With our sights firmly set on the Lower Keys, we left Georgia heading south on US 41 with two planned stops over the next three days. Knowing we’d likely spend much of our route through southwestern Florida traveling down I-75, we opted to avoid the interstate on our way to Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon and stick to the slower and less congested Route 41. We rolled into Rainbow Springs after an uneventful, leisurely drive and checked in with the friendly park employee who gave the most informative welcome to any park we’ve visited so far.
Rainbow Springs is located along the Rainbow River (but sadly not on Rainbow Road, to the disappointment of Mario Kart fans everywhere), fed by headsprings about a mile upstream from the park. While the campground itself is quite nice, the real attraction of the park is the river which can only be seen in tiny sections from the spaces accessible from the camping area. We planned to stay for only two nights, knowing that we’d miss out on exploring the river not only due to our short stay, but also because we don’t currently travel with some type of watercraft. The park does have canoes and kayaks available for rent, should you choose to paddle a borrowed boat. A tubing company is open Memorial Day to Labor Day complete with a tram service to and from the campground. The park also offers a small swimming area for campers to test the perpetually cool waters of Rainbow River, although a nearby sign warning about the presence of alligators might be enough to deter some hopeful swimmers.
Although nearly all of the recreation at this park is centered around the river, a couple of land-based activities are available. Visitors can walk a short nature trail through the wooded surroundings, or head out down the tram path – which is also completely suitable for bike riding – during the off-season of the tubing outfit. The tram path isn’t officially open to pedestrians in the off-season, but we received a tip from a reputable source during our visit to check it out if we had time. The path leads to a boardwalk winding to the tuber pick-up area further down the river, as well as a glimpse of another section of the park not accessible from the main campground. On our walk back to the campground, we saw not one but two gopher tortoises, which are listed as a threatened species in Florida. These tortoises are considered a keystone species because their extensive burrows are shared by over 350 other species.
The campground is comprised of three loops with Loop A being the smallest of the three, offering the only walk-in tent camping sites in addition to a handful of back-in sites and one pull-through RV site. Loops B and C make up the majority of the sites in the campground, featuring a mix of partially-shaded and fully-exposed sites in a variety of sizes. Of the 53 total RV sites at Rainbow Springs, three are pull-through and the rest are back-in but all offer full hook-ups. The sites have decent separation despite being close together, thanks to the Florida vegetation which grows thick and tall in whatever space is available. If you’re choosing a site online before your visit, the sites on the outside of Loops B and C offer the most shade but I don’t have anything to share on Loop A because we didn’t take a look around that loop during our visit. Rainbow Springs is a beautiful state park, even if you don’t make it out on the river, but the complete experience definitely includes some time on the water so check it out on your travels if you enjoy boating, tubing, swimming, and fishing in a cool, spring-fed freshwater Florida river.
We decided to break up our journey from Dunnellon to Key West with a stop on the edge of the Everglades at Collier-Seminole State Park about 15 miles southeast of Naples. Having been warned by various other travel and RV blogs about the threat of horrendous mosquitoes in the Everglades, we booked only a single night at this park – plus, we were excited to reach our winter destination the following day. It’s fair to say that the warnings are true. The “skeeter meter” indicated the bloodsuckers were moderate as we arrived at the ranger station, but Everglades moderate is more like Pennsylvania terrible. We weren’t unprepared, but the bugs were still pretty annoying even as we arrived in the early afternoon.
This park was a significant change from Rainbow Springs. We traded a freshwater river and marshland for a mixed fresh and saltwater tropical wetlands, both offering water recreation in very different settings. The sites were all exposed and close together, with little separating one site from the next. As you can see in the photo below, the picnic tables from our site and the neighboring site were practically side by side when we arrived and the sites are exposed on either side, but we didn’t have any neighbors to meet during our one-night stay. San Marco Road runs directly behind the camping area so you will hear road noise throughout the night, especially in sites 35-40 and 81-90. If you’re brave and don’t feel like driving out through the gated park entrance, you can squeeze through the thin brush separating the road from the camping loops and follow San Marco Road on foot or bike about a quarter of a mile to a bar and grill around the corner. We didn’t visit, but briefly considered giving it a shot.
Collier-Seminole features 105 campsites, 19 of which are in a separate loop and suitable for tent camping, with the remaining 86 arranged for RVs. The smaller loop was closed due to hurricane damage during our visit, as was the nature trail, but we explored other areas of the park instead while we still had daylight on the afternoon of our arrival.
The area in which the park now sits was considered Florida’s last frontier in the early 1900s. Most people in that time traveled to south Florida via the railway, but the invention of the automobile spurred development to connect cities by highways. When the highway to connect Tampa and Miami was planned in 1915, each county along the route was responsible to fund construction for the portion that would pass through each jurisdiction. Lee County, which included Ft. Myers, Naples, and the land south at the time, quickly ran out of money to build that section of highway because the cost to construct a road across the Everglades was underestimated.
Enter the millionaire Barron Collier, a man from Memphis who had fallen in love with the tropical southwestern Florida environment so deeply that he purchased 900,000 acres of land that would become Collier County. He offered to fund the highway through the Everglades if a new county was created and named after him. As you already know, he got his county.
The 50-mile stretch of highway took four years to complete with workers building just over a mile a month. A machine called a walking dredge was used during the project, and the steel behemoth now rests on display within the park, sprawled like a metal dinosaur overseeing its territory in the swampland. The park is also home to the Blockhouse, which was built around 1940 and served as home for the park caretaker. County Commissioner D. Graham Copeland managed Collier’s businesses and surveyed Collier County. During his surveys, he uncovered several Seminole war forts, old trails, and Seminole villages. He is credited with developing the park and influencing the design of the building to look like a Third Seminole War blockhouse.
The park has a boat launch area and a 13.5 mile canoe trail through the Mangrove Wilderness Area featuring a primitive campsite available along the route. We strolled to the boat launch as the sun started to set and took in the view as we swatted away the encroaching mosquitoes. I’m sure it would be interesting to paddle through the swamp, but that wasn’t in the cards for this visit, nor are we planning a return trip any time soon. If you visit Collier-Seminole, just remember you’re practically camping in a swamp which means lots of bugs, a variety of wildlife, high levels of humidity, and occasionally intense aromas of decaying plant and animal matter. It’s a unique ecosystem with plenty to see and endless opportunities for exploration as long as you are prepared for the setting.
We didn’t fully experience either park, nor did we have the time to meet many new people or immerse ourselves in the local culture since we chose to quickly push through this last leg of our journey for this year. We intend to head back through Florida sometime in early 2018, so we’ll have other opportunities to either revisit one or both of these parks, or choose new destinations along the way. After skipping through these two Florida state parks, we continued our journey to the Keys and we’re currently enjoying warm sunny days and comfortable breezy nights – but that’s coming up in our next installment. Thanks again for reading and we hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season!