Exploring Crystal River
Crystal River, a sleepy fishing town on Florida’s Nature Coast, known as the winter haven for the West Indian Manatee floods with visitors during the November thru March months, with everyone vying for a spot to see a manatee. Come late summer, the scallopers roll into town to try their luck out in the Gulf, harvesting scallops. But year round, the laid-back flip-flop lifestyle is what makes Crystal River most memorable to visitors. Dine on a deck overlooking King’s Bay, take a sunset cruise on Crystal River or don a snorkel and mask and swim with the manatees. Unrushed, unhurried.
Crystal River faced the wrath and flooding caused by Hurricane Hermine, but the waters subsided and it survived- bouncing back in their easy-going style. They recently received a much-needed facelift. Vivid blue signs mark the parks; the favorite local swimming hole, Hunter Springs has a brand new look, with more restoration on the way; even the historical downtown looks clean and shiny. That’s what life is all about in Crystal River.
They recently received a much-needed facelift. Vivid blue signs mark the parks; the favorite local swimming hole, Hunter Springs has a brand new look, with more restoration on the way; even the historical downtown looks clean and shiny. We’ve been visiting this town for years, -ever changing yet still the same. Here’s a definitive guide to Crystal River: what to do, places to eat and where to stay.
Places to explore in Crystal River
Little Springs Park & Creative Playground
- 634 NW 2nd Avenue, Crystal River, Florida 34428
Let the kids run wild at the Creative Playground in Little Springs Park behind City Hall. My own kids have spent hours on this wooden playground. Spring hunting? Walk the bridge over Little Spring. There’s a fountain in the middle of the pond and personally, I couldn’t actually see the spring- but it’s in there somewhere- the spring hidden in the heart of old Crystal River!
Most of the parking around the area is marked for the Manatee Refuge Tour. The Trolley to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is slated to shut down for the summer, due to slow-to-no manatee sightings in the summer, but if it’s still up and running, you pay a flat fee ($15 per adult, $ kids), get a wristband and use their trolley to hop on and off all day. While the city is small, saving the parking fees for Hunter Springs & King’s Landing Park is a bonus! If the trolley does shut down, you can still reach the Wildlife Refuge on foot.
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
- 1502 SE Kings Bay Dr, Crystal River, Florida 34428
I came to this refuge alone not too long ago, in search of a little refuge myself. Beautiful boardwalks stretch out over the Three Sisters Spring System in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Florida’s West Indian Manatees flock to these three springs as if it were a beach hotel during spring break. There have been up to 300 manatees in this area waiting to check in. They prefer the warmer 73F temperatures of the springs to the cold gulf waters in the winter. But when the temperatures rise, they head back out to the Gulf of Mexico. The best times to see the manatees are from November to March. You can book a snorkel tour with a local operator, or come to the Refuge and view them from dry land. The Wildlife Refuge also has two nature trails, picnic tables (1 by the boardwalk, others under the pavilion by the lake) & porta-potty toilets.
- 104 NE 1st Avenue, Crystal River, Florida 34428
- Parking: $1 an hour up to 2 hours & $5 all day
Relax at the newly renovated Hunter Springs Park. White sandy beaches, a children’s playground, kayak launch and toilet facilities. The parking is by an automated meter where you have to use a credit card and have your tag number handy. Don’t mind a stroll? There’s free parking near the turn off to the springs. Also look for the other free parking signs in downtown. Hunter Springs is the closest launch point to the Three Sisters Springs.
King’s Bay Park
- 268 NW 3rd Street, Crystal River, Florida 34428
- Hours: 8 am to Sunset
While you can’t swim at this city park, you can fish from the dock, meet your snorkel with manatee group or launch your kayak. Parking is a flat $5 fee for all day. There’s also a children’s playground, toilet facilities and a nice view of Pete’s Pier and King’s Bay.
Crystal River Archeological State Park
- 3400 N Museum Point, Crystal River, FL 34428
- Contact: 352-795-3817
- Fees: $3 per vehicle- honor box system, so bring cash!
Head out of town to check out the highest view of Crystal River and walk back through time at the Crystal River Archeological State Park. Concrete paths take you past ancient shell mounds built by Native American Indians nearly 10,000 years ago. I asked the park ranger which tribe, thinking he would say Timucan or Calusa, and he told me that it was even before those. They don’t even have a name for them! They discourage you from climbing the mounds, but you can take the wooden steps to the top of the Chieftain’s mound for a ceremonial view of the marshlands and beautiful Crystal River. The small museum has toilets, artifacts displays and a short movie about the history of the mounds. The museum is closed Tuesday and Wednesday, but the toilets are located externally on the building.
Crystal River Preserve State Park
- 3266 N Sailboat Ave, Crystal River, FL 34428 (follow the State Park Road from Highway 19)
- Contact 352-228-6028
After stretching your mind, stretch your legs at the 30,000 acre Preserve next door. The Crystal River Preserve stretches out to the gulf, encompassing marshes, islets and more. Hike or bike one of their trails, or cast a pole out at the Mullet Hole. You can also launch a kayak from there as well. This park is free, so bring a picnic and make it a relaxing afternoon.
River Tours at the Park
Itching to explore the river? If you haven’t brought a boat of your own you may want to hop aboard one of the park’s Heritage Eco-Tours. The boat leaves from the marina at the end of the park.
- Hours: Mondays, Wednesdays & Fridays 10:30 am & 1:30 pm (September 5th to May 29th)
- Adults are $1; Kids 6-12 $10; 5 and under free. Cash only.
Fancy a sunset cruise? They do that too! Once a month June to September and twice a month October to May. $20 Adults, $15 kids 6-12. Call ahead for dates, times and reservations. 352-228-6028
Fort Island Beach
- 16000 W. Fort Island Trail, Crystal River, Florida 34429
Need a bigger beach? If you don’t mind the long and winding drive, pack a picnic and take the drive out to Fort Island Beach, passing some fantastic salt marshes along the way. Fort Island Beach fee-free free park with a boat ramp, sandy beach with toilet facilities, and a fishing pier- but there is literally nothing else out there! I came here as a kid with friends, braved the winter chills here- awesome winter sunsets! And my daughter had half her leg swallowed up by muck here once. I rescued her and her leg, but the marsh swallowed her shoe whole- lesson learned- don’t try and wander into the marsh- it’s not solid ground!
Tips: This can be a very busy beach on weekends and holidays! Come early or during the week. Also, there’s a nice boardwalk trail from the right side of the beach to the fishing dock.
Swimming with Manatees
- A lot of people come to Crystal River just to swim with the manatees. You can join a local tour group, like River Ventures, don a wetsuit, snorkel, and mask and they will take you on the river to the entrance to the Three Sisters Springs. The manatees crowd the springs from November to May, and it is at the discretion of the warden of the Three Sisters Springs (Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge) to close the springs to swimmers at any time. Your tour guide will let you know the rules and regulations concerning manatees (and there are many!) and lead the way.
- If you are doing a DIY version of the trip- paddle from Hunter Springs (or King’s Bay Park)- They have maps of the area at King’s Bay Park- up to the head of the passage to the Three Sisters Springs. (You can not enter the springs by land!) If it’s an all clear to swimmers day, tie up your boat/kayak/canoe and swim up – snorkel and masks are handy! The rules around these springs are strict during manatee season, so be aware of the boundary ropes within the springs. There are areas roped off for manatees only – and this is enforced by the volunteers on the boardwalk around the springs. You are prohibited from touching the land at any time. (yes, really!)
- Do you Groupon? The local Swim-with-Manatee tour companies often offer major discounts via Groupon- so keep an eye out for them prior to your trip.
DIY River Adventures
- Want to have a DIY boating adventure? Shell Island is a cool place to go- it’s at the mouth of Crystal River. The island is may look like it has sandy beaches, but they are all oyster shells- so if you plan on exploring, bring some shoes or your feet will get cut up!
- Exploring the freshwater springs around Kings Bay is another good way to spend the day. There is a large spring located around Banana Island & Parker Island. Be cautious of manatees & swimmers! The majority of Kings Bay area and the springs are idle zones or low-speed zones.
- Heed the speed signs. There are plenty of Coast Guard patrols who love to hand out tickets!
- Watch the tides! People have been known to get beached during low tide and have to wait until high tide to be able to leave! Not too bad if you have grub and friends to hand with, but not so great if your time is limited.
Need a quick escape? Right across from the Crystal River Mall (they have a Movie Theatre!) is a little known hiking trail: Churchhouse Hammock Trail. it’s a mile hike to a boardwalk over the salt marshes. Can get buggy in the warm months and muddy in the rainy season.
Places to Eat in Crystal River
The Highlander Café
Cooked breakfasts & sandwich lunches. Nice wrap-around porches too.
- Located: 638 N. Citrus Avenue, Crystal River, Florida 24428
- Contact: 352-563-0028
- Hours: 8 to 3
Tea House 650 Café
Like tea? This Tea House carries everything from medicinal teas, Matcha, Green Teas and some unusual fruity and herbal mixes. Gojiberry Green anyone? They also serve sandwiches, soups & smoothies.
- Located: 650 N. Citrus Avenue, Crystal River, Florida 34428
- Contact: 352-564-1500
- Hours: Monday thru Saturday 10am-5pm
Being Crystal River, many of the locals work in the seafood industry and bring back their daily catches to the local seafood markets. Don’t have a kitchen in your place? You’re in luck, as several of these markets also have restaurants attached. But there’s a thing to remember about fresh fish when it runs out- it runs out. Come early! Dress casual- Flip-flop Florida-style.
Restaurants with fish markets
Charlie’s Fish House & Seafood Market
Fried fish with a view of King’s Bay. This is the most up market of these fish market restaurants, and it’s still casual. My husband likes the fried mullet with cheese grits here.
Located: 224 NW Highway 19, Crystal River Florida 34428
The Crab Plant Seafood Market
Casual- and tucked away near King’s Bay Park on King’s Bay.
- Located at: 201 NW 5th Street, Crystal River, Florida 34428
- Contact: 352-795-4700
- Restaurant Hours: Tuesday thru Saturday 11pm-8:30 pm
Head out towards Fort Island Beach, it will be on the right.
- Located: 12645 W. Fort Island Trail, Crystal River, Florida 34428
- Contact: 352-795-4380
- Hours: Monday thru Friday 11 am to 4 pm.
Dan’s Clam Stand
Look for the palmetto roof!
- Located: 2315 N. Sunshine Path, Crystal River, Florida 34429
- Contact: 352-795-9081
- Hours: Tues thru Saturday
Crackers Bar & Grill
Dine with a view of King’s Bay
- Located: 502 NW 6th Street, Crystal River, Florida 34428
- Contact: 352-795-3999
- Hours: 7 days a week. Weekdays 11 am to 10 pm, Weekends 11 am to midnight.
Places to Stay in Crystal River
Plantation Inn on Crystal River
- Located: 9301 W. Fort Island Trail, Crystal River, Florida 34429
- Contact: 352-795-4211
- Located: 614 NW Highway 19, Crystal River, Florida 34428
- Contact: 352-795-3171
Kings Bay Lodge
(Budget old Florida hotel, recently renovated.)
- 506 NW 1st Avenue, Crystal River, Florida 34428
- Contact: 352-795-2850
Both of these are fairly new:
Holiday Inn Express Crystal River
- Located: 1203 NE 5th Street, Crystal River, Florida 34429
- Contact: 352-563-1111
Hampton Inn Crystal River
- 1103 N. Suncoast Boulevard, Crystal River, Florida 34429
- Contact: 352-564-6464
So what are you waiting for? Start planning that escape!
*What are your favorite things to do in Crystal River? Leave a comment in the box below & let us know! Thanks!
Other Posts that May Interest You:
- Adventures at Homosassa Springs State Park
- Kayaking Dunnellon’s Rainbow River
- Paddling with Monkeys on the Silver River
- Adventures on the Chassahowitzka River