We have been parked in Florida since Thanksgiving and intend to stay at an RV resort located thirty miles west of Jacksonville until after the New Year. It has been relaxing to stay in one spot and stick to more of a schedule. I have recruited my amazing husband to be a contributor to the blog. Ryan is a natural writer and is great at remembering facts. In our relationship one of us reads all the historical facts and data points of all the places we visit and one of us just waits for the other to tell her all about what was on those informational plaques. I will warn you that the following story contains a few unauthorized dad jokes. Please read with amusement and gentle judgement.
We had a hankering to get outdoors and get away with the kids for a couple of days. Yes, even though we live in an RV, travel all over the country, and are outdoors every day, we still need to ‘getaway.’ We’ve been in the RV full time for about 3 months now. While we aren’t a well oiled machine, we are just a bit rusty needing some more cleaning to reach optimal viscosity. In layman’s terms, we need to keep working every day to get better. Actually, on the way back from the camping trip, we purchased another audiobook named ‘Bringing up Boys’ by Dr. James Dobson. This one was recommended to us by a mother of 10 that we just met in this beautiful community after mass one day. “This is a must have for any parents of boys” and “I still think of quotes from this book years” were some of the accolades that were granted by this wonderful mom who decided to glean some of her wisdom onto us. We are always willing to learn from other folks. With a smile, active listening ears, and an insightful question your world opens up to the beauty of others and their lives. Some share more, some not at all, but a smile will almost always be reciprocated as can be a mutual exchange to make someone’s day, or perhaps even year. So the point is we are always learning and trying to get better.
This tent camping trip was a beautiful experience of anger, joy, and love. Yes, anger can be beautiful. The ability of one to turn that anger into joy after self reflection and prayer (some have other ways, but this is mine and it works), is a true gift from our maker and what separates us from the animals. While a wolf would simply attack after some slight irritation, we are called to be better than that based on the gospel of our greatest teacher. Please remind me of this next time I lose my cool with the kiddos!
We arrived at the park to a beautiful backdrop of saw palmetto palms, pine trees, and lucious oaks. Hmmm, what is this security gate and no office or guard shack on site. Well it turns out we had to go to the headspring about 12 miles away to get the code. No worries. This could have easily been the sprout of an evil seed to begin an inevitably uneasy weekend, but I squashed the evil seed with one look at my wonderful family to remind me of joy and why that is insignificant.
Remember, when you make the trip to this amazing park to make sure to obtain a gate code before going to the campground. If you pulled to the gate with no code with a motorhome and a toad, you would have to unhook before having to back out onto the county road to trek back to the main office. I have been able to back a few feet before, but it is ill advised. As soon as you have to turn your wheel in reverse, the towed vehicle wheels will do the opposite of what you want them to do. Only a few feet of that and you could really wreck a front end. Not a fun experience.
My first impression of the park staff was very helpful. They smiled and were eager to answer questions, which can really go a long way in my experience. The tent sites are equipped with a walking path in between, water, and electric. For those that aren’t avid tent campers, utilities are NOT common in these sites. Now that we live in an RV we are equipped with electric cooking appliances (otherwise you must use your onboard propane which can get expensive and a pain if you have to break down camp. Full timers can feel me on this!) We have an instant pot, electric griddle with ceramic top, and a toaster oven. We can cook any meal with one of these. We do use the oven on board for times when we must bake bread, pies, and such.
One reason I love state, national, and county parks is that they integrate the national landscape very well into the grounds. And this one didn’t disappoint in that aspect. The RV sites seemed spacious, easy enough to park any size rig, have a nice size yard, include a sprawling concrete patio, and provide a nice buffer between neighbors. I prefer this to a modern resort style park that looks perfectly cut from a 5,000 view. Even though the new resort has any amenity you can imagine and more, I particularly miss being away from nature. My wife and I would sacrifice these amenities, however, our kids love them, so we seek out these parks. I like to compare it to a 1970’s master planned neighborhood in the South that includes ¼ to full acre sized lots adorned with trees and unique architecture vs. any suburb built in the past 20 years (small trees, small yards, and neighbors just feet from your kitchen window.)
The park is pet friendly, just make sure you keep your dog on a leash. This should be the standard for any campers to respect your neighbor. On the drive down from the Jacksonville area, we noticed the vast spread of open land packed full of partially lowland, and partially preserved lands by the Florida parks… oh and prisons so no picking up hitchhikers! Florida has one of the largest varieties of natural springs in the US with over 1000 to choose. It seemed every few miles was one of those brown signs beckoning us to a new outdoor adventure. “Let’s look that one up!” my wife and I would exclaim exuberantly. We settled in that night to ensure ample rest for the next day chalked full of adventure. By ‘ample’ rest I mean as much as you can possibly get with 2 dogs and a toddler in a tent. If I hit at least one deep sleep cycle I’d be surprised. Even though I keep my lost sleep occurrences to a minimum when I can help it, this one was definitely worth it! Rise and shine and swim!
At first glance of some of the clearest water in the world, you can’t help but want to jump in. Yes, you can swim in December in Florida! Pretty cool, huh?! After numerous counter exchanges of, “You first! No, you first!”, our girls finally agreed a simultaneous plunge into the frigid blue would solve this conundrum. And it did, followed by shrieks of joy-filled yelps induced by the cool water. The swimming area and just a few feet from the kayak launch. I think this may have been planned, but I say well played Florida State Parks, because this prompted the ensuing barrage of ,”Can we get a kayak” from all my girls… even my lovely bride. Although, my frugal nature has been known to say no to the apparent obvious excursions as they are never cheap for a family of six (The Maid of the MIst at Niagara Falls, NY was one I would do if we went back), something, or someone, nudged me to say yes. Boy, I sure am glad I did! I’ve grown up on creeks, ponds, rivers, lakes all of my life (mainly in the south), and I would always wonder,”What’s at the bottom of this water?” or “How deep is it?” because you can’t see squat or your hand in front of your face in most of the waterways. The Hill country of Central Texas has some pretty clear green rivers, but otherwise… brown, muddy waters and I’m not talking about the “blues”. HA! Anyone?? This was THE WAY to see this crystal clear water.
I thoroughly enjoy the grace of a kayak propelled through the water by my hands and the paddle. It’s quiet and cathartic. As we slipped along up the river to the head spring, our eyes were fixed on every ounce of nature that the adventure had to offer. Huge red eared slider turtles, Fish swimming clear as a glass of water beneath you, and cranes elegantly high stepping to the next meal along the banks. We laughed, listened, and gently conversed (so as not to scare away the inhabitants.) This purely present time with family is why we chose this lifestyle.
We arrived at the head spring within about 45 minutes to 1 hour (I don’t keep time when we’re out in nature.) It goes something like,”Oh crap, it’s getting dark!” Guess it will be a late dinner tonight.” We also are in no rush. You could make it in 30 minutes or so according to the rangers. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a long anticipated swimming area. We docked our kayaks and enjoyed the refreshing water at the designated swimming hole. I took my girls while my lovely wife hung out on the kayak with Nicholas, our boy toddler, who was fast asleep on her lap. She seldom complains about having to stay back with the little man. I think deep down she enjoys the bonding time. It passes in a flash, so we have to soak it in. There was a dock at the swimming area that made for excellent “daddy let me jump to you” time. It was a good 3’ drop that was just enough to make our 3 year old think twice about jumping in solo. Catching my children at the water level of a swimming hole never gets old! On that water, in that moment, was clarity. Not only of the water, but of the awareness that I must enjoy the tiniest moments of joy in my kids eyes. If I’m not taking the time to notice that shimmer in their eyes, and to focus on being their dad as much as possible, then, it’s time to take a step back to contemplate, pray, and think about how I should rearrange and prioritize my time and thoughts.
Now, back to the surface level of our emotions to discuss more about the park. Now, here are the derived facts from excerpts on the website. To find out how to visit the park for the day or camp check out Rainbow Spring’s website here.
“Visitors may feel that the waters do have healing properties after a dip in the cool 72-degree waters. Since the water stays at this temperature year-round, it is perfect for a cooling swimming in the long, hot days of summer. The depth of the spring pool varies from 5 to 18 feet. The remarkable clarity of the water gives snorkelers ample opportunity to spot fish, turtles and other aquatic wildlife. This first-magnitude spring is actually a series of small vents that collectively pump out more than 400 million gallons of water a day. As one of Florida’s largest springs, the park attracts visitors from all over the world who want to witness this natural wonder. The flow of the spring is the fourth highest among all the springs in Florida. The crystal-clear waters of the springs look much like they have for thousands of years. The clear blue waters of Rainbow Springs have attracted humans and wildlife for a long time. Artifacts like pottery and tools have shown that Native Americans began visiting the spring over 10,000 years ago. Mastodon and mammoth fossils have also been found here. The water that bubbles up from the spring comes from a 770 square-mile area. The spring flows into the spring run, which is the Rainbow River. Paddlers and tubers can enjoy the same beautiful water as it flows out of the spring, eventually reaching the Withlacoochee River. In 1889, rock phosphate was discovered around the springs. Phosphate is an important mineral used to fertilize crops and in animal feed, food preservatives, cosmetics, and other industries. At the time, the phosphate discovered by the springs and the nearby town of Dunnellon was among the purest in the world. Many people living in the area depended on phosphate mining jobs, especially after freezing temperatures in the 1890s devastated the citrus industry. The 1889 discovery ushered in a mining boom that brought many new people seeking jobs into the area. These phosphate miners used huge steam-powered machines to dig pits to locate and remove the phosphate. There are several pits within the park boundary and more in the area. The huge piles of discarded soil were the perfect place to build waterfalls! But why would someone build waterfalls here? After the mines around the springs were exhausted, the area was purchased and turned into a tourist attraction. In the early and mid-20th century, business owners capitalized on Florida’s tropical image to attract even more people to this “jungle oasis.” Tropical-looking waterfalls complemented the park’s springs and its collection of exotic animals, enticing visitors who had a particular vision of Florida in their minds. There are many relics of Rainbow Springs State Park’s past as a tourist attraction. The waterfalls, the rainbow fountain, the entrance walk, gift shop, dining terrace, and the remains of the aviary and animal cages all date from the 1960s, Florida’s golden age of tourism. The attraction operated until the mid-1970s. Bypassed when Interstate 75 was built through Ocala and affected by the competition from Walt Disney World near Orlando, the Rainbow Springs tourist attraction experienced a steady decline in business and was forced to close in 1973. In 1990, the property was acquired by the state of Florida to be managed as a state park. Today, the Florida Park Service protects the park’s natural and cultural resources. That includes the jungle waterfalls, which are still fully functional.”