Inner tubing to inner peace

A float down the Rainbow River means spiritual renewal to some; to others, it's just a relaxing getaway from life's stresses.
Published August 5, 2004


DUNNELLON - The antidote to a steamy Florida afternoon is a cool river, a flotation device and the willingness to leave all cares on the shore.

It is pretty difficult to fret about office politics, money woes or world events from an inner tube. With shade trees overhead, a lazy current gently nudging you along and only the squawk of assorted waterfowl to fill your ears, you have to work pretty hard to resist a Zen-like state of peace.

Though options for water sport in Florida are plentiful, one of the best places to indulge in the quintessential summer ritual of tubing is the 5.8-mile Rainbow River, about two hours north of Tampa. This pristine river system discharges nearly 500-million gallons of cool, clear water a day, making it the fourth largest freshwater spring in Florida and the eighth largest in the world.

With a year-round temperature of 72 degrees, the river is a haven for city dwellers looking to beat the heat in a kayak, canoe or tube. Because the headwaters of the river, located in Rainbow Springs State Park, are protected, tubers must put in south of the park entrance, at KP Hole Park in Dunnellon.

On a typical summer weekend, as many as 1,000 swimmers, snorkelers and tubers hit the river. So the best time to visit is early in the morning or on a weekday. But whenever you go, be prepared to take your time. The river experience shouldn't be rushed. The 31/2-mile float can take from four to five hours to complete. Besides, isn't slowing down the point?

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Marion County's KP Hole Park offers a sandy beach, a protected swimming hole and picnic benches, but the biggest draw is the tubing. Though simple inner tubes are available for rent, many veterans of the river prefer to bring their own - multicolored blowup bubbles that more closely resemble Barcaloungers and sofa beds than the classic black tube. Families often tie their tubes together, creating floating living rooms complete with headrests, cup holders and coolers filled with food and drink in the required nondisposable containers.

But the easiest way to traverse this slow-moving river is in a round black tube, arms and legs draped across either side, toes dipped in the heavenly cool of a spring-fed river. Just 14 feet at its deepest, the Rainbow River is so clear you can see its bottom, waves of grass swaying below in some spots, craggy rock formations filled with silvery bursts of tiny fish in others.

Sharp-eyed snorkelers sometimes catch a glimpse of fossils or stone tools left by the area's first inhabitants, but such relics are protected by law and must be left alone. Anyway, some of the best sights are above the surface - the many creatures that make their homes in and around the river. Families of turtles can be seen sunning themselves on fallen cypress stumps, lined up in neat rows, largest to smallest. Red-tailed hawks and the occasional bald eagle soar overhead. Great blue herons and snowy egrets tiptoe along the shore, scanning for lunch.

Anhingas, the so-called snake birds, skim along just below the surface, propelled by rudderlike tails, rising only to guzzle their prey whole. And the stunning view of the sleek black cormorant, wings spread wide, drying itself in the sun is unforgettable.

One of the biggest treats for the watchful tube rider is the playful romp of an otter family, leaping in and out of the water, their sleek bodies forming half-circles above the surface as they dive down, seemingly for the sheer joy of it. Poking tiny heads above the surface, they chatter with one another, barely noticing the delighted humans floating past, waterproof cameras snapping wildly.

Alligator sightings are rare in the Rainbow River, unlike the nearby Withlacoochee. The only real danger is the Florida sun, at its most intense between noon and 2 p.m. The park opens at 8 a.m., so it is a good idea to get there early and be off the river by noon. Cypress trees offer limited shade closer to shore, and some stretches of the river are mercifully shielded from direct sunlight. But much of it is unprotected from the sun, so be sure to slather on the (waterproof, sweatproof) sunscreen.

There's a shuttle service to take you back to your car at the end of the float, so no worries about paddling back.

Despite the peaceful serenity, some newcomers to tubing can find the experience mildly daunting.

On one recent trip, a friend cautiously dipped a toe into the water and recoiled from the chill. Then she saw that the tubes had no centers, meaning most of her body would be in that water, vulnerable, she feared, to nibbles from tiny critters as she floated along. Assured that the river dwellers had far tastier food available, she bravely waded in. By the end of the trip, she was planning another, describing her river ride as a spiritual experience.

Spiritual is a word not infrequently used by tubers who come back to the Rainbow River year after year, seeking a sense of peace they rarely find elsewhere. But whether it offers a spiritual journey or merely a chance to unwind, the Rainbow River never fails to reward those who enter it with contentment and a sense that, at least for this day and on this river, all is well.

If you go
The Rainbow River is just north of Dunnellon, off U.S. 41. From Tampa, take Interstate 75 north to Exit 341 (County Road 484). Head west until you get to the town of Dunnellon (you'll cross the river just before the town limits). Go north on U.S. 41 for 3 miles. After the Winn-Dixie shopping center on the right, turn right and travel for 2 miles until you reach the railroad tracks. Immediately past the tracks take a left onto the frontage road and travel half a mile to KP Hole County Park.

KP Hole has restrooms, a snack bar, swimming beach and boat ramp. Alcoholic beverages and disposable items are not allowed on the river. Snacks and drinks in nondisposable containers are permitted.

The park entrance fee is $3 per person. Canoes are $5 an hour. Tubes are $9 for the day. For more information, call (352) 489-3055.

Rainbow Springs State Park is just north of KP Hole and includes the headwaters of the Rainbow River. The circular springhead, hundreds of yards wide with an underwater visibility of 150 feet, offers an unforgettable swimming or snorkeling experience. Tubing is not allowed within the park but canoe and kayak rentals are available. The 1,000-acre park also offers swimming, camping, numerous trails, three artificial waterfalls and 11 gardens. Facilities include a visitors' center, gift shop, restrooms, pavilions and snack bar.

For park information, call (352) 465-8555. For camping information, call (352) 465-8550. The park is open daily from sunrise to sunset and admission is $1.

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