Just 80 miles north of Tampa on the Gulf Coast, Crystal River is one of Florida’s best-kept secrets. With spring-fed rivers, mangrove islands and fecund marshes, the Nature Coast’s unblemished shores deliver primal scenery and wildlife encounters of the highest order. The warm, spring-fed waters of Kings Bay provide sanctuary to the nation’s largest population of manatees from October to March, when visitors can swim, snorkel and scuba dive with one of Florida’s most endearing native creatures.
Manatees and Ceremonial Mounds
Crystal River’s main tourist appeal resides in its incredible wildlife population and the rare opportunity to swim with manatees. If you prefer to observe the cuddly, cowlike creatures from afar, Three Sisters Springs offers a quarter-mile boardwalk with viewing platforms in its sprawling 57-acre refuge. Or visit the underwater observatory at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park to walk beneath the spring’s surface and be at eye level with the manatees swimming about. At Crystal River State Archaeological Site, you can delve into the region’s ancient history and explore a series of artifacts and mounds, including a 28-foot Native American mound that dates to 500 B.C. Set along extensive marshlands, the pre-Columbia center ranks as one of the longest continuously occupied sites in Florida; thousands of Native Americans visited the site over the course of 1,600 years.
For more challenging terrain, the unpaved trails in the Croom area of the forest on the western side of the Withlacoochee River spice things up with hilly inclines and tricky technical areas in three loop trails over 19 miles. The Crystal River Preserve State Park preserves thousands of acres of coastline and is home to over half a dozen marked nature trails that snake through pinewoods, hardwood forests, salt marshes and mangrove islands, including a short boardwalk walking trail and a 7-mile unpaved biking/hiking loop trail.
Crystal River has become a bucket list destination for marine life enthusiasts. With its mix of salt- and freshwater, the region supports a wide diversity of aquatic creatures ranging from green sea turtles to dolphins and manatees. From October to March, more than 500 manatees head to the warm waters of Crystal River. Several outfitters operate excursions enabling visitors to swim, snorkel or scuba dive in the natural springs of Kings Bay and enjoy being caressed and nudged by these cuddly sea cows.
The quaint town of Homosassa is the launch pad for superb fishing charters with its sandy flats, oyster bars and seagrasses that attract huge numbers of redfish and trout. In May or June, fishing enthusiasts convene at Homosassa hoping to reel in one of the area’s famed 150-plus-pound tarpon.
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