Tucked up on the West Coast, just an hour and fifteen minutes north of Tampa and surrounded by 600-acre Kings Bay, Crystal River is the essence of old Florida. When you arrive in Crystal River, you’re greeted by charming, classic Florida-Cracker style architecture among mature trees draped in Spanish moss. This special place evokes the quaintness and simplicity of a bygone era but with all the modern amenities and creature comforts you’ve come to expect when traveling around Florida. Hailed as the “gem of the nature coast” as well as the Manatee Capital of the World, Crystal River is a nature-lover’s paradise where you can find iconic flora and fauna of the Sunshine State surrounded by natural springs and waterways.
Whether you prefer spending time on the water or on land, in Crystal River there really is something for everyone to enjoy. Here we take a look at eight great things to do in Crystal River.
Swim with the manatees — one of the most popular things to do in Crystal River
The Manatee Capital of the World, Crystal River is one of few places on the entire planet where you can interact with these gentle giants in their natural habitat, and it’s certainly one of the most popular things to do in Crystal River. The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is the only refuge in the country focused on the preservation of a single species: the Florida Manatee.
Kings Bay, on which Crystal River sits, is a first magnitude Florida Springs system fed by over seventy springs and as many as forty seeps that bring 600 million gallons of freshwater rushing in here daily. This warm 72-74 degree spring water attracts 500-1,000 manatees every year, and they come in largest numbers when the gulf waters begin to cool off, from November to March. Even during the warm summer months, however, there are usually about 100 manatees remaining in the springs. And the cooler water provides a welcome relief for swimmers as well.
Manatee tours in Crystal River date back to the 1960s so you’ll find plenty of great options for tour operators. Some of our favorites include The Plantation Resort on Crystal River, a full-service resort with an Adventure Center where you can book a manatee tour. Birds Underwater Dive Center, located directly on Kings Bay, has been hosting Manatee tours since 1989 and River Ventures even has a “Manatee Guarantee” and will provide you with a full refund on the off-chance you are unable to swim with a manatee during your tour.
Manatees are a protected species and treated with the utmost care and respect from knowledgeable tour operators so no matter which you choose, you will be required to learn your “manatee manners” before getting into the water.
Want to see a manatee but swimming with them isn’t for you? Be sure to visit the accessible boardwalk circling the 57-acre Three Sisters Springs, where a whopping 528 manatees were recorded on December 27, 2014.
Explore the waterways on your own with a kayak or paddleboard
This part of Florida is a kayaker and paddleboarder’s dream with a maze of winding rivers, crystal-clear springs, open bays and vast lakes ready to be explored, which is why it’s one of the best things to do in Crystal River. There are two main launch areas best for kayaks, paddleboards and canoes located at Hunter Springs Park and Kings Bay Park. All City of Crystal River pre-approved commercial vendors launch out of Kings Bay Park. So that’s where you will be sure to find a trustworthy and affordable operator. While on your above-water adventure you may spot native wildlife like birds, otters, alligators and, of course, manatees, but remember to keep your distance and mind your “manatee manners.”
Cycle the Withlacoochee State Trail
One of the longest paved trails in Florida, the Withlacoochee State Trail is 46 miles long and runs from Citrus Springs to Dade City. The sprawling trail covers more than 761 acres across Citrus, Hernando and Pasco Counties, with the corridor running through small towns, ranches and natural areas like the Withlacoochee State Forest, southern Withlacoochee River Canoe Trail and Fort Cooper State Park. Like much of our state, the converted railroad trail is mostly flat, making it perfect for cyclists, walkers, skaters and even equestrians. You can access the trail, one of the best things to do in Crystal River, at five different trailheads, with Crystal River only about 20 minutes from both the Gulf Junction trailhead and South Citrus Springs trailhead.
Hike the Crystal River Preserve State Park
Spanning over thousands of acres of coastline where spring-fed rivers mix with the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico, the Crystal River Preserve State Park embodies the spirit of untouched, wild Florida. Within its borders you’ll find scrub, pinewoods, hardwood forests, salt marshes and mangrove islands. With six unique trails to explore, the preserve is a year-round hiking destination, with the Crystal Cove trail proving great for bird-watching; the Seven Mile Loop Trail notorious for river otter-sightings; and the Churchhouse Hammock Trail currently undergoing habitat restoration to encourage the return of the longleaf pine, gopher tortoise and fox squirrel.
For a bit of history, head over to the Crystal River Archaeological State Park, a 61-acre National Historic Landmark known for its remarkable Native American burial mounds, temple/platform mounds and substantial midden. For 1,600 years, the six-mound complex served as an imposing ceremonial center for Native Americans and was active and abandoned before Europeans ever arrived in the Western Hemisphere. Climb the 51 steps to the top of Temple Mound A for stunning vistas of natural Florida in all its glory.
Take a stroll back in time among the old Florida Cracker houses on North Citrus Avenue in historic downtown Crystal River. Mosey around the charming Heritage Village where you’ll find an array of boutiques and restaurants nestled among the oaks and magnolia trees. Don’t miss the anchor of the village and your first stop, the historic two-story Heritage House, built in the late 1800s, which serves as a welcome center and gift shop.
With so much to explore you’ll want to first grab a cup of coffee at Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters before heading out to find the perfect manatee plush at All About Nature, a timeless memento from Heritage Antiques Mall, and a great new outfit and gifts at both The Cotton Club and Southern Babe Boutique. Stop for lunch at BubbaQue’s BBQ or Amy’s on The Avenue, and finally grab an ice cream cone at The General Store.
In the mood for some history? The Coastal Heritage Museum is just minutes away in the old city hall building. Toast to a full, fun day with a cold adult beverage at St. Johns Tavern, KC Wine and Coffee Bar, or venture to Copp Brewery and Winery just a four-minute drive east of North Citrus Avenue.
Eat fresh-caught seafood at a waterfront restaurant
Since Crystal River is nearly surrounded by water, it’s no surprise there are many great local restaurants serving up fresh seafood and views. Cracker’s Bar and Grill is known for its grouper sandwich and has live music every weekend and a fun tiki hut. The Crab Plant Restaurant and Seafood Market on King’s Bay has an extensive seafood menu including fresh-caught grouper, snapper, mahi mahi, mullet and, of course, crab varieties ranging from seasonal stone crab, dungeness, snow and king.
Arrive by boat to Waterfront Social right on Kings Bay, boasting a menu of southern coastal dishes with a focus on scratch recipes like gator bites, blackened mahi tacos and crab cakes. Taking advantage of the great fishing and scalloping in the area and catching dinner yourself? Many local restaurants will “cook your catch” like West 82 Bar and Grill at The Plantation Resort on Crystal River.
Attend one of Crystal River’s annual festivals
The residents of Crystal River take so much pride in their beautiful city, it’s no wonder they know how to host a festival or two. Crystal River has at least five annual festivals, adding to the small-town charm for which the city is known.
The Florida Manatee Festival has honored the beloved marine mammal for 36 years now, with over 25,000 visitors and residents attending each year to enjoy the live music, great food, and discounted boat and guided kayak tours for the opportunity to see a manatee up close. Later in the year, on the second Saturday in October, the Scarecrow Fest is a beloved family tradition and free event for 35 years running, celebrating all things autumnal.
A little less than a month later is the one-day Stone Crab Jam, an open-street festival hosted by the Kings Bay Rotary Club saluting to Stone Crab season with three live music stages and, of course, delicious food. Finally, on the first Friday in December Crystal River holds their annual Christmas Tree Lighting Festival in the town square, complete with holiday shopping vendors, activities for kids, food and drink vendors, live music and an appearance by the big man himself.
Take an aerial glide tour of Citrus County — one of the most unexpected things to do in Crystal River
Now that you’ve seen and experienced the magic of Crystal River by water and land, it’s time to see it from a different vantage point: up in the air. Right Rudder Aviation out of Inverness offers one-hour discovery flights in fuel-efficient, two-seat glider planes, giving you the opportunity to see Crystal River from on high. Fly over Three Sisters Springs, Kings Bay, Salt River and Dixie Bay, taking in the lush landscape and labyrinth of waterways. Though certainly not for the faint of heart, it’s a fascinating and unique way to see Crystal River and gain perspective on the vast beauty of the estuary.