Most people find themselves in Crystal River, Florida for one reason, to swim with the manatees that seek safety and warmth in Kings Bay during the colder winter months. While this is a perfectly good reason to visit the area, I’d be remiss if we didn’t say that it’s worth visiting for a multitude of other reasons, too.
Crystal River and the surrounding areas that makeup Citrus County offer a unique abundance of nature that is unique to Florida. With natural springs that pump billions of gallons of fresh clean water to the surface, expansive coastal marshes, thick forests, and rich history, this area begs to be explored.
Let the manatees bring you to the area but let your desire to see the natural side of Florida keep you here for a few days, you won’t regret it.
Plan A Trip to Crystal River, Florida
Where is Crystal River Located?
The map above features all of the things to do, places to stay, and places to eat that are recommended in this guide.
Crystal River is located in the north-central west area of Florida. The town sits on the Gulf of Mexico in a region described as Florida’s Big Bend.
Unlike the southwest region of Florida that features white sand beaches and turquoise waters along the Gulf of Mexico, the coast of the Big Bend offers a completely different environment rich with marshes, mangrove forests, and brackish tributaries from spring-fed rivers.
How Many Days Do You Need?
We spent 4 days exploring the best of both Crystal River and Homosassa. The two areas are intertwined, so it’s worth seeing them both when you visit. That said, I’d say the average visitor comes to the area for 2-3 days.
If you like outdoor activities and are looking for unique, uncrowded experiences, definitely give it 3-4 days.
If you’re short on time and just want to swim with the manatees and see whatever else your time allows then 1-2 days will work.
9 Best Things to do in Crystal River, FL
1. Get Up Close with the Manatees
Hands down the number one thing to do in Crystal River is the opportunity to swim with and interact with the hundreds of manatees that seek refuge in the warm spring waters of Kings Bay in the winter months. Now that we’ve been, we totally get it!
Worth noting is that swimming with the manatees is a seasonal thing and only possible during the winter months. The season is officially from mid-November to late-March. Once the weather starts to warm up, the manatees leave the warmth and protection of the springs and head out to the ocean for the summer.
Having the chance to interact with this gentle sea mammal is a life-changing experience. Nowhere else in the world can you swim with and interact with manatees in a legal and controlled environment.
All tours are run by licensed and certified companies and you’ll be guided on any tour by a naturalist that is well versed in all things Florida manatee.
Most tours last 3 hours, taking you to the sanctuary areas, typically near Three Sisters Springs, where you’ll hop into the water and snorkel to the edge of protected rest zones. Once there, you wait, and it doesn’t take long for the curious and fun-loving manatees to come over for an interaction!
To say it’s transformative is an understatement. It’s a chance for you to disconnect from the world above water and become one with another species during your time in the water.
There are plenty of operators in town that can take you out on a snorkel tour and it’s best if you book your tour well in advance of your visit. These tours sell out regularly and often months in advance during peak season. Avoid disappointment by taking care of booking before you arrive in Florida.
Choosing a Tour Operator
What operator should you choose? Well, that’s entirely up to you. That said, we went out with the Plantation Adventure Center that operates right at the Plantation on Crystal River resort and had a really great experience.
The check-in process was smooth, the guides knowledgeable, the gear meticulously clean and we got fantastic photos too. Not all guides offer photos, so if that is important to you, be sure to call the shop ahead of booking to ensure you’re on a tour that offers photos. As a note, these will cost extra, we paid $40 for a thumb drive of all photos. It was well worth it!
2. Three Sisters Springs
Once you’ve had your fill of seeing the manatees from their level, head over to the stunningly beautiful Three Sisters Springs, where you can walk the boardwalks and observe the manatees from above!
This is also a really great option if you don’t want to be in the water but still want to see manatees on your visit to Crystal River. Not only that but the springs are brightly colored and crystal-clear set against a tropical forest. It’s exotic and pure Florida nature.
To access the park, you’ll need to park at the visitor center that is located in the downtown area. Here you’ll purchase your entrance bracelet and then board a trolley bus that will take you across town to the entrance of the park.
It is possible to walk there from the visitor’s center, but it’s about 2 miles and mostly exposed without shade. So, keep that in mind.
Once you arrive at the park, you’re free to walk the boardwalks about the Three Sisters Springs and any of the nature trails that lead around the area.
Snorkeling with the manatees and visiting the Three Sisters Springs are the top things to do in Crystal River during a visit.
3. Crystal River Archaeological State Park
We kind of found this park by accident and it ended up being the most interesting historical place we visited during our time in Crystal River!
The state park was established to protect the sacred midden mounds that were used by the Native Americans that resided on the land. It offers an insightful look at their way of life and how they used the unique topography of the land to thrive.
All of the mounds that you see on the grounds are built up from shells, rock, and coral that the native people gathered to make high ground. They used these areas as dump stations for their sea harvest waste and also as burial grounds.
The park offers detailed informational signs throughout the grounds to offer education and insight into what you are seeing.
4. Fort Island Gulf Beach
The only beach you’ll find in Crystal River is Fort Island Gulf Beach. This small park offers a small beach, swimming area on the Gulf of Mexico, a pier with boardwalks, and some hiking trails. It’s a fantastic place to go for a sunset on the water.
The park offers a nice parking lot, bathrooms, and picnic tables, all without charge. Our favorite part of the park was the boardwalk system that leads you to the pier. It’s set in a wild environment with lush vegetation that opens up to the water.
It’s located not far outside of town and at the end of the same road that the Plantation on Crystal River is located on.
5. Explore Kings Bay
The most popular ways to explore the protected Kings Bay are by boat, pontoon, kayak, or SUP. Since the bay acts as a safe harbor for manatees in the winter months, you can see them everywhere, making any time spent on the water a thrilling experience.
It is possible to book boat trips, kayak, and SUP trips. There are also a couple of public launches for those that wish to bring their own watercraft. If you do this, please abide by all rules and regulations that are in place to protect the manatees.
6. Meander the Downtown & Heritage Village
During a visit to Crystal River, you do not want to miss the historic downtown area. Even if it’s just for an afternoon stroll. This area of town offers numerous local shops, museums, and historical signs that tell the history of the city.
There are numerous murals around that depict the sea life in the surrounding areas, including manatees. You’ll also discover quiet parks and fountains to enjoy some slow down time.
The shops in Heritage Village are located within the walls of a handful of original 1800’s houses. Not only do you have the chance to purchase local artisan goods, but you’ll learn some history of the town too.
7. Coastal Heritage Museum
Located in the original City Hall building that was constructed in 1939, the Coastal Heritage Museum offers free admission and is open Wednesday to Saturday, 11 am to 3 pm.
A visit to this museum will send you back in time while unveiling a historical overview of the coastal area of Citrus County. The stories are told through exhibits that contain stories, artifacts, furniture, and photos.
8. Scalloping in the Summer
Opposite of manatee season, which runs with the winter months, is Crystal River’s famed scalloping season. The season typically runs from early July to mid-September and is a fabulous way to be out on the water.
It’s possible to join in on the scalloping fun either with your own boat, launched from a public boat ramp or through a guided experience. Of course, we recommend the latter as they know the waters and have all the equipment you’ll need.
Harvesting scallops in the Gulf of Mexico is an interactive experience where you don snorkel gear and a mesh bag while your time is spent diving and collecting these tasty mollusks from the seafloor.
At the end of your adventure, you can return to town and visit one of the many restaurants that will prepare and serve your collection for the day. It’s an adventure you definitely shouldn’t miss out on when you visit Crystal River or Homosassa in the summer months.
9. Hike the Seven Mile Loop Trail
Located in the Crystal River Preserve State Park, this hike is rated as moderate. The loop trail shows off a variety of Florida eco-systems, including pine flats, coastal marshlands, hydric-hammock, and hardwood forest.
The trail is flat and easy to walk as it moves along maintained fire roads. This makes the trail suitable for both walking and biking. The trail offers mile markers with benches along with a clearly marked and easy-to-follow trail.
Fall, winter, and spring are the best times to hike this trail as they offer cooler weather. Regardless of when you hike, be sure to take at least 2L of water with you.
This hike is accessed from US19 off of West State Park Street. As it continues onto N Sailboat Avenue, go straight and you’ll be at the trailhead.
4 Unmissable Things Down the Road in Homosassa
To visit Crystal River and not include a visit to Homosassa should be a crime! This town is the embodiment of old Florida and a place where you can let yourself unwind and give in to a relaxed lifestyle. Even if just for a couple of days.
10. Experience the Manatees on the Homosassa River
While Crystal River is the most popular place to swim with the manatees, it is also possible to do so on the Homosassa River. Much like Kings Bay and the Three Sisters Springs, manatees journey up the Homosassa River in search of warmer waters and protection.
In addition to going out in Crystal River, we also joined a tour to experience the manatees in Homosassa too. Here we went out with Captain Tracy, owner of the Homosassa Manatee Snorkeling Center and the first female captain to lead manatee tours in the area.
We found the whole experience to be much more peaceful, as there are fewer people going over to Homosassa as compared to Crystal River. This meant a more intimate experience with both the crew and the manatees.
All of her equipment is top-notch and her knowledge of the area is unmatched. She knows the patterns of the manatees and where to find them. Going out with her for the morning was a rewarding experience as we had solo interactions, not something that is easy to come by during the peak of the manatee season!
11. Inshore Gulf Fishing
As with a lot of coastal destinations in Florida, Homosassa offers some incredible fishing opportunities, particularly for inshore fishing.
We spent a half-day out on the water with Captain Jesse Cook of Wild West Charters, fishing the waters where the Gulf of Mexico and the Homosassa River meet. He was not only knowledgeable but a fantastic conversation, too.
We spent the better part of 4 hours tossing lines and reeling in fish. Inshore fishing differs from offshore in that you’re fishing in only a couple of feet of water, meaning you’ll be looking to catch fish that use the mangrove systems for protection. This includes redfish, snook, sheepshead, jack, and mullet, to name a few.
12. Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
Homosassa Springs has been a tourist attraction since the early 1900s when passenger trains would stop in the area to load cargo. The train goers would use the time to swim in the spring and observe the wildlife that called the springs home.
In the 1940s, 150 acres of land was purchased and turned into a destination attraction featuring the opportunity to view exotic and native animal species. In the 1980s it was purchased by the county and later by the state of Florida to preserve the spring and natural area.
Today it operates as the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. A visit allows you to see manatees year-round, as well as a variety of other species. Each animal within the park resides there due to a condition that would prevent them from surviving in the wild.
The park also features a super cool underwater fish observatory that allows you to get under the water in the spring, without getting wet, where you can observe fish and sometimes even manatees, that naturally visit the Homosassa Springs.
13. Unwind on the Chassahowitzka River
If you’re looking for an experience that harkens to what this area looked like before it started to develop, you’ll want to head to the Chassahowitzka River. We rented kayaks from the Chassahowitzka River Campground Store and spent several hours on the river.
The river is fed from multiple natural springs and it’s an adventure in itself to find them. This includes the Seven Sisters Springs and The Crack, to name a few. In addition, the river itself offers a chance to see manatees, river otters, and many species of water birds.
This was one of our favorite experiences from our 4 days in the Crystal River and Homosassa area. It was an immersive experience that allowed us to see the raw beauty of the area.
Of course, there is much more charm and adventure to be found in Homosassa.
Where to Stay in Crystal River
The town is small, but the location really is everything, just like in any destination. Due to the large influx of tourism around the manatee season, you’ll find a generous offering of hotels, from hotel chains to small inns and everything in between.
Below we’ll highlight the two properties that we stayed in for our trip.
Plantation on Crystal River
The Plantation on Crystal River is the best place to stay in Crystal River. Not only is it located right on the water, with its own adventure center offering manatee trips, but the hotel is modeled after a traditional plantation home that would have been found in this area in the early days that it was settled.
The property is beautiful, featuring a restaurant, bar, tiki bar, pool, and a host of other amenities. The rooms are charming, with an old plantation feeling and we had one that overlooked the water.
Florida Cracker Resort
The Florida Cracker Resort is the best location to stay in Homosassa. Located right on the Homosassa River, it is close to all of the main areas of the town. It’s also located adjacent to Monkey Island, an island that is home to three resident spider monkeys that were once part of a local exotic animal attraction.
The resort offers a small bar that serves some incredibly tasty pizza. It’s also close to plenty of other dining options that offer fresh seafood, too.
The property is getting a major overhaul while preserving its tradition as one of the first resort hotels in the area. Our room was large, featuring a living room, kitchen, and separate bathroom.
Where to Eat in Crystal River & Homosassa
There are plenty of dining options across both cities, however, we wanted to highlight some of the places that we enjoyed during our trip.
- West 82 Grill (Crystal River) – Located at the Plantation on Crystal River, this restaurant offers some great options for any dining time. We enjoyed the fresh seafood specials here and the old plantation atmosphere.
- Waterfront Social (Crystal River) – Another fantastic waterfront option, this place offers some very tasty seafood dishes in a yacht club-type atmosphere.
- Crump’s Landing (Homosassa) – This is the best place to go if you want to watch the sunset, on the water with a drink in your hand. This restaurant is essentially a large tiki bar, offering some fantastic food options – order the fish tacos! – set right on the banks of the Homosassa River. They have tiki tables on the beach or a patio that overlooks the water.
- Wallace’s at the Greenhouse (Homosassa) – We really loved the atmosphere at this restaurant, it was literally like dining inside a greenhouse! They offered a fresh take on popular staples and I highly recommend the ahi tuna salad.
- Monkey Bar (Homosassa) – Located at the Florida Cracker Resort, you can enjoy a thin crust pizza, and a bloody mary, all while watching the monkeys of Monkey Island, opposite the bar on the Homosassa River, go about their business.
Our visit to Crystal River & Homosassa was in partnership with Discover Crystal River. All opinions, recommendations, and stories are 100% our own, as always.
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