“Chassahowitzka” means “pumpkin hanging place” in the native Seminole language, but we didn’t see any the early morning we set out in kayaks on the Chassahowitzka River. If we had, I’m sure I would have freaked out a little, Blair Witch-style, since it was already eerily quiet at the Chassahowitzka River Campground and the trees all around us at the dock were loaded with vultures roosting and staring down at us. Millions of them. Or at least hundreds. No one else was around and the stillness of the place was deafening.

florida Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

Nothing but the sounds of the natural world.

Mist clung to the smooth water surface like a wet veil. Just then a river otter broke the silence, splashing as he darted and twirled in and out.

The Sunshine State of Florida is beautiful, and sunny. But with roughly 20 million residents and 1,000 more arriving each day, not to mention the tourists, it’s also one of the most crowded of the United States. As a year ‘round resident and nature lover, I find myself seeking out the raw and wild parts of Florida as much as I can. So if you’re heading this way and are wondering where you too can find this part of Florida, read on. Because it still exists!

The Chassahowitzka River, or “The Chaz” for short, lies about 100 miles west of Orlando in the rural, less-Disneyfied area of Florida known as the Nature Coast. This part of the state still has that native feel, one that many tourists are looking for but rarely get to see.

florida Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

We set out in our kayaks that morning with some snacks and a map on our phone, on our way down the Chaz to Baird Creek and one of the secret places some of the locals asked me not to mention – the Crack. This spot had been described to me as Heaven on Earth, so of course I had to see it for myself. And if it existed, I’d probably have to share it, how could I not?

florida Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

Before we headed downriver, we turned the opposite direction for a paddle up to Seven Sisters Springs, a surreal maze of azure blue springs shrouded by spanish moss hanging from live oak canopies overhead. This is a popular local swimming spot with underground caves you can peer into or dive through – in one side and out the other. This morning we were alone in the quiet and could only imagine the graceful mermaid moves we’d make in the pools below us. There was so much more to see and too early for a swim.

florida Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge birds

We paddled down the “Chaz”, gliding along the overgrown river banks loaded with giant ferns, jurassic sized plants, and fallen trees decomposing along the waterline. Just as you’d take in one view another would emerge just as quickly. The deep black water where we began gave way to shallow, sandy flats where the water was crystal clear. We explored the small tributaries that stretched out off the main river, some with little springs bubbling up through the sand and mud, with birds roosting all around. The herons and ibises along the shore seemed irritated that we interrupted their fishing, but the cormorants didn’t seem to mind. This ecosystem was teeming with wildlife – nesting osprey, wading birds, turtles, and alligators, oh my!

florida Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

As we reached Baird Creek, we saw a small lagoon with a rope swing and an inviting swimming hole, but it looked more like an alligator hangout to me. So on we paddled. Baird Creek is a narrow winding stream that meanders through salt marshes punctuated by dense hardwoods. We came to Blue Spring, a wider stretch with turquoise blue water and river grass swaying below the surface. Unsure if we were headed in the right direction, a few paddlers we passed confirmed we were. “Keep going” they said, “you’ll know when you’ve reached The Crack”.

florida Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

The water shallowed the further we paddled – ten feet of water became three, and then barely a foot. Suddenly a blockage of downed trees crossed our path and we laid back in our kayaks doing the Limbo underneath the log jam, our faces inches away from the gnarly trees, and then finally gliding through into just a few inches of water.

florida Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

Before us stretched a lush garden of Eden, the way I imagine Florida looked eons ago when dinosaurs roamed. Palmettos and live oak trees filtered sunlight into this hidden covered oasis, and we walked our kayaks the rest of the way, barefoot in ankle deep water along the soft white sandy bottom. There was no sign of the Crack here, so we left the kayaks and continued the last hundred feet on foot down the shallow creek bed.

florida Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

There it was at the very end – the Crack – a crystalline blue spring peeking out from the deep rocky crevice like a watery blue eye. It was a perfect swimming hole complete with a rope swing and sandy beach area. The only thing missing was a hammock. We spent some time here, wading in the water, completely alone and in love with one of Florida’s most beautiful settings.

A couple of miles downriver, you’ll reach the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, where the river opens up wide. Four miles beyond that is the Gulf of Mexico, and Dog Island just before you reach it, a state-maintained recreation area with a solar-powered restroom, boardwalk and dock.

florida Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

Along the river, we paddled through an ever-changing ecosystem of fresh then brackish then salt water, and back again. The scenery changed between lush hardwood landscapes, muddy oyster bars and salt marshes.

florida Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge turtles

And wildlife was everywhere, mingling about as if we weren’t even there. We saw red shouldered hawks, herons, gopher tortoises, giant red cockaded woodpeckers, river otters, alligators, pelicans, osprey, kingfishers, cormorants, anhingas and wood ducks.

florida Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

I was surprised we hadn’t yet seen any manatees since winter is the time of year they head in from the Gulf to the warm spring waters. But as we headed back and finally reached the campground where we began that morning, several manatees caught our attention as they were feeding in the lagoon. Soon they surrounded us as we paddled closer and welcomed us back to reality.

florida Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

florida Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge manatee

Planning Your Chassahowitzka Trip

Put in your own kayak, canoe, or small craft at the Chassahowitzka River Campground: 8600 W. Miss Maggie Drive, Chassahowitzka, FL. Launching is free but there’s a nominal fee for parking.

Or rent a kayak, canoe, or jon boat at the Campground

For more information, visit Discover Crystal River Florida.

Also Read:

8 Most Romantic Camping Destinations in America

Florida: 6 Unforgettable Citrus County Experiences

Check out our Adventure section for more articles.