Best Things to Do in Crystal River State Park, Florida

Chill with the manatees in Crystal River State Park
Chill with the manatees in Crystal River State Park | © Stocktrek Images, Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Siobhan Grogan
15 October 2020

Get back to nature and explore the wide-open spaces and freshwater bay of Crystal River, which is Florida at its best.

Wildlife watchers, thrill seekers and sport fanatics will adore Crystal River’s winding waterways, sun-baked springs and wildly remote marshes teeming with wildlife. The state park is still almost exactly as it would have been when Europeans arrived 500 years ago, with enormous swathes of mangrove islands, pinewoods and forests. More enchanting than any theme park, this is Florida’s real star attraction: a magical playground of natural wonders.

Swim with manatees in Kings Bay

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It’s not only tourists who are drawn to the soothing warmth of Florida. Each winter, more than 400 manatees escape the chilly waters of the Gulf of Mexico to head to the Crystal River, where the water temperature in Kings Bay remains a comforting 72F (22C) year-round. As manatees are most active in the morning, it’s well worth setting the alarm for an early dip, as swimming with these gentle giants is a major bucket-list moment.

Sail around the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

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© Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 12+ / Alamy Stock Photo
Sit back and see this picture-perfect area of tree-lined shores, untouched islands and translucent springs from the water on a gentle boat trip. This large wildlife refuge was established in 1983 to protect the manatees, and eagle-eyed passengers may spot the graceful aquatic mammals alongside turtles, dolphins, pelicans, eagles and even the odd menacing alligator lurking in the swamp.

Kayak down Chassahowitzka and Crystal River

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© Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 10+ / Alamy Stock Photo
For some serious alone time, kayaking down the languid Chassahowitzka and Crystal Rivers is unbeatable. Pass through crystal-clear springs, deserted lagoons shaded by palm trees and tangled saltwater marshes, with only the sound of snuffling, splashing wildlife along the banks for company. It’s the ultimate escape from it all.

Take an airboat ride down Homosassa

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© Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 1+ / Alamy Stock Photo
Hold on tight to explore Homosassa’s mysterious marshes and deserted mangroves, zipping through shadowy canals and meandering waterways most boats would have to avoid. Watch for the area’s famous manatees as well as black bears, red wolves, flamingos, bobcats and alligators along the way, and be prepared for a sudden shower if the airboat takes a tight corner at speed.

Paddleboard from Hunter Springs Park

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One of the many natural springs that feed Kings Bay, this picturesque water park features a small beach, a boardwalk and pristine lawns for picnicking. But the best way to experience its warm, satin-smooth water is on a paddleboard, available to rent nearby. Don’t panic if your balance isn’t up to it: paddleboarding can be done kneeling or lying down if you don’t fancy falling off.

See dolphins at the Plantation Adventure Center

Zoo, Aquarium
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Manatees aren’t the only loveable marine mammals splashing around in Crystal River. Take a boat out from the Plantation Adventure Center to see the area’s darting dolphins ducking under the water and playing in the waves. If you’re lucky, you’ll glimpse them leaping elegantly from the waves – it’s a magnificent sight that you will never forget.

These recommendations were updated on October 15, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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