The City of Crystal River is located in Citrus County on the Nature Coast in Florida’s bend on the Gulf of Mexico. It is best known for the manatees which are attracted to its first magnitude springs in the winter months and markets itself as the manatee capital of the world. I’d be lying if swimming with the manatees wasn’t the main reason why I visited Crystal River, but the city of 3,000 offers other things to do as well. A few are listed below:
Visit the Crystal River Archaeological State Park
Crystal River Archaelogical State Park is a national historic landmark. The 61-acre park includes restroom facilities, a museum, and six mounds which were once part of a Native American ceremonial center.
It is estimated that nearly 7,500 Native Americans visited this site annually to trade and bury their dead. It is one of longest, continuously occupied sites in Florida.
Today, the park offers visitors a chance to learn about the past, fish on the Crystal River, bird on the Great Florida Birding Trail, and watch the sunset from one of the ceremonial mounds.
For only a $4 parking fee, it is worth the visit.
Take a Hike at Crystal River Preserve State Park
Basically, next door to Crystal River Archaeological State Park is the Crystal River Preserve State Park. This state park is virtually untouched and free to enter. While the website claims restrooms as an amenity, at the trailhead for the 7 Mile Loop Trail there are not any. That said, this state park covers 27,500 acres, so there is more than one entrance.
7 Mile Loop Trail
The 7 Mile Loop Trail in Crystal River Preserve State Park is the longest, unpaved loop in Citrus County. The trail is largely a grassy road which passes through scrub as well as pinewood and hardwood forests. It also travels by some marshes and creeks.
While I can’t say it was the most beautiful walk I have taken, it was nice to take advantage of a more natural setting compared to most dog walking places in Florida. Annie definitely enjoyed a little off-leash time while no one was around.
In addition to hiking this loop, we took advantage of camping for a night at this trailhead. It was very quiet and dark! But if you aren’t camping, there is a Days Inn just up the road next Crystal River Watersports.
Crystal Cove Trail
If 7.3 miles is too long for you, consider the 1.7 mile Crystal Cove Trail. The trail generally follows the water and is mostly shaded. As a result of the forest, the water views are limited, but it is a peaceful path. Take a look at the map on AllTrails before hiking, and the path, which has many branches, will make more sense.
Also, be sure not to stay past dark or you might get locked in by mistake! The is a gate at the intersection of W State Park St and N Sailboat Ave. As I was headed to the 7 Mile Loop Trailhead, a poor girl trapped behind the gate to my left waved me down.
She asked if I knew the who to call to get out! Given it was after hours, I was certain even if I did have a phone number to the state park, she’d be stranded. Consequently, she moved her car off the road, and I took a short detour to her house before returning to the trailhead! Funny, because I’ve always been afraid that would happen to me and was nervous about it when VANgo was the last car leaving Crystal River Archaeological State Park after watching the sunset just a few minutes prior!
Swim with the Manatees
As I mentioned above, the biggest draw for Crystal River is the opportunity to swim with the manatees. It is the only place in the USA where interacting with these gentle giants in their natural habitat is legal. The manatees come to the springs which pump over 600 million gallons of warm, 72 degree water into Kings Bay daily.
There are many companies that offer tours, both private and shared. I selected Crystal River Watersports for a private tour so I could bring my dog Annie. It is located next to the Days Inn and up the road from the aforementioned state parks.
Swimming with the manatees takes place in the winter months, December to March. The morning tours are better. And for less crowds, weekdays are the best option. For more details, check out my article Crystal River: Swimming with the Manatees.
You may also kayak with the manatees. There are plenty of companies where you may rent your own kayak or take a kayak tour. The best kayak launch sites are from Kings Bay Park or Hunter Springs Park as they are located just a short paddle away from the famous Three Sisters Springs. These parks do not allow dogs, so Annie and I didn’t kayak, but don’t let that stop you!
Shop at Heritage Village
If shopping is more your thing, check out Heritage Village. It is located just north of Crystal River’s town square and surrounding restaurants. Heritage Village is made up of several historic houses dating back to the late 1800’s.
Nestled beneath a canopy of trees, the houses feature gifts and specialty shops as well as a tea bar. Browse the shops and then take a short walk south to more restaurants in the historic downtown where you will also find the Coastal Heritage Museum.
Learn Some Railroad History
Just northeast of Heritage Village is the Crystal River Station. It is hard to believe that this sleepy town of 3,000 once had four different trains arriving twice daily, including passenger service from Ocala.
The first railroad depot in Citrus County was located here in Crystal River. It opened in 1887 when the Silver Springs, Ocala and Gulf Railroad constructed a spur line which continued to Homosassa. The north/south rail grew with the Crystal Street east/west trade.
The original depot burned to the ground around 1900 but was rebuilt around 1901-1902. Rail service last until the late 1960’s whereafter the depot was used for other purposes until the Crystal River Lions Club leased the building.
Fort Island Fishing Pier
Before the day is over, take a drive out to Fort Island Beach and Fishing Pier, relax and watch the sunset. I wouldn’t make this my main stop despite multiple local recommendations, as the beach is small relative to others in Florida, but you can’t really beat a sunset over the water! And if you are a vanlifer like me, you can take advantage of the outdoor showers. ETB