Check Out Crystal River

Crystal River, just a quick hour or so drive west of Ocala, may be most well known for the hundreds of manatees that gather in the local springs each winter. But the city of Crystal River is much more than that. And with Crystal River is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year, if you haven’t visited in a while, there’s no time like the present. 

Written By Karin Fabry-Cushenbery

Photo by Jeremiah Johnson/Crystal River Photography

At just over 6.8 square miles, Crystal River may be small in size, but it’s big on fun. For water lovers, Crystal River is a true oasis. The city is home to the state’s second-largest system of natural springs, with a daily flow of 3 million cubic yards of cool, crystal-clear water. 

With that in mind, a good starting point for your Crystal River adventure is Kings Bay Park, where swimming, snorkeling and kayaking are available year-round. A handful of companies offer kayak rentals right from the park, and walk-ins are welcome as long as kayaks last. Kings Bay also offers barbecue grills, a large playground and beautiful views. Another nearby park, Hunter Springs Park, is also open to kayaking and more, plus it has a beach area for swimming. Hunter Springs Park is also the only location to access any springs from land. If launching from other areas, you will need a kayak or boat.

While visiting Kings Bay, stop in at the Crystal River Wildlife Complex & Visitors Center. Here you’ll learn about the West Indian manatee through interactive exhibits and displays. 

Of course, no trip to Crystal River would be complete without a guided manatee tour, and Jodi Casalvieri, media and content manager for the Citrus County Visitors Bureau, says to choose a tour that launches first thing in the morning if possible because it’s when the manatees are most active. About 50-80 manatees call the river home year-round, and the guides know where these gentle giants like to congregate. 

“If you visit, click on the ‘Meet A Manatee’ tab under manatee authority and you’ll see a full list of tour operators in our area,” says Jodi.

If shopping is more your speed, Jodi suggests a stroll down Citrus Avenue where you’ll find The Shoppes of Heritage Village to the north. Many of the unique shops and boutiques in this area are housed in renovated old homes, adding to the small-town charm. Stop in at the Heritage House Welcome Center for details on the shops, eateries and businesses in the Village. To the south on Citrus Avenue, you’ll find an abundance of additional shops and restaurants worth checking out.

If you’re interested in turning your day trip into a weekend getaway, the Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed & Breakfast located downtown is perfect for a romantic overnight option.

Photo by Carol Grant/OceanGrant Images/Discover Florida

“It’s a very cool place,” says Jodi. “There’s even a spring in the yard. This is where you set your home base if you want to park the car and leave it for the rest of the weekend. If you’re looking for a more resort-style hotel, the Plantation Resort on Crystal River is a top choice. And, if you’re interested in a small boutique hotel, I would recommend The Retreat at Crystal Manatee.”

For the history buffs in your group, head north on 19, where you’ll find Crystal River Archeological State Park.

“It’s a wonderful place to stretch your legs and explore,” says Jodi. “Here you will see Native American ceremonial mounds, and it’s the perfect place to take in a sunset.” Another great sunset option? Fort Island Gulf Beach.

If you have kids in tow, or even you don’t, consider a trip to the Mertailor, where you’ll find a mermaid aquarium experience.

“This touch-tank aquarium allows you to have hands-on experiences with sting rays, starfish and more,” says Jodi. “Plus, they have a mermaid show at 11am, 1pm and 3pm. It’s a lot of fun for the whole family.”

Speaking of mermaids, some of the dive shops in the area, including Birds Underwater and Crystal River Water Sports, offer monofin mermaid swim classes.

“It’s pretty unique in that you get to do the lessons in the springs themselves instead of in a pool,” adds Jodi.  

Another great family option is an airboat tour of the local waterways.

“You can choose salt or freshwater, but I would suggest saltwater,” says Jodi. “Most airboat tours offer a swamp-type experience, while the saltwater option goes into the mangrove forest in the Gulf of Mexico. Taking off from Ozello Key Marina may allow riders to see dolphins, sea turtles and more.”

There’s no doubt that whatever you choose to do while visiting Crystal River, you’ll surely work up an appetite. Start your morning with Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters, a Citrus County chain that offers fresh-baked pastries and fresh-roasted coffee. For lunch and dinner, Waterfront Social is a casual dining option that showcases beautiful views of Kings Bay. 

Photo by Ursula Casett von Batemberg/CVB Photography

“If you’re looking for a more fine-dining experience, I would recommend Vintage on 5th,” says Jodi. “They have a fantastic menu and a wonderful wine list.”

Before concluding your trip to Crystal River, take a short trip to nearby Homosassa to check out Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park on your way home. It’s one of the most visited state parks in Florida, and Jodi says it’s well worth the visit. Here you’ll see a huge variety of both wild and captive animals, an underwater observatory and more. 

Plan accordingly when mapping out your upcoming trip to Citrus County. Whether you’re looking to relax and unwind at the beach, or you’re interested in a little adventure seeking or cultural tourism, the small town of Crystal River has got you covered. 

Discover Crystal River