Are you looking for a winter weekend adventure? Forget the slopes and head to Crystal River, Florida! Here in this little slice of coastal paradise, we trade fireplaces and ski boots for sunshine and swimsuits. Known as the "Manatee Capital of the World," this charming river town has been attracting Snowbirds from all over to play in its crystal-clear springs and for years. Want to experience something really special? We've uncovered some incredible excursions that are sure to leave you with lasting memories. Prepare yourself… Get ready now…it's time to take your winter weekend road trip to Crystal River!
Ever experienced an oasis so breathtaking it could be mistaken for a paradise? Crystal River is that ultimate destination! With over 70 natural springs bubbling up, this destination offers endless aqua-blessings year round. Picture 580 million gallons of crystal clear water that stays 72 degrees all year long - perfect for any and every type of watersport imaginable.
Kings Bay Park and Hunter Springs Park are two of the public launch sites in the area. It is here that you might launch your boat or jet ski during the summer to go fishing, snorkeling or to go hunt scallops.
The winter months here are dedicated to the yearly manatee migration. To keep them safe this time of year, you see less propellors and more people enjoying Kayaks, Paddle Boards, and Water Bikes out in the Bay.
There are multiple reputable companies in the area that will rent you what you need to enjoy the day. We used Paddles Outdoor Rentals for our Paddle Board excursion. The staff was fantastic! The staff at the launch were great with the members of our party who were new to paddle boarding. Also, the staff were very knowledgeable, pointing us in the direction of fun things to see and where to go while we were on the water. Rentals are set up for multiple hour intervals.
If you launch in King's Bay, you will have the opportunity to explore a few inlets as well as having access to some of the big name springs in the area. There is a total population of 900 Manatees in the area during the winter, so there is a really good chance that you will encounter one while paddling shallower waters. While we were out on the paddle boards, a manatee and her calf swam right underneath us. It was glorious...and a shock! I'm surprised we didn't fall into the water.
Note: During Manatee migration, you are not allowed to bring your board or kayak into the natural spring areas. However, you can tie up and swim in. These springs are the natural gathering areas for these gentle giants. If you chose to swim in, please be respectful of their space. It's ok for a manatee to touch you. The curious manatees like to kiss and nuzzle. But, it's actually illegal for you to touch them first. For more info check out "Swimming With Manatees Guidelines"
Hiking & Spelunking
Withlacoochee State Forest is the third largest of Florida's lush forests! But don't be fooled by its underdog status. Located a quick 15 minute drive east of Crystal River, this area has 165,000 acres of river and forest to offer, providing some of the most thrilling hikes around.
Withlacoochee is like a tropical paradise, with lush greenery and a hiking adventure around every corner. Discover ghost towns, archeological sites, and explore the mysterious cave system hidden beneath this enchanting oasis!
If you've got just one day to get your hiking fix, the 4 mile Lizzy Heart Sink Loop Trail is an absolute must. This fun 4 mile trail starts at an unmarked trailhead reachable via Hwy 491.
*You will enjoy unique cave attractions during this hike.
First stop: Peace Cave
Peace Cave is a hidden gem that can only be found with help from its signature graffiti: an eye-catching "peace" symbol painted on an oak tree. While this secluded spot has grown popular over time among adventurers and explorers, it's been at the cost of disrespect - fires started by careless visitors have displaced bat populations who used to call this place home.
The trail to Peace Cave breaks off from the main loop about a half mile in. This side trail is located on the left side of the main trail. Expect to hike another quarter mile to the entrance.
The cave itself travels back a ways. It has the most extensive chamber system in the area and could easily become an all day quest.
Second Stop: Dame's Cave
If its walls could talk... it's easy to figure out why it's earned its 'Vandal Cave' nickname. Dames cave is located a short distance from the Peace Cave trail junction. Also marked by a tree and it's amazing root system, you can look down into Dame's Cave through an ancient roof cave in. If you want to explore it, the entry trail is just a few steps away. After you check out the graffiti, don't forget to explore that small side cave (you probably missed) for an even wilder inner-cave experience with enough difficulty to satisfy every level of thrill seeker!
For extra credit, you can go a little off of the trail loop and find two other popular caves in the area. Just to the south of Dames Cave is Sick Bat Cave, and Danger Cave is towards the East, where the trail crosses Citrus Loop trail “D”
For those of you with an adventurous side, you are welcome to brave the mysterious and twisting pathways inside these caves. But don't forget to bring your safety gear - helmets and headlamps are essential for exploring without fear or concussion. It's probably best that you make sure all claustrophobes stay behind as well. And, while it's always exciting going alone into uncharted territory… we suggest having at least two partners in crime – just so someone knows where they can find you if anything goes wrong.
Swimming with Manatees
Each winter, Crystal River plays host to an exclusive group of guests. Manatees! These hulking herbivores make their way here November through March, with a hunger for local sea grass and a penchant for the shallow warm waters that only Crystal River can offer them!
Ready to make a splash? Put on your wetsuit, grab some goggles and let's get this mermaid party started! If you're eager to take a dip with manatees, why not let the experts show you around? Booking a tour company is your best bet for an unforgettable experience. They'll fill in the blanks and provide more than just hot chocolate – they know where all of nature's gentle giants are hiding!
Again, there are countless tour groups available in the city. During our manatee expedition, we hired Explorida Adventures to take us out. They were a very polished operation. Everything they provided was professional from the introductory seminar to the gear, to the experience itself.
Most, if not all, of the tour groups offer you wetsuits, snorkel gear, and masks as part of your package. Many will also offer add-on photography packages so that you can leave the GoPro at home (Ahem...Not a chance). Make sure to bring some slip resistant water shoes for the boat. *Flippers will not be worn on the tour
Pro-tip: Book the earliest tour you can find. We went out at 6am. My entire team wanted to kill me. But, the reason for this is that there will be more than a few tour groups out throughout the course of the day. Hundreds of people will be stirring up sand, making the waters cloudy. The earlier you can go out, the better your visibility will be. It's no fun swimming with manatees that you can't see properly.
Check out a quick video of what to expect on a manatee adventure here:
Food & Lodging:
And that's why I love wintering in Crystal River, Florida. There are so many amazing adventures to be had. I'm sure you'll love it too. And who knows, maybe you'll even see a manatee or two. So what are you waiting for? Get packing!
~Tiffany with tim... and sometimes, Michelle
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