Let’s start with one big piece of advice, don’t just do a day trip to Crystal River, Florida! For one, there’s far more to see here than just one day. And two, the two biggest wildlife experiences I talk about are so much better first thing in the morning. And I’m talking sunrise people, that’s how to get the most out of this Crystal River Florida itinerary.
In this article I’ll talk you through all the things to do on a two-day itinerary here, with two overnights. Then I’ll explain the best food spots I found, and hints and tips to fit in along the way. I’ll talk most about swimming with manatees, as this is the biggest attraction and a must do in Crystal River.
But don’t miss the kayaking at the Chassahowitzka River either, as that was a very close second place.
It’s also worth noting that Crystal River area covers Inverness, Floral City and Homosassa, and they are all worth visiting. So, you’ll find them all below. Enjoy!
Introduction to Crystal River
Home of the manatee, spring-fed rivers and often referred to as Florida’s soul! Crystal River is around one hour by car from Orlando and Tampa, making it an easy trip from either major international airport.
Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River
The term swimming is misleading, ideally you float with manatees. You are meant to “passively observe” the manatees.
I went during the off-season for spotting manatees, which means most of the manatees have gone out to the Gulf of Mexico. However, there are some resident manatees that remain in King’s Bay all year round. Personally, I preferred this, it took a little longer to find a manatee, but there were far less people in the water.
Manatees are federally protected in Florida, and they are the endangered West Indian Manatee. It’s therefore important you go with a registered guide and listen to all their rules and instructions. The good guides are protecting the manatee and the fragile ecosystem they live in.
I went with Explorida, who offer professional tours, training and all the equipment you need. You must wear a wetsuit to help you float and use a noodle floatation. This isn’t necessarily because you might need it, it’s to ensure you can’t sink or do anything to invade the manatee’s space. We aren’t supposed to chase after manatees or make any sudden movements.
Manatees are very sensitive animals; they are calm and can feel your heartbeat before you’ve even spotted it. Movement, splashing around, kicking feet is all against the regulations. Once your guide has observed the manatee and given you the go-ahead, you paddle up slowly (doggie paddle), float, and observe. Even if the manatee comes right towards you.
At 10 metres long, a manatee swimming right at you munching away might seem worrying but trust me these are gentle giants, and you’re more in danger from the people around you than the manatee.
Is swimming with manatees a bucket list experience?
Yes! This was hands down one of the best wildlife encounters I’ve had in a long time, and something I’ve always wanted to do. I recommend to everyone that they spend time with these magnificent animals at least once in their lifetime. Something I will never forget, and has to be included in any Crystal River Florida itinerary.
Cycling in Inverness on the Withlacoochee State Trail
On that very same day, after brunch (see my suggestion below), I headed 30 minutes by car to Inverness to cycle the Withlacoochee State Trail. The longest rail to trail path in Florida, it runs for 46 miles and passes rivers, forests and small towns. The trail is very flat so perfect for biking and seeing some of Florida’s countryside.
I first headed to the historic Floral City, and after a little break for a beer at the Shamrock Inn, I headed down Avenue of the Oaks. This road is stunning, next I turned left towards a lookout onto the Tsala Apopka Lakes. Some of these spots are privately owned, and others you can stop and enjoy. These lakes could be explored for days.
I also recommend the Wishing Stone Tavern, and I hired my bike from Trek in Inverness, who were great.
Visit Fort Cooper State Park, Florida
The next stop is right off the Withlacoochee Trail, the Fort Cooper State Park, where 700 acres of canopy forests and nature trails “tell the story of a land in conflict”.
This is a great spot with barely any other visitors to relax, hike or birdwatch (it’s also part of the Great Florida Birding Trail). You can also learn about the history of Fort Cooper, and the Seminole people who lived in the area and are the reason for the construction of Fort Cooper.
I suggest taking some time to read about the Seminole war which started in 1835. There was finally an end after 3 wars in 1858, after many bloody and gruesome battles across Florida with heavy losses on both sides. It’s a stark reminder of some of the history of these lands, which I feel are finally starting to get the recognition it deserves in Florida.
Finally, after exploring the Withlacoochee State Trail, I suggest spending the evening in Downtown Inverness, walking the streets and admiring the character of this town. If you head to the courthouse, you’ll find lots of boutique shops and restaurants. Watch the video to see which one I picked.
Inverness: “a quintessential small town done right”.
Kayaking at the Chassahowitzka River
We are onto Day Two now and heading south of Crystal River to the Chassahowitzka River, a true gem in the whole of Florida. I asked myself, how can we top yesterday’s wildlife encounter? Well, I’m not going to compare the two, but this wasn’t far off.
I met up with Jodie from Nature Coast Eco Tours, who prides herself on connecting people with nature and showing them the real Florida. And she did just that. I had heard we might see some wildlife, even river otters if we are very lucky. But we start off just learning about the spring fed Chassahowitzka River, visiting the 7 sisters springs; 7 holes that you can swim through! It’s also a popular spot for manatees in the winter.
We then headed east, and it hit me how quiet and peaceful this river was, it’s true wild Florida. That’s why Jodie’s tours always start early, as the longer the day goes on the more people disturb that peace. It was time for our first amazing wildlife encounter.
I could barely believe my eyes, there were a pair of dolphins fishing this far upstream right in front of our eyes, one passed right underneath the kayak!
My guide Jodie explained she sees this once or twice a month only, so it’s not uncommon, but to have them pass that close is very lucky. I can tell it’s going to be my day.
My second encounter is one I’ll remember for a long time. As we headed upstream, I said Jodie are they otters? There was a pair of otters swimming and fishing maybe 100 yards ahead of us. And weren’t too phased as we slowly got closer. To see River Otters on a tour is probably a 1 in 4 chance, when your guide knows where to look.
Another big bucket list tick, wild River Otters in Florida!
And finally, the third wildlife encounter is certainly the most common in Florida, an alligator. I’ve seen a lot in my time in America, but it never gets old.
We then headed to ‘The Crack’. A crack like shaped spring, it’s a bit of a trek to get to but well worth it. And again, early bird catches the worm. We were the only ones there! But half an hour later, there were 5 other people, and on the way out saw more heading that way. One kayak was playing rap music, what a great way to ruin this peaceful spot.
That was my only disappointment of the tour. Jodie’s frustration at people not caring enough for wildlife, overuse, and the lack of a no-wake zone. There are federally protected manatees here, how is there not a no-wake zone?
This wildlife oasis needs to be protected at all costs, as it feels like one of the last in Florida.
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
This wasn’t originally on my itinerary, but I’m happy I found time for it. Having seen so much wildlife so far in Crystal River, I was a bit reluctant to look at them in captivity.
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a collection of native Florida wildlife, albeit with one guest, the hippo! Visitors can observe and learn about various animals such as manatees, alligators, river otters, black bears, bald eagles, panthers, and various species of fish and birds.
It was their conservation and education efforts that sold it to me, the education programs and exhibits focus on ecosystems and habitats of Florida, as well as the history and conservation of the area.
Finally, the manatee rescue centre acts as a rehabilitation centre for injured and orphaned manatees, and many of them are released back into the wild. And if you’re lucky enough you’ll get to see a manatee up close in the underwater observation tank.
Boat tour of Homosassa River
Located on the west coast of Citrus County, and a little north of the Chassahowitzka River is the Homosassa River, 7 miles long and flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Being spring fed gives it that typical crystal-clear water this area is known for.
The river is surrounded by lush vegetation and is lined with mangroves, cypress trees, and various species of palm trees. The scenery here makes it the perfect place to get on the water, either boating, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, or taking an airboat tour.
An airboat tour will last around 45 minutes, however it’s not like my previous experiences where you stop and learn about the area or spot wildlife. This one spent the entire time whizzing around at hi-octane speeds, and the captain was disinterested in even saying hello to me.
Therefore, I’d recommend one of the eco or wildlife spotting tours, and doing things at a slower pace, as this is an area you really want to understand and appreciate this beautiful area.
Where to eat in Crystal River
That covers our two-day itinerary and things to do in Crystal River, that will be a jam-packed couple of days if you do each one. So, what about food? Well, these tips will slot perfectly into my itinerary above, so I’ve got you covered.
Brunch in Crystal River
Right after swimming with manatees I headed across the road from Explorida for brunch at Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters. It’s locally owned, has over 20 flavours of coffee, baked pastries, sandwiches, and lobster rolls. You could see it was full mostly of locals, which is always a good sign.
Dinner in Inverness
I have a few options for you in downtown Inverness, and I don’t think you can go far wrong with any. Head to Stumpknockers for a local’s favourite and famous for its seafood, or The Bistro Too which serves up woodfired pizza made fresh each day.
Then for more of a bar that serves food vibe, try Coach’s or Side Bar Tavern. I enjoyed the vibe at Side Bar Tavern, but the pizza wasn’t the best, and loved the beer selection at Coach’s.
Brewery and Dinner combos in Crystal River
I have a couple of fantastic breweries to recommend for you. The first is a winery, brewery, and restaurant! Prohibition Grill @ Copp Winery and Brewery is a microbrewery turned retro dining experience. It’s a gastro pub with live music and karaoke, definitely a local’s favourite hangout here and a great atmosphere for a pint or two.
Next up is Nine State Brewery, another family-owned establishment. They’ve been brewing for over 10 years and serve authentic Korean cuisine. Owner and head brewer Eric Lesage has travelled between nine states to land his perfect craft beer spot and aims to bring beer and wine drinkers together.
Lunch in Homosassa
If there is one place you take from this list, make is Wild Sassa at Shelly’s Seafood and Fish Market. Head to Shelly’s to find it and you’ll see a small and colourful shack called Wild Sassa.
They serve seafood tacos, ‘always grilled never fried’. I had a combination of the mahi-mahi and snapper taco; both were delicious. They are also known for their shrimpy burger, I don’t eat shrimp, but I can assure you it will be fresh and tasty.
Dinner in Homosassa
If there’s one place in Homosassa you can relax with a drink, order pizza or salad and watch live music then it must be Florida Cracker Monkey Bar. Monkey Island has been an attraction since 1960, and this is part of the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort, an option to stay if you like too. It has front row views of the Homosassa River and a great relaxed atmosphere.
And there comes to an end my two-day itinerary for Crystal River, what else do you have to suggest? I almost forgot, my sunset spot. Waterfront Social, which also has an restaurant if you want to eat there. Look at this sunset over Kings Bay.
This trip was in partnership with Visit Florida and Visit Pensacola, however as always, all of the photos and views are my own.