Rainbow Springs State Park: An Antidote to the Florida Heat

Rainbow River

According to the Website floridasprings.org, “Rainbow Springs is Florida’s fourth largest spring and is designated a National Natural Landmark…The spring pool is about 250 feet wide and shallow, with especially clear blue water flowing over the beds of green aquatic plants and brilliant white limestone and sand…Seven vents contribute to the first-magnitude group near the spring bowl and are augmented by five more springs and hundreds of sand “boils” to create the Rainbow River. The river runs about 5.6 miles before joining the Withlacoochee River.

During the early twentieth-century the area was home to phosphate mines, parts of which can still be seen on park hiking trails.

Waterfalls built on old phosphate mining waste

The 1930s brought tourists and the spring became a theme park that included a zoo, gardens, rodeo, monorail, a swimming pavilion and artificial waterfalls built on old phosphate tailings.

Like many of Florida’s older tourist attractions, it couldn’t compete with the mega attractions in Orlando so closed in 1974. It reopened as Rainbow Springs State Park in the 1990s. after local volunteers supported the acquisition and restoration of the park.

Today pleasant  gardens and shady hikes invite a visit.  Butterflies and ancient trees abound.

Monarch enjoying a meal

 

Zebra: A common Florida Butterfly

 

Gulf Frittilary

The  Park provides a great place to escape the heat and swim in seventy-two-degree water in the head springs or kayak or tube down the river.We try to visit the park about once a year as this is the closest major spring to the Tampa Bay region. Florida springs are the perfect antidote to beat the Florida heat.  The gulf water and pools around our areas are all in the 90s.  The spring water though, ah a lovely seventy-two degrees!

Rainbow Springs State Park Swimming Area

The park tubing concessionaire, Nature Quest, rents tubes and provides tram service every twenty minutes up the river.  You grab your tube, float with the current, and two hours later you are pleasantly cool.  Tubing is available between April and the end of September (Before Memorial Day and after Labor Day rentals are limited to weekends)

Nature Quest Rents Tubes and Kayaks at the Park

We arrived around eleven: a reasonable time for a week-day but we probably would have been too late on the weekend as the park closes when the parking area fills. Early arrival is also advised because of frequent afternoon thunderstorms in the summer. For people, desirous of a quieter experience, I suggest a visit during the week or early or late in the season. Between the entry and two tubes, it cost us $45.  This includes the state park admission, tube rental and the tram ride north.

We floated two miles in about two hours. All manner of boats, tubes and kayaks take advantage of the cool water.  Given the crowds, we still saw quite a few birds, including anhingas, blue herons, and ibises. The water is clear, and feels just wonderful, as the air temperature was in the nineties.

A few important details: alcohol, coolers and disposable packaging (water bottles, food packaging and the like) are all prohibited on the river. The outfitter will keep your keys for a small fee. Additionally, even if you bring your own tube, you will still pay the $15 per person fee.

Perhaps the only drama occurred when I tried to pose for a photo at the end.  I did find out that the current near the end is strong enough to make it difficult to paddle the tube against the current.  Thus, into the water I went to paddle back to the ramp and off floated a sandal and hat.  Just a word to the wise.

An Unplanned Ending to a Great Tubing Trip (Photo Courtesy of Caity Mellicant)

 

Wakulla Springs Overnight

Wakulla Springs

We recently spent the night at the historic Lodge at Wakulla Springs in the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park.  The Lodge and park are about 250 miles north of Tampa Bay and about 30 miles south of Tallahassee.

We set out early on a Friday morning back in October for the  Springs.  Officially named after the original owner, it was about a half day drive for us, straight up US 19 from Clearwater to the Florida Panhandle.  We were actually headed to the Monarch Butterfly Festival at the nearby St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday.

Arriving at the Lodge
Arriving at the lodge

The Lodge at Wakulla Springs was thirty miles away from the refuge, so provided for easy access to the Saturday festival. The lodge in its day,  a grand hotel, built with Tennessee marble, local heart cypress, and imported tiles, opened in 1937. Edward Ball, a financial manager and son-in-law of  the DuPont family built the lodge so that people could enjoy this unique woodland and spring. The State of Florida purchased he lands and lodge after Ball’s death in 1986.

Lobby
The lobby is resplendent in marble and cypress

The Lodge and the grounds have quite the history.  Archaeological finds in the park include early stone blades and Clovis spear points dating back to 12,000 BC, discovered during the lodge renovation. Fossilized remains of mastodon and other prehistoric animals remain in the spring and a fossil can be seen at the entrance to the jungle ride.

Wakulla Springs
Creature from the Black Lagoon

Florida Springs are favorite locations for movies because of the tropical appearance and Wakulla is no exception.  Most famous were Tarzan movies and many scenes from the classic film “Creature from the Black Lagoon” were filmed at the spring.

 

 

 

 

Art Deco Elevator
Art Deco Elevator

The Lodge is also home to the oldest working Art Deco Elevator, one that would have had an attendant …back in its glory.

World's longest marble soda fountain
World’s longest marble soda fountain

After lunch we had the house specialty, ginger yip at this historic soda fountain.

Swimmers in the springSwimmers in the spring

Wakulla Springs
Wakulla River Florida Jungle Cruise

While we waited to board the “Wakulla River Florida Jungle Cruise” for 5pm (reservations required), the last cruise of the day, we watched brave souls diving into the sixty-eight degree water.

Rangers narrate  a tour of the river in these historic little river boats. Unfortunately the spring is too cloudy for the glass bottom boat ride.

Alligator
Sleepy Alligator
Wading birds and turtles enjoy the day
Wading birds and turtles enjoy the day

Coming from south-central Florida , we found the bird population at the spring identical to those on our waterways.  Given that we were four hours north, I found this interesting.  For folks interested in seeing birds, such as the ibis, little blue heron and anhinga in this picture… normally seen in south Florida, this is the boat ride for them.

bed
Rooms

I don’t mean to do a review of the lodgings here or the restaurant, but I will follow-up with a Trip Advisor Review.  We paid $169 for our room.  This included a substantial breakfast and admission to the park.  Even with that, it was pretty expensive, given the room.  The lodge in many ways remains true to its 1937 roots and often not in a good way.  An awful lot is in need of repairs or just cleaning.

Dining Room
Dining Room

The park’s isolation pretty much guarantees that lodgers eat in the park. I looked at the various Google and Trip Advisor Reviews prior to our trip.  The food was well-reviewed and we thoroughly enjoyed all three meals…but the service…well there were definitely holes. Again a topic for a review.  The lobby is lovely so we were only a little annoyed at the long wait for dinner. People gather here to play antique checkers and other games as the rooms do not have televisions but do have wi-fi. There is even a Pokemon Gym in the back yard.

Early the Saturday morning I set out on my morning trail run on the Wakulla Springs Trail…right out the front door.  The six-mile trail crosses the river and heads east.  It was chilly, in the 50s, but with not a cloud in the sky. I gotta say that this was truly one of the best trail runs that I have experienced.  The well-maintained trail and woods are quite interesting, with many of the trees labeled so that I could read the little placards as I ran. Unlike the birds, the trees here are quite different from South-central Florida, with quite the mixture of hardwoods, uncommon in most of Florida, and trees common to south-Florida, such as palms.   Some trees were even losing leaves and exhibiting fall color. Truly a great end to our stay.

trail

 

Honeymoon Island

Honeymoon Island Beach
Honeymoon Island beach

Honeymoon Island State Park and theDunedin Causeway make up my second favorite Tampa Bay beach experience.

Kayak Rentals
Kayak Rentals on Dunedin Causeway

On the three-mile long causeway you can drive right off the road onto the beach to fish or rent/launch boats. Dunedin Causeway is also a branch of the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, an ever extending rail trail.

The causeway ends at an entry kiosk. The cost to enter is $8, somewhat more than St. Pete. Beach. The park has a nice visitor’s center, oodles of parking, and a short walk between parking and the wide, sandy beach. Two cafes provide food and awesome views of the beach.  They rent the usual equipment needed for the beach, plus bikes and kayaks.  A Ferry that launches near the Park gate will take you to Caladesi Island, a great place to snorkel and hunt for shells.

Frenchy's Outpost
Frenchy’s Oupost

 

Many people will pedal from the trail into the park, with perhaps a stop at one of the restaurants along the causeway. We sampled one of the newest restaurants, Frenchy’s Outpost...a part of a local chain.  Frenchy’s is a colorful, comfortable, mostly outdoor, sports bar offering a wide selection of beers plus reasonably priced bar food. They specialize in grouper, which they serve in a multitude of ways. On a rainy day, which it was when we visited the other day, it was a fine alternative to the beach.

Endless Beach

Honeymoon Island is at the north end of town so that it is possible to park in downtown Dunedin, hop on a bike or even rent a bike and pedal into the park and back into town to enjoy the eminently walkable downtown Dunedin all in one day.

Dunedin Sunset
Dunedin Sunset