Having thoroughly explored the historic architecture in Dunnellon’s Historic Boomtown District, I turned my attention to natural attractions during my second day in this north central Florida town. As home to Rainbow Springs, Florida’s fourth largest natural spring which disgorges 416 million gallons of water each day, and the meeting place for the Withlacoochee and Rainbow Rivers, Dunnellon easily lives up to its claim of being the “Treasure of Florida’s Nature Coast.” The local rivers are so famous for their large mouth bass that the State officially calls Dunnellon the bass capitol of the world, and fishermen also pull sunfish, bream, longnose gar, shad, and crappie from these waters as well. For those who prefer saltwater fishing, the Gulf of Mexico is only a short distance away by car, or by boat via the Withlacoochee.
Not being a fisherman, I decided to investigate Rainbow Springs State Park, the site of the headwaters of the Rainbow River just ten miles north of town. This spring became popular in the late 1880′s when hard rock phosphate was discovered in the area and by the 1930′s it had been developed as a tourist attraction. Sea walls, a lodge, a gift shop, and a reptile exhibit were built and tailings from the nearby phosphate mining operation were used to construct miles of nature trails, scenic gardens, and three waterfalls, one of which is still Florida’s highest man-made waterfall. In the 1960′s, Sperry and Hutchinson Corporation (S & H Green Stamps) purchased the spring and turned it into a popular theme park, dredging the river in order to offer glass-bottomed boat rides, riverboat rides, a log raft ride, and submarine boat tours. S & H also added a zoo, a monorail with leaf-shaped gondolas, and an on-site rodeo.
The theme park’s heyday was short lived, however. In the early 1970′s, Interstate 75 was built 30 miles east of Dunnellon, diverting traffic from U.S. Rt. 41 and forcing closure of the park. Thankfully, the U.S. Department of the Interior stepped in, designating Rainbow River as a National Historic Landmark. Determined not to let this natural treasure wither, in 1984 volunteers began clearing the overgrown lands, restoring the pathways, and with the help of the Village of Rainbow Springs Garden Club, planting azaleas, magnolias, and a variety of other native plants. Constant lobbying on the part of the volunteer organizations finally convinced the State of Florida to purchase the original area that was the Rainbow Springs Attraction in 1990. The park was opened to the public on weekends in 1993 and on a full time basis two years later. Continue reading