The Sunshine State is still a wild and diverse place - 500 miles long from north to south - with four distinct seasons believe it or not, and enough nature to rival an African safari. You'll find wildlife of all kinds from the woodlands of north Florida to the sawgrass fields of the Everglades - the sheer size of this peninsula guarantees a myriad of climates and natural environments. If you've never been to central Florida, or perhaps spent your vacation at the Orlando home of one of its most famous residents, you may never know you missed one of the most magical places in the state - the natural world of Citrus County.
I visited Citrus County recently, an hour north of Tampa (and a world away) on Florida's west coast. Here, one can still get a true sense for the Florida that used to be, before the Disneyfication and development of some parts of the state. It's a part of Florida where the landscape still makes sense and matches its natural environment, where the crystaline waters flow through natural warm springs a million shades of aqua green and blue.
It hasn't always been this way, however. There was a time when tourism was new and economic opportunities for development were compelling enough to compromise some of the regions' natural resources. Indeed in recent years one of the county's greatest assets, Three Sisters Springs, has seen a massive increase in tourism from visitors wanting to get in and on its beautiful waters. The area's biggest attraction here is their most popular winter resident - the West Indian manatee.
As with many coastal areas in Florida, loss of habitat, altering the natural landscape and flow of water, and the subsequent pollution that accompanies overdevelopment remains problematic. Too much paving through residential and commercial development causes rain water to run off into coastal estuaries and lagoons along with a great many pollutants. The water which would normally soak through the soil to ultimately replenish the underlying aquifers, instead pollutes the water decimating fish, crustacean, and shellfish populations which in turn interrupts the entire food chain and can destroy local fisheries.
But there is good news and cause for optimism here. With the recent success of cooperative, inter-governmental partnerships between Citrus County, the City of Crystal River, and state and federal wildlife conservation agencies, many restoration and protection projects are underway. One such recent achievement has been the restoration of key wetland areas surrounding Three Sisters Springs. This project is essential to protecting the springs against runoff and offers a lovely sanctuary for a number of native bird species as well.
Several interesting State Parks are located in Citrus County including the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park and the Crystal River State Archeological Park. We visited both, starting at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa Springs. The State Park Visitor Center has plenty of parking and handicapped accessibility, and sits right along the busy Suncoast Highway. Head inside, chat with their friendly volunteers, and wait for the next pontoon boat to take you - rather, glide you to the Park's entrance down Pepper Creek about a half-mile away. It's a lovely way to start your visit. The pontoon guides are knowledgable, and pointed out some amazing wildlife along the ride.
The Park has an interesting underwater observatory where you'll see manatees up close and most likely chewing on the rope lines above!
You'll also meet Lucifer the Hippo, the Park's 53-year old unofficial mascot. Known as "Lu" to his friends, he is one the Park's earliest and most-beloved residents.
The Park features native Florida species, other than Lu, including many bird species, bobcat, manatees, and alligators. Allow yourself several hours to make the rounds and see all the wildlife the Park has to offer.
What remains of Florida's Native American culture can be seen just up the road at the Crystal River State Archeological Park. To give the site historic significance and perspective, tour the well-appointed museum first at the Park entrance. Here you'll find descriptions of the site and well-preserved artifacts.
The 61-acre site is well-maintained, provides an interesting view into early native life along this area of the Gulf Coast, and features stelae, burial mounds, middens, and a paved walkway throughout. Be sure to climb the stairs to the top of Temple Mound "H" for a scenic view of the site. You can even enjoy a picnic in the area near the waters edge.
The Visitor Center right off the parking lot sets the stage with a topographic overview of the site and good information from volunteers. A modest parking fee is requested to help support the park and continue preservation.
Three Sisters Springs
Without a doubt, the main reason visitors flock to Crystal River in Citrus County is to glimpse the manatees, those gentle giants that inhabit the waters all around this part of Florida. Citrus County is the only place where you can passively observe them "up close and natural" - in the water!
One of their favorite winter haunts, Three Sisters Springs, sits tucked away in the middle of a residential area of Crystal River and offers these lovable creatures a warm safe refuge during the winter months when temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico turn cold.
The natural underground springs throughout this area of Florida provide manatees with a warm - and constant - 72 degrees, and the Three Sisters Springs draws them in by the hundreds most days during the winter months. While they call themselves The City of Crystal River, the area around the Springs is less an urban hub than a little oasis in the center of town.
Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding here through the cool clear spring fed waters is a treat for the senses. Depending on the time of year, there are always birds, fish, and manatees to see. Just remember that manatees are an endangered species. They always have the right-of-way and there is no kayaking or paddleboarding in Three Sisters Springs during Manatee Season (November 15 - April 1). Though the experience may be controversial among those who are rightfully concerned for the animals' welfare, we found it to be not only responsibly done but also one of the most amazing experiences we've had.
Crystal River is unique with its manatee tours, and has dozens of "Swim With Manatees" tour operators who will be happy to show you around. We went out with Captains Mike and Stacy Dunn of Manatees in Paradise, and had an excellent experience! An eco-conscious couple who have been running small, educational tours since 2008, Captains Mike and Stacy practice what they preach when interacting with these gentle giants in the "true passive" manor required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The boardwalk surrounding Three Sisters Springs is the perfect spot for viewing wildlife and the manatees in winter, and the City of Crystal River and others have done an outstanding job restoring the wetlands here. The wetlands expansion not only restores the natural habitat, it makes for a more enjoyable and comprehensive visitor experience.
The Springs and wetlands are easily reached by the Three Sisters Springs Trolley, which runs every 30-40 minutes from the Citrus County Welcome Center. Three Sisters Springs is open for tours daily from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM from November 15th until March 31st. An all-day entrance pass offers unlimited trolley rides between Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge and historic downtown Crystal River.
Miles and miles of coastline
The coastline along this stretch of Florida's Gulf Coast is staggering as your GPS will illustrate if you have one - it's hard to tell where the land ends and the water begins. A spectacular sunset can be had at several on-the-water restaurants and joints in Crystal River and Homosassa, or you can head west down Fort Island Trail to the Fort Island Gulf Beach and Pier - a perfect spot with miles of rustic palm scrub and grass beds. Throw in the hundreds of wading and shore birds, and you couldn't ask for better photo ops. Though the beach and pier are great places to catch the sunset, swimming conditions here may be less than ideal if you're looking for a clear-water afternoon swim.
The sand here is awash with algae and marsh beds - perfect for scalloping and kayaking around the pier - but not so much for swimming between the no-see-ums at sunset and the funky feeling of the foamy marsh between your toes.
For a laid-back afternoon, head out to Old Homosassa for a slower pace and true Old Florida flavor. Park your car and get out and explore along the waterfront.
Friendly restaurants and good-time bars are easy walking distance from each other, and if you look hard you just might catch a glimpse of the monkeys on Monkey Island!
Shelly's Seafood and Fish Market is a great place to stop and watch the action as fishermen come and go with the catch. Stone crab season is truly a sight to behold October 15 - May 15.
Shelly's offers the freshest seafood to take home, but for an authentic bite right away stop by the Wild Sassa Seafood trailer in the parking lot opposite Shelly's Seafood. Owner Darla Knecht serves up the most incredible homemade seafood tacos and chowder with a smile.
Inverness and the Withlacoochee State Trail
Though Crystal River may occasionally grab more headlines, Citrus County has far more to offer further inland in the lovely town of Inverness. Their slogan of "Small Town, Done Right" is spot-on. In the historic downtown, boutique shops, the newly renovated Valerie theater, and charming eateries all invite you in to sit for a spell and enjoy the ambiance. Elvis fans (like me) may recognize the historic courthouse in the round turned Heritage Museum from when he came to town in 1961 to Follow That Dream.
One look around on a random weekday at noon shows the downtown buzzing with activity - outdoor cafes around town were full up with business lunchers, visitors, and cyclists grabbing a bite in between trail rides. Inverness’ 13-mile Tsala Apopka chain of lakes offers some of the best bass fishing found anywhere in the state, and can be enjoyed from a boat or a bike along the popular Withlacoochee State Trail.
Winding its way along much of the lake chain, the Withlacoochee State Trail rewards the rider with scenic Old Florida views at every turn. Part of the nationwide Rails-to-Trails network, this 46-mile stretch of railroad track that was converted to a paved recreational trail is suitable for hiking, biking, and skating. Horseback riding is available on a separate trail along side the paved trail.
The North end of the trail is located in Citrus Springs, south of Dunnellon, Florida and extends 46 miles to the south ending at the trailhead parking lot at Highway 301 in Dade City, Florida.
On this peaceful lush pathway the only decision is whether to ride long or short. We embarked on the trail from Inverness and headed south, taking in the stunning Tsala Apopka lake chain, lush greenery, oak archways, and friendly cyclists along the way.
So don't miss-out on 'fresh from the orchard' oranges and juice at the retail store just before you reach Floral City.
Now is a great time to visit Citrus County and these are just a few of the reasons to go. How many more will you discover?
I was a guest of Visit Citrus County during my stay, and I thank them for introducing me to this amazing part of Florida. All opinions are entirely my own based on my actual experience - and you know I love to share what's on my mind!
If You Go:
Where to Eat
Crackers Grill and Tiki Bar - 502 NW 6th St., Crystal River, FL 34428
The quintessential laid back waterfront place to be! Good food, cold beer, and attentive and friendly waitstaff. The place can get rocking at night under their outdoor tiki bar overlooking the water. The cod fish and chips was yummy and made for the perfect lunch. Did I mention it's on the water?!
Fat Cat Grill - 508 N Citrus Ave, Crystal River, FL 34428
Located in the heart of downtown Crystal River, Fat Cat serves new twists on American favorites like burgers, steaks, and tacos. The venison chili and shrimp and grits were delicious. Casual, comfy atmosphere and friendly service.
McLeod House - 207 N Apopka, Inverness, FL 34450
Lunch and dinner in a quaint restored cracker cottage on the edge of town. Fresh takes on classic dishes. The Mediterranean salad for lunch was fresh and just enough, with well seasoned grilled chicken.
Vintage on 5th - 114 NE 5th St., Crystal River, FL 34429
This is a great place for lunch or dinner. Set in a beautifully restored 1940's-era cottage/church, the menu includes fresh local seafood, steaks, and some traditional Southern dishes. Add to this a very tempting wine list that waitstaff expertly suggest if needed. The ambience is elegant but comfortable with top notch service.
Wild Sassa Seafood (mobile food truck) - 5380 S Boulevard Drive, Old Homosassa, FL
Where to Stay
Kings Bay Lodge - 506 NW 1st Ave, Crystal River, FL 33428; 352-795-2850
Perhaps one of the true remaining authentically retro motels left in Florida, Kings Bay Lodge is not at all your retro-inspired motel, trying hard but falling short of re-creating a mid-century look. No, it is authentically retro, which pairs nicely with the Old Florida feel of Crystal River and nearby Homosassa. The Lodge is simple and clean, comfortable and homey, with a budget-friendly price tag, making it an excellent family-friendly lodging value.
Ideally situated in the historic downtown just a block from quaint shops and restaurants downtown through well-lit alleyways, Kings Bay Lodge also has one of only two natural pools remaining in Florida. The spring-fed pool comes complete with grassy beds and small fish and is certainly unique and kids will love it! If you 're looking for casual, family-friendly accommodations, Kings Bay Lodge deserves a closer look!
If you're looking for less unique and more standard accommodations, you'll find plenty in Crystal River, like the well-appointed Holiday Inn Express in the center of town of Crystal River.
Where to Play
Crystal River State Archeological Park - 3400 N Museum Point, Crystal River, FL 34428
Crystal River Kayak Company - 1422 SE Hwy 19, Building B, Crystal River FL, 34429Kayak rentals and guided kayak tours and canoe trips. Located a very short paddle from Three Sisters Springs.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park - 4150 S. Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa, FL 34448
Manatees in Paradise - 1223 N. Circle Drive, Crystal River, FL 34429; email@example.com. Educational and scenic small group manatee tours with Captains Mike and Stacy Dunn. Tours depart from Plantation Adventure Center, 9301 W Fort Island Trail in Crystal River.
Inverness Bicycle & Fitness - 130 N. Pine Ave, Inverness, FL 34450. Owners, Sherry and Danny Bechtel.
Three Sisters Springs Trolley - Operated by The City of Crystal River, trolleys run daily to Three Sisters Springs, November 15 through March 31, every 30-40 minutes. Catch it from various stops around town and the Citrus County Visitors Center, 915 N Suncoast Boulevard in Crystal River. $15 (Adults), $5.00 (Child).
For More Information
Citrus County Visitors Bureau - 915 N. Suncoast Blvd, Crystal River, Florida 34429; firstname.lastname@example.org
City of Crystal River - Wildlife Refuge & Tours, 915 N. Suncoast Blvd, Crystal River, Florida 34429
Rails to Trails of the Withlacoochee, Inc. - P.O. Box 807, Inverness, FL 34451, website of the non-profit Friends of the Withlacoochee State Trail
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - 1502 S.E. Kings Bay Drive, Crystal River, FL 34429