked with a railroad station, sawmill, hotel, stores and a post office.

If you think Disney is impressive, by the ‘20s, Rainbow State Park was a favorite spot for tourists -- it even became a privately-owned theme park. Guests used to enjoy glass-bottom boat tours along the river, a monorail with leaf-shaped gondolas and a rodeo.

But when major theme parks in Orlando started opening in the mid-1970s, Rainbow Springs closed and didn’t reopen to the public until the mid-1990s as a state park. Nowadays, Rainbow River is a designated National Natural Landmark, an aquatic preserve and an Outstanding Florida Water.

And with that dose of history, it’s time to hit the road.

Make sure to head out early. Not only will you beat the mid-morning traffic (and the heat), but you’ll give yourself more time to check out all the things the park has to offer without all the afternoon foot traffic surrounding you.

Stock up on coffee and donuts, turn up the tunes and get on the road no later than 6 a.m.

Pro-tip: On your drive to the town of less than 2,000 people, keep your eyes peeled for the thick, tree-lined roads leading to the park. If you’re traveling with family or friends, spice things up and play a game of “spot the animal.”

Trust me, there will be plenty of creatures to spot. At least three deer caught my eye along the wooded roadways, and if you love horses, you’ll have more than a fair share of stallion sightseeing to enjoy with the dozens of equestrian farms and ranches in the area.

First, swing by Swampy’s

Before you head out to conquer miles of clear water and scenic hiking trails, you’ll need a satisfied belly.

Swampy’s Bar and Grille is on the way. This local favorite sits right on a river and serves up seafood with friendly prices. The greatest thing about Swampy’s, besides the view, is the fact that you can grab a bite to eat and indulge in a float down the lazy river -- in the same place.

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That’s right, Swampy’s offers canoeing, kayaking and tubing on the Rainbow River if you just can’t wait to hit up Rainbow Park, which is about 15 minutes away. Grab a kayak or stand Up paddle board rental or enjoy a 4-hour tubing trip on the serene river.

Swampy’s has an extensive menu. If you don’t know what to munch on, try the gator bites. They’re a crowd favorite for those wanting something unique.

We sampled the gumbo -- a warm, cozy stick-to-your-ribs treat on a rainy day -- which provided a tasty, steamy intro to the crispy shrimp po-boy. Make sure to dunk your shrimp in their special Swampy’s remoulade sauce. It’s bomb!

Drift down the lazy river

Now, this is the star of the show. Imagine jumping into crystal clear spring waters. And with average temperatures of 72 degrees year-round, it’ll be easy getting in and staying in.

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There’s a ton to do on the river like kayaking, swimming and fishing -- but a fan favorite is definitely the slow, relaxing float down the lazy river.

The swimming area runs about 5-to-18 feet, and there’s a kiddie wading area for toddlers that’s less than 5 feet deep. Be sure to keep a watchful eye to make sure your toddler doesn’t wander as there are no lifeguards on duty.

The park has three main entrances: the headsprings area, tubing facilities and the campground.

Be aware, if you do decide to bring your own equipment, you can only launch your watercraft from the headsprings launch area. I highly recommend renting a vessel because if you decide to tough it out and haul your own gear, you’ll have to transport your equipment 1,800 feet from the parking area to the launch area since no vehicle access to the river is allowed.

If snorkeling is your thing, you can take a scenic swim as long as you have your dive flag. Snorkeling is limited to the buoyed swimming area, but you can freely do it from boats or the campground.

The river supports and holds an abundant amount of wildlife like otters, alligators, turtles and fish, and all varieties of waterbird — waders, divers and dabblers, so don’t forget to stay vigilant for wildlife while you float.

Get your science on

Your geoscience, that is.

This state park isn’t just reserved for active souls, it’s for voyagers who want to explore the earth as well.

Take a break from swimming and participate in the Operation Recreation GeoTour treasure hunt hosted by Geocaching.com -- there’s a version especially designed for kids, too. It’s great for travelers who want to learn geography since the tour isn’t restricted solely to the park. The inexpensive tour stretches from Pensacola to Key West and includes 71 of the first three-time National Gold Medal Award-Winning Florida State Parks and Trails.

Participants use hand-held global positioning systems to 'treasure hunt' without digging or compromising sensitive natural and cultural resources, making the tours environmentally friendly. Within the tour, you’ll visit 20 caches and get a chance to win the Official Operation Recreation Geocoin.

Just download and print the Official Tracking Sheet to start your adventure. Find out more about geocaching.

Take a hike

Although the park is most known for its see-through water, don’t leave Rainbow State Park without sauntering through the many hiking trails. This is where you’ll get to snap your best Instagram pics, witness wildlife and get a break from the heat.

When you take a stroll through the shady gardens, you’ll notice the lively plant life -- like the oaks and magnolias, which are found frequently throughout the trails. You’ll also see three-man made waterfalls hidden within the trails. They were built years ago on piles of phosphate tailings.

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Remember the suggestion for bringing binoculars? You’ll need them if you want to hop on the guided bird walk that’s offered the second Saturday of every month except June, July, and August.

Plan a picnic

By now your stomach should be rumbling, and after all that adventure, Swampy’s gator bites can only hold you so long. What better way to soothe your hangry spirit than a scenic park picnic?

There are several spots to sit down and enjoy lunch, so take your pick. If you’re looking to escape the heat while you nosh, there are covered picnic tables -- but you’ll have to reserve them in advance. Up for grabs on a first-come-first-serve basis are the uncovered picnic tables and grills.

If you like being close to nature, you’re more than welcome to grab a random comfy grassy spot in the park to lay down a towel and break out an old-fashioned picnic basket.

Rainbow State Park is an off-the-beaten-path trip that’s a must.

If you go:

Rainbow State Park

Location: 19158 SW 81st Place Rd., Dunnellon FL 34432

Hours: 8 a.m. - Sunset, 365 days

Fees: $2/person | Children under 6 are free

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