The Sunshine State of Florida is still a wild and diverse place – 500 miles long from north to south – with four distinct seasons believe it or not, and enough nature to rival an African safari. You’ll find wildlife of all kinds from the dense woodlands of north Florida all the way south to the sawgrass fields of the Florida Everglades. The sheer size of this peninsula guarantees a myriad of climates and natural environments. If you’re like many people who think Florida is the glitz and glam of Miami Beach or Disney World’s fantasy land, you might not believe you missed the part of Florida where the true magic happens – the natural world in Citrus County.
Citrus County, perhaps best known for it’s seat of Crystal River, is located an hour north of (and a world away from) Tampa on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Here, one can still get a true sense for the Florida that used to be, where the landscape still makes sense and matches its natural environment, and crystalline waters flow through natural warm springs a million shades of aqua green and blue.
There was a time when tourism in Florida was new and economic opportunities for development were compelling enough to compromise some of the state’s natural resources. Indeed in recent years Three Sisters Springs, one of Citrus County’s greatest assets, has seen a massive increase in tourism from visitors wanting to get in and on its beautiful waters. Like many coastal areas in Florida, loss of habitat, the altered natural landscape and flow of water, and the subsequent pollution that accompanies overdevelopment remains problematic. Too much paving through residential and commercial development causes rain water to run off into coastal estuaries and lagoons along with a great many pollutants.
But with the recent success of cooperative, inter-governmental partnerships between local government and state and federal wildlife conservation agencies, many restoration and protection projects are underway in Citrus County. One such recent achievement has been the restoration of key wetland areas surrounding Three Sisters Springs. This project is essential to protecting the springs against runoff and offers a lovely sanctuary for a number of native bird species as well.
Several interesting State Parks are located in Citrus County including the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park and the Crystal River State Archeological Park.
Visitors to the first can take a pontoon boat down Pepper Creek to the Park’s entrance about a half-mile away. The Park has an interesting underwater observatory where you’ll see manatees up close and most likely chewing on rope lines around the dock. You’ll also meet Lucifer the hippo, the Park’s 54-year old unofficial mascot and beloved resident, a holdover from those early days of Florida tourism.
What remains of Florida’s Native American culture can be seen just up the road at the Crystal River State Archeological Park. The 61-acre site is well-maintained and provides an interesting view into early native life along this area of the Gulf Coast. The site features stelae, burial mounds, middens, and a paved walkway throughout. A long set of stairs lead to the top of Temple Mound “H” for a scenic view over most of the site and visitors can enjoy a picnic in the area near the waters edge.
Three Sisters Springs
Without a doubt, the main reason visitors flock to Crystal River is to glimpse the West Indian manatee, those gentle giants that inhabit the waters all around this part of Florida. One of their favorite winter haunts, Three Sisters Springs, sits tucked away in the middle of a residential area of town and offers these lovable creatures a warm safe refuge during the winter months when temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico turn cold. The natural underground springs throughout this area of Florida provide manatees with a warm – and constant – 72 degrees, and Three Sisters Springs draws them in by the hundreds most days during the winter months.
Citrus County is the only place in the world where you can passively observe manatees in their natural habitat by getting in the water with them.
Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding here through the cool clear spring fed waters is a treat for the senses and depending on the time of year, there are always birds, fish, and manatees to see. Because of their status as an endangered species, there is no kayaking or paddleboarding in Three Sisters Springs during Manatee Season (November 15 – April 1), though visitors can observe them from a boardwalk loop that surrounds the springs.
An ecotour can also take you to the manatees’ favorite spots where you can see them in the water “up close and natural”. Many reputable tour companies encourage a strict policy of passive observation – or no touching – though the manatees will undoubtedly come up to you for a closer look!
Miles and Miles of Coastline
The amount of coastline along this stretch of Florida’s Gulf Coast is staggering as your GPS will illustrate if you have one – it’s hard to tell where the land ends and the water begins. A spectacular sunset can be seen at several on-the-water restaurants and local joints in Crystal River and Old Homosassa, or you can head west down Fort Island Trail to the Fort Island Gulf Beach and Pier – a perfect spot with miles of rustic palm scrub and grass beds. Throw in the hundreds of wading and shore birds, and you couldn’t ask for better photo ops.
Though the beach and pier are great places to catch the sunset, swimming conditions here may be less than ideal if you’re looking for a clear-water afternoon swim.
The sand here is awash with algae and marsh beds – perfect for scalloping and kayaking around the pier – but not so much for swimming between the “no-see-ums” biting around sunset and the funky feeling of the foamy marsh between your toes.
For a laid-back afternoon, Old Homosassa offers a slower pace and true Old Florida flavor. Friendly restaurants and good-time bars are easy walking distance from each other, and if you look hard you just might catch a glimpse of the monkeys on Monkey Island, another holdover from the early efforts to attract mass tourism.
Seafood markets are a great place to shop for the catch of the day dropped off minutes earlier by local fishermen. Stone crab season is truly a sight and flavor to behold October 15 through May 15. Named for their hard-as-stone shells, stone crabbing is a sustainable industry in Florida since only a single claw is harvested and eventually regrown. The prized claws are steamed and served with drawn butter or zesty mayonnaise, though the latter is traditional.
Inverness and the Withlacoochee State Trail
Citrus County has far more to offer further inland in the lovely town of Inverness, where an historic downtown, newly renovated theater, and charming shops and eateries are so Norman Rockwell you’d never imagine this was Florida.
Elvis Presley fans will recognize the historic courthouse-in-the-round turned Heritage Museum from when he came to town in 1961 to Follow That Dream. Just outside of town, a 13-mile chain of lakes known as the Tsala Apopka offers some of the best bass fishing found anywhere in the United States.
Winding its way along much of the lake chain, the Withlacoochee State Trail rewards walkers and riders with scenic Old Florida views at every turn. The 46-mile stretch of railroad track is part of the nationwide Rails-to-Trails network that was converted to a paved recreational trail suitable for hiking, biking, and inline skating.
The Trail passes right by the entrance to Ferris Groves near Floral City, one of Florida’s original citrus stands where you can sample and purchase ‘fresh from the orchard’ Florida citrus and strawberries 6 months of the year.
For More Info: VisitCitrus.com