Canoes, butterflies at Rainbow Springs State Park

 <span class="cutline_leadin">Quiet waters: </span>Paddling canoes in Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon.
Quiet waters: Paddling canoes in Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon.
Helen O’Connor

Orlando Sentinel

It wasn’t a picture-perfect day for outdoor exploring.

In the midst of a recent cold snap, temperatures were in the 40s, the sky was overcast and a drizzling rain soaked the boardwalks at Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon. Only a handful of people braved the weather, but the 1,472-acre park rewarded the effort with its lovely waterfalls and evocative scenes on the Rainbow River.

With a steamy mist rising from its quiet surface, the headsprings of the Rainbow River looked more like the setting for Creature From the Black Lagoon, but it was still lovely, in a spooky way.

Florida’s fourth largest spring, Rainbow Springs was home to a privately owned tourist attraction from the 1930s to the 1970s. It is west of Ocala and south of Gainesville. Now the state park (floridastateparks.org/rainbowsprings) remains a prime spot for canoeing, kayaking and tubing, on days when you’re not bundled in a jacket.

Even without the benefit of sunshine, the tumbling waters of Seminole Falls were a tranquil treat. That waterfall was built in 1937, early in the park’s era as a Florida tourist magnet. Soil for the waterfall was moved from a nearby phosphate pit.

The park also offers trails, native plants and flowers, opportunities for bird-watching and a butterfly garden. The butterflies were avoiding the cold air on my visit, but the garden path was still inviting, lined with ironweed, fire bush, blue-eyed grass, mimosa vine, scarlet sage, Florida elephant’s foot, coral bean, wax myrtle and strawberry bush.

The headsprings and campground, about six miles away, are the backdrop for activities that include ranger-guided walks and snorkeling expeditions. I’d also recommend a meal at Swampy’s, a local favorite on the banks of the Rainbow River at County Road 484 in Dunnellon.

A steaming bowl of gator soup complemented my view of the river, also steaming.

If Rainbow Springs is this pretty in the rain, imagine its power to enchant in the sunshine.

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