Enjoying a Waterfall Hike on Florida’s Nature Coast
Sunlight filters through the forest canopy, shining warm rays on the magenta flowers blossoming on the azalea bushes. A squirrel darts across the exposed aggregate path to scramble up a nearby ivy-covered tree. He pauses to watch us walk past. A songbird trills out a melody, punctuated by the intermittent buzz of a chainsaw – a reminder that this was not a fairytale trail through the woods, but a brief respite from the nearby civilization.
As we round a corner, a roar fills the air.
“Come on, Mom!” my son says with excitement. He grabs my hand to rush me along the path to the anticipated destination. Up ahead we stop in awe. Water cascades down a hillside littered with moss-covered limestone in a single sheer drop to the reflection pool below. Behind us more falls rush down the hills. But we aren’t in the mountains of north Georgia, we’re on the Nature Coast in West Central Florida.
Phosphate Mining in Dunnellon
Waterfalls are not a common sight in this area of Florida, However, there’s a waterfall hike hidden in Dunnellon’s Rainbow Springs State Park. These falls are not natural to the area. They were constructed in the late 1930s from the dirt piles left from the phosphate mining era in the late 1800s. The phosphate discovered around the river’s springhead and in Dunnellon was the purest in the world. Pits were dug to mine the phosphate. The soil was discarded, abandoned in piles.
Mining operations ceased, and developers took over. In 1939 the falls were built using the dirt piles around the springhead and limestone rocks from the river. The area was landscaped with gardens and turned into a tropical paradise, one of Florida’s original attractions.
The Waterfall Hike at Rainbow Springs State Park
It’s a long stretch from the parking lot to the ticket booth at the park’s visitor center. I pay our $2 per person fee for my children and I to enter the state park and take our hike through Florida’s little-known falls.
The patio of the visitor’s center overlooks the emerald waters of the Rainbow River springhead. The path to the right leads to the swimming area and kayak rentals. We forgo the lure of a dip in the crystal-clear waters for now and take the path to the left. It runs high above the river before sloping downward, taking us past a ‘waterfalls’ sign.
Scenic River Detour
Up ahead there is a fork- staying left would be the direct route to the falls, but we choose to go right on the scenic detour by the water. We pass a hidden cove. Fresh water bubbles from the spring boils beneath the water.
A water snake is coiled among the flowers by the water’s edge, enjoying the morning sun. We creep past it to the bridge for a view of the river. On the other side of the river families have already begun splashing in the 72F waters at the roped off swimming area. About 400 million gallons of fresh water flow daily from the springs at the head of the river, making it the fourth largest spring system in Florida.
Beyond the bridge, the path still follows along with the river. It’s marked with bright yellow painted stripes in areas where tree roots have started to push up the pavement. The end of this short but scenic detour leads directly to the base of Seminole Falls.
Over the Creek and Through the Woods
Water tumbles over rocks down a hillside lush with greenery before shooting under a bridge to join the river once more. We cross the bridge. The path is lined with azalea bushes on the right. In late winter/early spring they are ablaze with color.
On the right we pass the pump house. All of the falls at Rainbow Springs use recirculated water from the river.
Just beyond the pumphouse a boardwalk beckons- a deviation from the trail. It leads to an overlook on the river. This area is a restoration habitat, and blocked off from paddlers. A blue heron stands among the grasses, waiting for an unsuspecting fish for breakfast.
We return to the main trail and our waterfall hike. The path slopes gently down. To the right is another cove filled with spring boils. Fish hover around the bubbling sands. The water is clear. Up ahead the sounds of the falls draw us.
To the left Rainbow Falls cascades in a 60-foot sheer drop down the limestones, and to the right a brick path winds up the hillside. It takes us over bridges and smaller cascades to a third smaller waterfall. We stop at this, the prettiest of the three for a moment. Waterfalls bring peace and calm – but with kids in tow, the rest is short-lived, and we are back on the trail.
We turn right at the end of the path. Up head there are decisions to make. Going right would take us to the abandoned zoo on the property and nature trails through the woods, but today was a waterfall day, and there still are more falls to see. We turn left (but keep to the right), bypassing the twin paths that lead back down to Rainbow Falls.
Ponds Above and More Falls
This hike leads upwards again. There’s an overlook for Rainbow Falls, but the greenery is so thick it’s difficult to see the falls. We continue on the brick trail to the refection pond at the very top. Lush fronds frame the northern part of this man-made concrete pond. We follow the path over the footbridge on the left. A small cascade of water runs off over rocks and under the bridge to feed Rainbow Falls. A limestone rock sits by the water’s edge, inviting a contemplation or nature meditation. In the pond tadpoles gather around the walls, biding time until their frog legs form.
We draw ourselves away from the water and continue our way. The trail forks again. We stay left to reach our final falls. Water from a small pond falls in a twin cascade over a limestone rock into a second pool to tumble over more rocks and pass under a bridge for a trip down the hillside. From the footbridge we can hear it splash over the rocks below. We are at the top of Seminole Falls.
The trail slopes down the hill and loops back to the original path. We could head back to the falls, but instead we keep right and head back up the hill to the visitor’s center. It’s time for a cooling dip in the Rainbow River.
The Waterfall Hike
- The Waterfall Hike is approximately .74 miles from the parking lot and back with the scenic detour trail and the river overlook boardwalk.
- It is stroller-friendly and paved the entire way.
- The only restrooms on the trail are at the visitor’s center in the front of the park.
- It is $2 per person to visit Rainbow Springs State Park. Children under six years old are free.
- This Park is dog-friendly, but your pet must be on a leash.
- Swimming in the park is only permitted in roped-off swim area.
- Rainbow Springs State Park is located at 19158 SW 81st Place Road in Dunnellon, Florida 34432
Because these waterfalls are man-made and run by pumps, they are sometimes turned off for repairs. Call the park ahead before your planned waterfall hike to make sure they are all up and running. 352-465-8555