Florida Rivers: Exploring the Rainbow, Withlacoochee, and Weeki Wachee
By Dawn S.
We recently loaded our kayaks onto the roof of the Big Blue Van and set off for a long weekend road trip to check out a few of the rivers in West Central Florida (near the Orlando Escape depot). There was no rain in the forecast, and even though it was the last few days of December, temps were warm during the daytime. This was perfect for paddling, and using an electric fan at night time in the van made camping a breeze, too.
Rainbow Springs State Park is a botanical garden paradise. This is a beautiful place to picnic and stroll through the garden enjoying the butterflies and manmade waterfalls. They also have a 3-mile loop nature trail, swimming area, kayak, and canoe rentals and a campground. The big draw is the first magnitude, spring-fed, Rainbow River. It is a designated State of Florida Outstanding Waterway and Aquatic Preserve.
During the summer months, parades of tubers float down Rainbow River enjoying the cool, blue waters, and warm sunshine. With its wide, deep, clear water and numerous springs, the river is also popular with snorkelers and drift divers. Of course, another great way to experience the Rainbow River is by paddling it in a kayak, canoe, or SUP.
Wear sunscreen and a hat and expect to see lots of fish, turtles, and wading birds. You may also see the occasional otter or alligator. I have never seen so many cormorants in one day. They were busy diving under the surface, looking for their next meal, or drying their wings in a shrub along the bank.
Restrooms, showers, kayak, and tube rentals and an upstream water taxi for divers and tubers are available at KP Hole County Park and Boat Ramp in Dunnellon. We launched our kayaks at KP Hole, easily paddled upstream to the headsprings, and then floated back to the van. I can’t wait to return in the summertime and swim/snorkel the river, visibility is exceptional.
We parked the van at my sister’s fish camp near Potts Preserve on the southern section of the Withlacoochee River. This is a wide, slow-moving, black water river, popular with air boaters. Tall Cypress trees line the banks. They are bare in the winter but provide lush green shade in the summer. Camping is available in the Withlacoochee State Forest, and several private campgrounds.
The best way to explore the Withlacoochee River and adjacent swampland and lakes is from the high vantage point atop the seat of an airboat. I got my first airboat ride at my sister’s place, and it was a fast and fun way to see the water, wetlands, and wildlife. Those airboats are unbelievable, they glide over water, marsh, and even dry land with ease. It was so very different from the slow quiet paddling I usually do. You can try air boating at Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours in Inverness.
Don’t miss the nearby Fort Cooper State Park for hiking, picnicking, wildlife viewing and canoeing on Lake Holathlikaha. Their rustic Lake Lodge and gazebo are perfect for an intimate wedding ceremony. You can also access the 46-mile paved, multi-use Withlacoochee State Trail.
Weeki Wachee River
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is famous for its Live Mermaid Shows in their underwater auditorium. You can cool off at the Buccaneer Bay water park with slides that plunge you into the brisk waters of Weeki Wachee Springs. This is Florida’s only spring-fed Water Park! Next, embark on a riverboat cruise, or rent a kayak or stand up paddleboard to explore the river at your own pace.
The Weeki Wachee River is windy, narrow and swift, and super fun to paddle. It is crystal clear, shallow, with a sandy bottom. In cooler weather, West Indian Manatees seek shelter in the 72-degree waters of the spring-fed river. We didn’t see any manatees during our trip, because it was warm that weekend, but they are frequently sighted. To manage use and traffic on the river, only a limited number of users are allowed to launch for the one-way downstream paddle beginning at the state park and reservations are required. You can call 352-597-8484, or book online.
If you failed to get a reservation (like us) you can put in at Rogers Park in Spring Hill, and paddle upstream as far as you want, then float back down to where you started. This was a moderate upstream paddle, not ideal, but still very enjoyable. Just make sure you paddle far enough upstream to get past all of the riverfront homes and into the wooded section before you turn around. There is a floating snack bar partway upstream where you can get out for ice cream or other goodies, and take a little swim.
The Weeki Wachee River was not on even on our radar until my sister’s friend told us about it around the campfire one night. I’m so glad we checked it out; it was the highlight of our road trip for me. This is another one that I will be returning to, reservation secured, to paddle downstream from the state park headsprings, and enjoy the free shuttle ride back to the put in.
Any time of year is a great time to explore the rivers in West Central Florida. The inland rivers are diverse and so are the modes of travel. So be sure to rent a tube, kayak, SUP, or book an airboat tour during your Escape campervan trip through the Sunshine State!