Looking for the best things to do in Crystal River?
As a Crystal River native of over 28 years, I have a deep love and respect towards the city I call home. From a birds eye view the town of Crystal River stretches from Lake Rousseau on the north edge of the city, to Kings Bay just south of downtown. It’s come to my attention over the years that many people have not only never heard of the small gulf-coast town but also have no idea of the treasures that await them once they actually stop to look around.
It sits approximately 70 miles or an hour and a half north of Tampa International Airport. Personally I spent my childhood in and around the scenic verdant nature trails and gorgeous blue waterways that make Crystal River a true gem of the Gulf Coast. We have a gorgeous semi-hidden beach called Fort Island Gulf Beach, 3 Sisters Springs which sits above a natural aquifer, and the main Crystal River itself that goes from downtown out to the Gulf of Mexico.
The town that’s affectionately called “The home of the Florida Manatee” is somewhere you should definitely plan your next vacation to if you’re planning on escaping the hustle and bustle of big city life and just unplug for a few days. Here are 14 amazing things to do while in the city of Crystal River.
14 Best things to do in Crystal River Fl
1. Three Sisters Springs
Three Sisters Springs is located just off Kings bay near downtown Crystal River. The gorgeous Springs got their name from the three side by side natural springs that connect deep into Florida’s aquifer system. If you wish to walk around and see the springs from the land access then look no further than the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge park which has parking for travelers and boardwalk walking access to see the magnificent springs up close.
If you prefer the water access, the spring entrance can be accessed by canoe, kayak, or swimming (you can even swim with the beautiful manatees!). Boats are not permitted past the spring water entrance but the entrance can be accessed in smaller watercraft such as a paddle- board. The water stays a constant chilly 72 degrees year round and is occasionally home to the pride and joy of Crystal River, the Manatee.
Manatees will migrate in herds to Three Sisters Springs to escape the frigid winter water of the Gulf of Mexico during winter months. During the colder months it’s not uncommon to see hundreds of manatees at once in the springs and around the entrance. Be careful not to touch the Wildlife but photographs are always welcome.
2. Crystal River to gulf
The river which gave Crystal River its name is an essential part of not only our community but of our history. Crystal River proper is approximately 5 miles long from the mouth of Kings Bay near city center out to the Gulf of Mexico where it ends near Fort Island Gulf Beach and flows into the Gulf waters.
The river is also how manatees get from the Ground of Mexico to Three Sisters Springs in the winter. The river is wide enough from beginning to end to accommodate a large amount of watercraft in the marked channel. It’s popular with not only fishermen but kayakers, paddle- boarders, divers, and of course swimmers. Historically the river was used for transport of goods such as cotton, sugarcane, and mined minerals from local quarries.
There are many opportunities to see the river from the land as the town is built around the river itself. If you wish to have boat access to the river, Pete’s Pier and Marina is an excellent spot in kings bay to set off towards the river. Whatever way you choose, be sure to go see the Crystal River at sunset when the orange light bounces off the deep blue-green waters.
3. AirPort Flying Lessons
If you’re thinking about something a little more adventurous during your stay in Crystal River, perhaps try out some flying lessons at the Crystal River Airport, located just 2 miles south of downtown Crystal River.
The airport in Crystal River is relatively small compared to Tampa International for example but what it lacks in size it makes up for in location and a chance for a more comfortable flight lesson experience with no crowded lines or waiting rooms.
As you fly over the beautiful river and springs that make up our town, you’ll also be learning new skills that can help you broaden your perspective of the world in more ways than one. The planes used for the lessons are Cessna aircraft that are well maintained and used by both amateurs and professionals alike for their ease of handling.
If you prefer to be a passenger and still see everything Crystal river has to offer from a Birds Eye View, the airport also offers air tours for you and a couple of your close friends. For both the tour and the lessons it’s advised to call and book ahead of time to make sure your trip goes smoothly. Happy flying!
4. Archeological Park
The Crystal River Archaeological State Park is a Native American burial mound and temple complex located 5 miles north of Downtown just off Highway US-19. The complex is open to the public with a $5 fee upon entry and has parking and disabled access so anyone can enjoy the park wether they’re on 2 legs or in a wheelchair.
There is a museum just off the parking lot with many historic artifacts found from archaeological digs in and around Crystal River. There a 6 mounds in the park with the largest standing over 5 stories tall with 51 steps to reach the top. Unfortunately the temple mound is stair access only although the other mounds are visible from the accessible walkway.
The mounds come from pre-Columbian times and are estimated to be at least 1,600 years old. The temple mound and surrounding complex was used as primarily a village community trading goods with other nearby villages. The sites other purpose was a pilgrimage location for native peoples as far away as the Ohio river valley.
Not much is known about the customs surrounding the pilgrimage but what is left by the native people tells a story of their lives and journeys in the area. Be sure to stop by and visit the historic burial mounds on your next trip to learn about Crystal River from its very beginning.
5. Hunter Springs
Hunter Springs is a small freshwater spring located right at the south end of Citrus Avenue in the heart of Crystal River. The springs here are similar to Three Sisters springs just a mile away by boat in that they both connect to Kings bay, but the difference lies in the land access of Hunter Springs.
Instead of a boardwalk, it’s a small beach-like entrance into the water with a open park for children and families to enjoy while they’re not swimming. Boats regularly pass nearby to the swimming area but there’s nothing to worry, the swimming areas are roped off and secured for safe family swim time. One of the best free things to do in Crystal River (although it does have a parking fee).
Manatees have been spotted here during the colder months so keep an eye out for local wildlife. More experienced swimmers can even swim down to the spring opening itself and view the beautiful environment on the spring floor. The park and beach is accessible by car or foot and is only a short walk away from great dining and shopping options. Be sure to take a dip in the cool spring water on your next journey to Crystal River.
6. Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge
The Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, which locals pronounce “Chaz-a-wits-ca”, is a large wildlife sanctuary and refuge for many of Floridas native species of flora and fauna. The forest stretches from Crystal River at its northern terminus and down to Weeki Wachi at its southern terminus.
Most of the Refuge is accessible by boat or hiking trails and is only accessible by 4 wheel drive vehicles on select forest trails. There are many roads that go through the Refuge if you wish to take a less adventurous approach. The 31,000 acre Refuge is home to a wide variety of game for hunting such as water fowl and boar, and fresh water fish for catching such as tarpon and large mouth bass.
There are limits and regulations to both hunting and fishing in the area so be sure to check in with the local wildlife office if you have any questions or concerns. If you enjoy Hiking then look no further, the walking paths through dense Florida wetlands and surrounding groves will provide a challenge for even the most experienced hikers.
There are picnic spots on the walking trails but unfortunately camping is not permitted within the Refuge. Make sure to take in the natural beauty of old Florida on this amazing travel destination.
7. Preserve State Park
The Crystal River Preserve State Park is a 27,500 acre section of Florida’s coast that encompasses most of the natural area between the city of Crystal River and its Gulf access. The park is mostly known for a hiking path called the Seven- Mile loop which winds its way through each section of plant life in the Preserve, including an estuary full of wild birds, wetlands with both freshwater and brackish fish, and dense sub tropical woodlands packed with wild boar, deer, rabbits, and foxes.
The trail is only accessible by foot and caution is advised to less experienced hikers when attempting this route. The preserve also boasts impressive fishing and hunting, some of the best hunting spots on the gulf coast are hidden within the dense underbrush of the preserve as well as good pockets of water for unique opportunities at complete solitude.
There are numerous all-terrain-vehicle accessible trails winding through the forest for the more adventurous traveler or perhaps the scenic water ways for some relaxing kayaking and canoeing. Whatever your speed may be, the Crystal River Preserve State Park will have everything you need for a memorable experience.
8. Fort Island Gulf Beach
On the outskirts of Crystal River as you head to the gulf via Fort Island Trail, you’ll stumble upon a secluded Gulf shorefront named Fort Island Gulf beach.
This scenic destination was once nothing more than a hidden gem enjoyed only by those who knew how to get to it, but now that experience can be enjoyed by the whole family. The beachfront is approximately a quarter mile long and has many amenities such as: multiple parking lots for both car and boat trailer parking, restrooms complete with outdoor showers to clean off after a sandy day, a boat ramp for fishing access away from the designated swimming area, and numerous picnic benches for lunch with a view.
The beach is most famous for its sunsets which are perfectly viewable from any part of the beachfront. If you wish to do some fishing or trapping yet don’t have a boat, look no further than the pier just off the main swimming and picnic areas. The pier has its own designated parking lot and boardwalk access that includes a secluded short forest section that leads to the picnic area at the beach.
There is no fee to get in and the beach is open from dawn until dusk to the general public. Make sure to hit this amazing scenic destination on your next journey up Florida’s Gulf Coast.
9. Heritage Village
As you drive through downtown Crystal River in the very center of town you’ll notice on Citrus Avenue a number of vividly decorated single story buildings. These collections of stores and historic buildings make up Heritage Village. This is also where many festivals during the year are held such as: the Manatee festival in January, the Stone Crab Jam in November, and the Scarecrow festival in October.
Many of the shops in Heritage Village are unique and have an old world charm to them that you don’t see very often anymore.
Several notable locations in the village are the Tea House 650 tea bar and cafe where guests can experience over 100 different varieties of loose leaf tea and a wide variety of local wine and organic small plate food options made fresh on site, The General Store which despite its ordinary sounding name is anything but ordinary with its many sweets and candies and local snacks such as orange honey sticks, and the Heritage House itself which boasts an impressive collection of local knick- knacks and antiques all with a nautical or tropical theme to them. So take a walk through downtown and be transported to a world that you never knew existed in such a surprising little town.
10. Kings Bay and Park
In the central part of town you’ll notice a large circular body of water that the town seems to wrap around almost at every angle. This is Kings bay and a source of pride for our small town. As Crystal River grew and developed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the central kings bay served as the focal point of the city. The restaurants that have been built along its shoreline take advantage of a view of old Florida as it once was.
Currently it’s used for a variety of purposes such as a launch point for boats and kayaks, a mooring point for sailboats and houseboats, and where the town’s 4th of July fireworks get launched every year just to name a few. The bay itself connects the freshwater of the local springs to the brackish waters of the Crystal River proper out to the Gulf.
On the eastern side of the bay is Kings Bay Park where guests can make use of amenities such as picnic tables, fishing piers, boat ramps, and restrooms. The park is also an amazing location to see the earlier mentioned fireworks for an impressive 45 minute show, but be sure to get there early to save a good spot for you and your family.
On the north side of the bay is several delicious restaurants including Crackers Bar and Grill, Charlie’s Fish House, and an ice cream shop with old school charm Dockside Ice Cream Parlor. Whatever you choose to do during your stay in Crystal River, you’ll be sure to catch a magnificent view from most of the city of the gorgeous Kings bay.
11. Copp Winery and Prohibition Grill
As you head down Hwy 44 out of Crystal River and before you hit the bowling alley you’ll find our next hit destination: The Copp Winery and Brewery. Ever since its relatively new opening in 2007 the Copp Winery has been expanding and is being enjoyed by more people every year.
The owner Fran was a local school teacher at Crystal River High School for many years before his retirement and eventual turn towards brewing beer and wine just down the road. Everything sold in store is made on site by Fran and his team and includes a variety of wine from bubbling white to a dry dark red and if you’re more of a craft beer enthusiast Fran also makes his own brews for locals to try for a one of a kind Florida brewery experience.
The newest addition to Copp Winery is the Prohibition Grill where customers can enjoy local Delicacies such as a Key Lime Ceviche and Toffee Pudding made with local sugarcane. All of this is in one convenient location and is open to the public although you must be 21 to sample or purchase any alcohol on site. Make this hidden gem your next stop in your search for what makes Crystal River so unique.
12. Manatee Lanes
Just down a couple blocks from the Copp Winery mentioned earlier in our list, Manatee Lanes is Crystal Rivers local bowling alley. Here guests can enjoy family fun time with kids, adults, and seniors of any age.
Manatee Lanes has over 20 bowling lanes with and without bumpers for any experience level, an arcade just off the main floor filled with neon lighted game machines, an attached bar and grill where you can order your meal without ever stopping your game, and even a professional bowling shop where league players and professionals can have their bowling balls custom made to their exact specifications and cleaned while they wait on other services.
On Friday and Saturday nights in the alley is “Verti-glow” bowling where the music gets raised, the main lights go down, and black lights with laser light accents fill the room. Meanwhile weekdays are for more general bowling audiences who want a more relaxed atmosphere. Local bowling leagues have designated nights during the week to practice and hold tournaments for trophies and money prizes. Be sure not to miss this exciting stop on your journey.
13. River Ventures
Just off US Hwy 19 on the south side of downtown Crystal River is a small shop called River Ventures. While the outside storefront may not look like much, the journey that awaits you is more than worth it. River Ventures is a tour company specializing in the natural wonders and history of Crystal River. 3 of the most popular options are the Swimming tour, the Pontoon Tour, and the Houseboat tour.
The tours are led by Coast Guard Certified instructors through the waterways of old Florida after a short explanation and safety brief on wildlife and boating conditions. The tours are available November through April when the cold Gulf waters force the migration of the manatees inland to warmer waters such as our very own 3 Sisters Springs. After your safety brief, depending on which tour you pick, you’ll be escorted by car to the water where you’ll don a wetsuit for swimming or climb aboard one of the boat options.
Swimming with the manatees can be an exciting experience but do keep in mind they are endangered wildlife and it’s recommended that guests booking the swimming tour are experienced swimmers as the waters have currents that can pull away weaker swimmers. If you wish to view the wildlife and waterways by boat then River Ventures has two boat options: a covered pontoon boat for a relaxing day out on the water and a small houseboat for those who want the true “Florida Cracker” experience while on their trip. Both boats come with heating and covered roofs and refrigeration for snacks. Don’t miss out on this one of a kind adventure!
14. Plantation inn and Golf Resort
On Fort Island Trail, before you hit the beach, you’ll come across Crystal River’a largest and most well known hotel The Plantation Inn and Resort. The first thing you’ll notice about the location is the main hotel building is modeled after the very plantation homes that populated Crystal River in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The beautiful white columns and matching fountains will instantly transport you back to a place time forgot, old Florida with southern charm.
The hotel part of the property boasts almost 200 rooms with unique designs and furniture layout that makes you feel like you’re about to sail away to paradise even though you’re already there.
The Plantation Resort is also home to its very own 9 and 18 hole golf-courses used by professionals from around the world to master their swing. Alongside the hotel and golf courses is a full service spa, fine dining, a lagoon style pool, and waterfront views from almost anywhere on the property. This all in one resort caters to those who want to know Gulf coast southern charm at its very best. So be sure to stay at the Plantation Inn and Resort whenever you stay in the wonderful city of Crystal River.