Few things in life can annoy the daylights out of me – like get me raging on fire pissed off – more than when someone says there’s nothing to do in my small town. Crystal River offers so much to do that I could write for a lifetime. However, recently it’s become a topic of conversation around town and all over social media. The problem is too many residents have not opened their eyes to the endless amounts of activities around here. Never fear – Small Town Tall Girl to the rescue! So without further ado (or bitching on my part), I present…
Top 10 Things to See & Do in Crystal River, FL
- Meet a Manatee
Crystal River is the only place in the world you can meet a manatee face to face. By land, by water or nose to nose – the method is up to you. Here are a few of our favorite ways:
- On a Paddleboard. Head over to Manatee Paddle in downtown Crystal River, paddleboard rentals and tours are available. Head out on your own or with one of their guides.
- Step into the Fishbowl. Visitors to Ellie Schiller’s Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park (located 7 miles south of Crystal River) can see manatees 365 days a year in their natural setting. The park is located at the mouth of the Homosassa River. Step into the Fishbowl, a large glass underwater observatory, if you are lucky you can get nose to nose with the gentle giants.
- Take a walk. Several parks in and around the Westside of the county have water access, visit Kings Bay Park or Hunter Springs located in Crystal River. Both offer waterfront views and during the cool winter months manatee spottings are standard.
- Go on a river cruise. Manatee tours are available from a wide variety of outfits all winter long. Visitors can book a relaxing river tour and be able to see manatees and other local wildlife. Don’t forget your cameras!
- Take the plunge! The best way to meet a manatee is to take the plunge and swim with them. Make sure to pay close attention to the rules and “Manatee Manners”. The same outfits that offer river cruises also offer swimming excursions.
- Explore Three Sisters Springs
Considered by many to be the crown jewel of the Nature Coast is Three Sisters Springs. As local folklore suggests, Three Sisters gains it name from three springs that are located there. Three Sisters is cooperatively owned by the City of Crystal River, Southwest Florida Water Management District and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, this group also manages the property. During the winter months Three Sisters Springs serves as a haven, a sanctuary, to the beloved manatee. During peak times human water access is denied as too many of the endangered manatees are gathered in the warm spring waters. In the summer months, visitors may swim, canoe, or kayak up a small opening to snorkel in the breathtaking springs. It is arguably the best snorkeling spot in Citrus County, besides a boat to gain access; visitors are recommended to bring fins and snorkels to take in the underwater scenery. Three Sisters Springs has a boardwalk where visitors can view the springs and manatees from the land. The Boardwalk is open to the public via tours from a local outfit from November through April.
- Wander Historic Downtown Crystal River
Downtown Crystal River sprawls along both sides of Highway 19 on Citrus Avenue. On north side visitors can stroll through Heritage Village and its adjoining shoppes. Heritage Village is housed in several historic buildings; included in the businesses there are antique, home décor, and souvenir shoppes as well as boutiques and restaurants. A handful of art galleries round out Heritage Village. Crossing Highway 19 and heading along South Citrus Avenue you will find an Irish pub, several upscale eateries, frozen yogurt and a wine shop & wine bar. Wander into the Coastal Heritage Museum for a quick glimpse back in time. Conclude your stroll at the water at Kings Bay Park which boasts a pier and playground for the children. Several manatee tour operators are located in Historic Downtown Crystal River for your tour accommodation needs. To learn about the history of the Downtown along with interesting back stories, participate in the Historic Downtown Cell Phone Walking Tour. Various stops along downtown are marked with the cell phone tour emblem – call the number associated with each location to learn about its history. Don’t see an emblem? Call 352-327-4622 from anywhere near downtown for instructions.
- Bag the Adventure – Scalloping
There is one favorite water activity that can only be done July 1 through September 24 – scalloping. The term “scalloping” refers to catching the bi-valve mollusk that lives in the shallow salt waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Scallops, once opened and cleaned, offer a small chunk of sweet meat.
With only a handful of spots in the State of Florida where you can scallop, Citrus County offers many of those spots. Like most other saltwater species, scalloping is given a season to ensure the beds can cultivate an adequate harvest for the next season. Additionally like crabbing or shrimping there are limits to the daily amount of scallops one person and one boat can bring in.
Scalloping can be a full day activity for people of all ages. Imagine it as an underwater egg hunt. Load up in a boat equipped with a cooler full of refreshments and snorkel gear. Valid saltwater fishing permits and a mesh bag completes the equation of the required equipment. Take any of our rivers out to the Gulf and start trolling for shallow spots. Anyone can peer over the bow of the boats and start the scallop search. In depths around four to ten feet in sandy or light grassy areas is prime scalloping grounds.
South of Homosassa and north of Chassowitzka are popular scalloping grounds, as is the area known as Gomez Rocks south of Crystal River. All of the local piers can giver scallopers tips on where the beds are heavy during the season.
Once a surefire scallop spot is located, drop anchor and gear up. A snorkel is a must, fins and gloves optional, while a mesh bag to store your bi-valves is highly recommended. Have your team of scallopers exit the boat on different sides and fan out, the more ground covered the more scallops you will discover. Don’t forget to enjoy all the fish, coral and underwater vegetation while on the hunt for scallops. Be prepared for the scallops to scoot away, they use their bi-valve to push the water to move around. Never fear they won’t move faster than you. Gloves are recommended because they can “bite”, but no one has ever been seriously injured.
Scallop limits state that one person can bring a pint of scallop meat in each day or 2 gallons per person, with a maximum of 10 gallons per boat. Ostentatious scallopers can clean the scallops out in the Gulf, but after a long day of hunting that may be the last thing on the mind. At just about every local pier and dock on the journey back in you will find many “professional” scallop cleaners who will clean and bag your bounty for you, of course for a nominal charge. Many say it’s well worth the price. Once cleaned fresh scallops are tasty in scampi, ceviche or deep fried.
Don’t have a boat but long for the adventure of scalloping? Numerous local fisherman offer scalloping charters and many local marinas offer boat rentals. It’s the perfect summer activity.
- Drop a line – Fishing
The area’s waterways never have a shortage of fish to bait your hook. Throughout the year an array of species can be caught and kept. Redfish, trout, mullet, tarpon, snapper and snook are the major species that can be caught tackled inshore. For the experience of a lifetime book a charter fishing trip offshore to test your strength against cobia, grouper, mackerel, hogfish, triggerfish and the occasional surprise. Fishing can be done from local piers, bridges, parks and of course by boat. Check with the Florida Fish & Wildlife website to determine which fish are in season and the species measurements and limits. And never fish without a valid permit which is available for purchase online, at local bait shops and major box retailers like Kmart and West Marine.
- Commune with nature at Crystal River State Parks
Crystal River boasts several state parks within the Florida State Parks system. These parks include the Crystal River Preserve State Park, the Crystal River Archeological State Park and the Crystal River Preserve Churchhouse Hammock Trail. Visiting this chain of parks offers more than a full day of activities.
Crystal River Preserve State Park offers two major trails, the infamous Mullet Hole where you can drop a line and be sure to catch a mullet, an informational educational walk through museum and various boat rides & programs are offered regularly. These include the popular Moon over the Mounds which takes place on Friday nights when the full moon is out and also several River Cruise tours; including a Sunset ride.
The Crystal River Archeological Park showcases the Indian mounds which were formed tens of thousands of years ago. Guests can tour the mounds as well as the museum which features many exhibits on the Indian way of life before Crystal River was inhabited with American settlers.
The Churchhouse Hammock Trail offers a boardwalk through the hammock where many species of native wildlife and vegetation can be spotted.
- Take a dip – Cool off in our water hot spots
With seven rivers and a large system of lakes located here, there is no shortage of water hot spots around Crystal River. Some are obvious for everyone to see, others more secluded like local secrets. Avid boaters are constantly scouting out new places to drop anchor and soak in the sunshine.
- The Shallows in Crystal River – The Shallows are located smack dab in the middle of Kings Bay. Given its name by locals for being a shallow area, the Shallows can be seen packed with boaters and jet skiers every weekend when the sun is out. While the water is very shallow, about knee deep, many regular attendees bring tubes or other flotation devices. Kids tossing footballs or volleyballs can be seen frolicking near the coastline. Take a walk up on the island and see Parker Spring which is located inside the island, make sure to only leave your footprints behind when you leave the island. Don’t worry if your cooler gets empty before the sun goes down, the Shallows are just a short trip from Pete’s Pier.
- Sandy Hook – Located where the mouth of the Salt River meets the Gulf of Mexico is a spot locals love known as Sandy Hook. A few mile ride from Twin Rivers Marina, at the end of the Crystal River, Sandy Hook offers a large sand bar where many boats can be seen anchored up for the day. Sandy Hook is also a popular destination for the fishermen and scallopers who go out early to fish and are ready to unwind when the bait is gone. Essential items for a great day at Sandy Hook include: plenty of sunscreen, a full cooler of beverages and snacks, some type of music playing device, water toys, tubes, noodles or beach chairs. At low tide the sand bar is completely exposed offering a great spot to put down a chair.
- Hunter Springs Park – Located in the heart of downtown Crystal River, Hunter Springs is the only water hot spot accessible by land. This local park, owned and operated by the City of Crystal River has recently been the object of a massive local waterway restoration project. The small beach like area is perfect for an afternoon under the sun or a great place to plan a picnic lunch. There is a kayak launch on site and given its location, Hunter Springs makes for a great place to launch for a quick paddle around Kings Bay. Bathrooms are available and access to the park is free of charge. Ample parking and picnic pavilions are available on a first come first serve basis. To enjoy a day at Hunter Springs all that is needed is sunscreen, a blanket or chair and a smile.
- The King Spring – Around the corner from The Shallows you will find the King Spring. This area is easily identifiable by the buoys that mark it off. Many boaters enjoy dropping anchor here and swimming to the springs. The King Spring is approximately 50 feet deep and a well known spot for scuba divers. Snorkelers also find enjoyment in the King Spring. During the winter months make sure to don a wet suit as the fresh water bubbles out at a constant 72 degrees year round!
- Hit the sand and catch a spectacular sunset – Fort Island Trail Beach
No matter the time of year a trip to the beach is a great way to spend a few hours. Lay in the sand, hear the Gulf lap the coast or take a walk along a boardwalk spying on local birds. Any time is good for baiting a hook and casting it far hoping for a big one.
Right along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in Crystal River, a fifteen acre county park offers visitors the opportunity to do all of the aforementioned and more. Fort Island Beach Park is located at the very end of Ft. Island Trail, a long relaxing meandering road that takes you out to where the land meets the gulf.
Crystal River is known as the Nature Coast, one will not find the pristine sandy white shorelines of our neighbors to the north and south. Regardless, Ft. Island Beach offers the same beach amenities as any other. Stick an umbrella in the sand, watch the kids build sandcastles and let the gentle lapping of the gulf hitting the shoreline unwind you.
When the heat is at its peak, take a stroll on the boardwalk. In the summertime, a concession stand is open for the frozen treats that complete any trip to the beach.
Ft. Island also is home to a public boat ramp, put in there and be granted instant access to the Gulf of Mexico. Fishing is allowed from the pier off the boardwalk. With a little patience and perhaps a dash of luck, hook a Spotted Sea Trout or reel in a Redfish.
Perhaps one of the most breathtaking sights in the entire area is catching a magnificent magenta orange sunset from the shore of the beach. Sunsets come in an array of pinks, reds, oranges and purples. Savor in every shade from the comfort of the beach at Ft. Island. Ft. Island offers something for everyone. Open daily from sunrise to sunset, admission to the park is free of charge.
- Fore! – Play a round of golf
Crystal River is home to several unique golf courses. The best known and accessible to the public are the courses at the Plantation on Crystal River. The Plantation features an 18 hour par 72 course as well as a 9 hole par 31 practice course. Crystal River Golf Club, formerly known as Seven River Golf Course, has recently become public and offers 18 holes for the golfer at any level. Within a short drive from Crystal River are over a dozen well known courses that are public, semi-public and private. The exclusive and world renowned Black Diamond Ranch is just 9 miles outside Crystal River.
- Mingle with locals at an array of local special events – Locals in Crystal River love an excuse to throw a party! Throughout the year a variety of festivals and events are held in the area. Festivals like the Florida Manatee Festival, Scarecrow Festival, Stone Crab Jam and the 4th of July are annual staples. The first Saturday of each month is celebrated with Sunset at the Pier. The annual Christmas parade is another favorite of locals. These major events are supplemented throughout the year with many local fundraisers and small events in the downtown Crystal River area. Just north of town the Crystal River Mall hosts events weekly – from farmers markets to farm swaps to drum circles and fashion shows the Mall is bustling with activities for tourists and locals of all ages. Check out the Chamber of Commerce community calendar here for upcoming events.
This list doesn’t even scratch the surface of all there is to do here – kayaking, hiking trails, biking trails, shopping and dining at an array of locally owned unique places… I could go on and on and on! Check out the Visit Citrus website for more information on all that abounds in my small town!
Until next time,