Three Sisters Springs is a breathtaking part of the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge. If you are looking for one of the best springs in Florida to swim with manatees – this is your pick!
It is in fact the only beautiful spring in Florida where swimming with manatees is legal and organized. You may happen to bump into a manatee while you are snorkeling at another Florida spring but it is WAY more rare. If you want more of a guaranteed encounter where you can get up close and personal (without touching of course!) 3 Sisters Spring is THE spring to visit.
The Crystal River Wildlife Refuge was created in order to preserve and protect the native Florida Manatee. We will note that swimming with manatees in the spring in a rather controversial activity in Florida and some people are against it.
We personally don’t see an issue with it and have done it ourself. BUT, we will say, make sure you are respectful and don’t abuse the experience by chasing or touching manatees while you swim so this amazing opportunity is around for many more years to come.
If you prefer to visit Three Sisters Spring and not swim, that’s totally fine too – you can also access the spring by land which we will provide full details on below:
Three Sisters Springs – How to Access
You can either access the spring only by land or by water. You cannot access the spring by land and go into the water and vis versa.
The boardwalk and the area around the spring can be accessed through the city of Crystal River Wildlife Refuge Complex and is open daily from 8:30AM to 3:30PM.
There is a daily admission fee of $12.50 an adult in summer (fees vary per season – see below for full list)
You can also use the services of the 3 Sisters Spring Shuttle (information below) to get to the spring. It is not permitted to access the water of the Three Sisters Spring by land through the wildlife refuge so the only way to access the spring itself is by water.
You also cannot access the land from the water, you must access it through the wildlife refuge. This is to protect the spring from harmful erosion.
To enjoy in-water recreation at the spring, including swimming, snorkelling and paddling you must arrive by water on a motorized vessel or by paddling.
You can launch your boat or kayak using one of the many boat launches in King’s Bay or the kayak launches at Hunter Springs Park or Kings Bay Park.
If you are traveling by motorized vessel, please take note that motors are not allowed to actually go into the spring. However, paddle crafts like a kayak or canoe are allowed inside the spring from April 1st to November 14th.
You can access the water daily from sunrise to sunset however The Fish and Wild Life Service can occasionally close access depending on conditions so it is a good idea to check this out before you attempt to visit by water. This would not affect land or boardwalk access though the refuge.
Three Sisters Spring Boardwalk Admission Costs
The cost of general admission to 3 Sisters Spring varies depending on the season. Their summer season runs April 1st – November 14th. The winter season is from November 15th – March 31st.
Summer General Admission:
- Adult: $12.50
- Senior: $12.50
- Military: $11.50
- Children age six to fifteen: $7.50
- Children age five and under: always free
Winter General Admission:
- Adult: $20.00
- Senior (55+): $17.50
- Military: $15.00
- Children age six to fifteen: $7.50
- Children age five and under: always free
What is the contact info for Three Sisters Spring?
- Phone: (352) 586-1170
- Address: 123 NW Hwy 19 Crystal River, FL 34428 (from there you get a shuttle to the spring if you intend to access the spring via land)
- Hours: 8:30 – 4:30pm
Note: the above admission covers are to access the State Park by land. Alternatively, you can book a tour to access the springs via water.
Three Sisters Spring shuttle information (for land access only)
There is no parking at the spring except for handicapped vehicles. There is only a limited number of handicapped spots available. In order to utilize the handicapped parking spots, you must have a handicapped parking permit.
Visitors that are not handicapped should go the Three Sisters Spring Center. The Three Sisters Spring Center is located behind the Crystal River Town Hall at 123 NW Hwy 19, Crystal River, FL.
At the Three Sisters Spring Center there is parking and you will find the Three Sisters Spring shuttle service to take you to the spring. You will also pay for your admission to the spring at the Three Sisters Spring Center.
The admission fee will cover you for the entire day. The Three Sisters Spring shuttle continuously run throughout the day. It runs from 8:30AM to 4:30PM, to and from the boardwalk. The shuttle also makes stops at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Visitor Center and gift shop as well as Heritage Village, South Citrus Ave and Hunters Park. The last ticket of the day is sold at 3:30PM.
Hiking in Three Sisters Spring
If you want to go hiking during your visit you can go hiking on the Three Sisters Spring trails. The springs feature a looped trail that is 1.3 miles long which is a great spot to bird watch.
Another great trail is Inglis island trail which is a 7.3 mile looped trail that features a lake and is mainly used for hiking, walking and horseback riding. There are many other nearby trail options in the area to explore as well.
History of Three Sisters Spring
Originally a wild Florida wetland, Three Sisters Spring was impossible to access by water on a vessel, and nearly impossible to access by land because it was a heavily wooded, shallow creek.
The property owners had other ideas for the land. The first changes were made in the 1960’s when a manmade canal was created. This was done in order to make Three Sisters Spring accessible. The canal allowed the spring to be accessed via King’s Bay. After the canal was created Three Sisters Spring was still a wetland forest.
The spring was thick with trees, but in the 1970’s most of the trees were cut down and removed. After the trees were removed a 40-foot deep, 8-acre lake, which is presently Lake Linda, was dug.
The original plans for the property were to develop the land with condos and houses. The property owners even planned to bottle the water from the spring and sell it. Some people did not support this and did not want to see this beautiful spring be destroyed to development.
In 2008 efforts began to save the Three Sisters Spring. Through a partnership between Federal, State and local organizations, like The Friends of Crystal River Natural Wildlife Refuge Complex, the property was purchased for 10.5 million dollars and was protected from development.
The property was privately owned up until 2010 when the city of Crystal River and the Southwest Florida Water Management District took over ownership.
The spring is managed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and opened up to the public in 2014. Also in 2014, wetlands were established as well as retention ponds. This created the perfect refuge for wintering manatees.
See more: Best places to see manatees in Florida
Why you see Manatees in Three Sisters Spring
The manatees need to be protected and they need a place to come during the winter months where they won’t starve to death. The Crystal River Wildlife Refuge is a perfect example of a place like this. Most of the manatee deaths in 2021 were on the east coast of Florida, which is the opposite side of Florida from the refuge.
They were caused by harmful algae blooms called “red tide”. The algae blocks the sunlight from the manatee’s precious seagrass and it dies. In turn the manatee loses its food source.
This Crystal River Wildlife Refuge is the only one of its kind in the whole country. Located within Crystal River Wildlife Refuge, Three Sisters Spring is a great place to come see manatees in their natural habitat where the seagrass is plentiful and the water is warm.
During the winter around 500 manatees flock to the spring to take refuge during “manatee season”. Manatee season is the time of year where the ocean waters are colder causing manatees to migrate inland to find warmer water.
The season runs from November 15th through March 31st. The spring opens for visitors to have unrestricted water access during the rest of the year from April 1st to November 14th. The only restriction which applies no matter the time of year, is no motorized vessels.
More Info on the Florida Manatees in Three Sister’s Spring
Manatees are marine mammals that are known to be gentle and playful. The average adult manatee is about ten feet long and weighs between 800 to 1200 pounds. They are related to the elephant but are nicknamed “sea cows” because they are slow moving, large in size and love sea grass. They have course wrinkly skin like the elephant and can many times have algae growing on them.
Manatees have been loved by humans for ages beginning with exciting tales of mermaids. The average lifespan of a manatee should be 40 years but despite our love for the manatee, their existence has been, and continues to be threatened and many of their lives are cut short.
Manatees were originally placed on the endangered species list in 1973 under the Endangered Species Act. In 2017 the manatee was down listed from “endangered” to “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This down listing has been a very controversial decision.
Most of the scientific community strongly feels that the species is still endangered and fears that it won’t be protected like it should be. In 2021 there were 1,101 manatee deaths in Florida, the highest number of deaths ever recorded.
The average amount of yearly deaths for the last 5 years is 625. Majority of the 2021 deaths were due to starvation due to climate changes devastating their main food source, sea grass. The second most frequent cause of death is boat collisions.
Best Time to See Manatees in Three Sisters Spring
To cut a long story short, the best time to see manatees in the Three Sisters Spring is during the winter months.
Manatees come to the refuge in the winter because the water is warmer than the Gulf of Mexico. Manatees naturally need to regulate their body temperature so it remains above 70° F at all times.
If their body temp ever falls below 70° F, it can cause stress and make them more vulnerable to disease or death. Manatees have a huge appetite. They spend around 8 hours grazing each day. The manatee population in the refuge peaks during the winter, when tons of manatees fill the spring, however they don’t all leave come summer.
You will encounter some manatees all throughout the year. During a visit you will find they are most active in the morning, from 6:00AM to 8:30AM. So, the morning is the best time to swim with the manatees. The spring is also less crowded in the morning.
We went on a snorkeling tour to see manatees in Three Sisters Spring outside of winter and we saw quite a few manatees but our guide did tell us, that many more are present in winter.
Safely Swimming with Manatees
There are wildlife parks throughout Florida where you can swim with the manatees in captivity but Citrus County, where Crystal River is located, is the only place where you can legally swim with manatees in the wild, in their natural habitat.
Since the manatee is a protected species if you are planning to swim with the manatees in Crystal River you should first know that there are some rules you need to follow. Manatees are nicknamed “gentle giants” and are very docile.
They can be a little curious and may swim up to you and even touch you. In saying this, you are never allowed to touch a manatee unless it touches you first. Even if the manatee does initiate contact with you, only touch it with one hand, never two. It is illegal to do so.
It is also illegal to ever harass, chase, taunt, scare, poke, hit or try to physically hurt a manatee. Failure to follow any of these rules could get you in serious trouble and you could face a fine or even jail time.
Manatees are very curious animals and they have been known to be a little rough towards swimmers by banging into them or even grabbing swimmers with their mouth, sometimes by the hair. When they do these things it’s not out of aggression, they are just trying to check people out.
Manatees do technically have teeth, but don’t worry. Their teeth are set way back in the back of their mouth in their jaw bone.
It’s best to follow all the rules in order to keep the manatees safe. but also, to keep swimmers safe at the same time. You will want to avoid in getting into any trouble by breaking laws or by hurting a manatee or yourself so follow these rules.
Things to do near Three Sister Springs and in Crystal River
The nearby city of Crystal River is the manatee capital of the world. People visit from all over to enjoy the warm waters of the Gulf and see and swim with the manatees. Some other fun activities, that visitors and locals alike, enjoy include hiking, fishing, golfing, exploring the lakes and rivers, shopping and more.
Scolloping in Crystal River
Many people visit the area in the summer to go scalloping. Crystal River is the perfect place to go scalloping. You will use snorkel gear and go searching for scallops in shallow water that is about two-seven feet deep.
Scallops will be found in groups, also called pockets. You will search the bottom until you find one of these pockets. Once you find a pocket everyone swims down and starts grabbing all of the scallops. It’s actually very easy and fun.
Heritage village is a great place to go shopping. If you are visiting the Three Sisters Spring, their shuttle service makes daily stops to Heritage Village.
Heritage Village is located in historic downtown Crystal River and offers a unique shopping experience. It includes historic homes and cottages, dating back to the 1800s, that have been converted into gift and specialty shops.
Citrus County Freshwater Lakes
Citrus County has a large system of freshwater lakes called the Tsala Apopka Chain of Lakes near Crystal River. It is the largest fresh water system in Citrus County.
The system stretches over 19,111 acres. The chain of lakes is located in a bend on the Withlacoochee River. These lakes are the perfect place to enjoy water activities like fishing, boating and more.
The area also features King’s Bay which is a beautiful feat of nature being fed by over 70 different springs. You can enjoy many water activities out on King’s Bay.
If you like to fish at Three Sisters Spring unfortunately there is no fishing in the wildlife refuge, but that’s ok. The refuge only makes up 5% of King’s Bay and the rest is open to fishing. The refuge includes Three Sisters Spring, King Spring/Tarpon Hole area and Warden Key. All manatee sanctuaries are also off limits.
The other 95% of King’s Bay is fishable.
Golfing is another great activity you can do in while in Crystal River.
Plantation at Crystal River Golf offers two courses; The Championship Course and the Lagoons Course. This is the oldest course in Crystal River.
The longest course in the area is Juliette Falls Golf Club which is 7,236 yards long.
Best Hotels and Places to stay near Three Sister Springs
There are also some great places to stay during your visit.
If you are coming to see manatees a top hotel pick is the Retreat at Crystal Manatee. The retreat is 12 min walk from Three Sisters Spring and is also a 9 min. walk from, Bird’s Underwater, a popular manatee dive center.
They offer comfortable, updated rooms, Wi-Fi throughout the property and continental breakfast every morning.
Book your stay here.
If you’re looking for more amenities during your stay you should check out the Plantation on Crystal River, Ascend Hotel.
The 232-acre resort is located near King’s Bay and is about one mile from Three Sisters Spring. Your accommodations here will not disappoint, with a view of the river, a beautiful garden and a breathtaking outdoor pool.
The pool features tiki bar with a full menu of food and drinks. Other dining options include four on- site restaurants. The resort is Pet Friendly and has Wi-Fi throughout. It’s only a four-minute drive to Crystal River Airport and just over 3 miles from the Crystal River Mall.
You don’t even have to leave the resort to have an amazing vacation because they also have a full spa, a 27-hole golf course, and they offer scuba diving lessons.
Book your stay here.
Campgrounds Near Three Sisters Spring
If you and your family would prefer to stay at a campground or RV park there are some great local options.
A great choice that is very close to Three Sisters Spring is Rock Crusher Canyon RV Resort. The resort is a beautifully landscaped RV park that is only six miles away from Three Sisters Spring.
Their sites range from $42 to $52 per night. The property is gated and has controlled access to the gate. Your whole family can enjoy the amenities here which include a swimming pool, a hot tub, a playground, cable T.V. access, Wi-Fi, restroom and shower facilities, laundry facilities, ice machines, a library, horseshoes and shuffleboard. The park is also pet friendly and includes a fenced in dog run.
Other nearby camping options include Smith Point Park Campground and Indian Island County Park.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are pets allowed?
Pets are not permitted at Three Sisters Spring. The only animals that are allowed in are registered service animals. This is to keep the natural wildlife safe as well as people and pets. The springs are a natural wetland environment and have all kinds of wild animals inhabiting it including venomous snakes.
Are there any facilities?
The Three Sisters Spring Center is located behind Crystal River town hall at 123 N.W. U.S. Highway 19, Crystal River, FL. This is where you catch the shuttle to Three Sisters Spring. At the actual spring itself, there are no indoor facilities besides restrooms.
Are there restrooms and showers at the spring?
If you are visiting the spring by land there are onsite restrooms available to the public. There are also water bottle stations available however, there are no showers.
Can you kayak the springs?
Kayaking at Three Sisters Spring is a very popular activity. Kayaking inside the spring itself is permitted during non-manatee season. You are allowed in the springs with any paddle-craft from April 1st through November 14th. In manatee season, you can still kayak parts of Crystal River but the actual Three Sisters Spring will be roped off.
You might also like: best places to kayak with manatees in Florida
Are there any alligators in the springs?
There are alligators naturally present in the springs however they will usually stay in the thick murky parts and not where you would swim with the manatees. It is still a good idea to pay attention and only swim in clear water.
Are there snakes in the springs?
Three Sisters Spring is a natural Florida wetland which is the home of many venomous snakes. Always be careful and keep a close eye on what’s around you and stay out of swampy areas.
There are a total of five types of venomous snakes you may encounter while at Three Sisters Spring. They are the pigmy rattlesnake, the cottonmouth, the diamondback rattlesnake and the eastern coral snake. Out of the four, the pigmy rattlesnake is the most dangerous.
Can you camp at Three Sisters Spring?
There is no camping at the park itself but there are several options nearby. There are campgrounds in Crystal River as well as nearby Homosassa Springs which is also a manatee hot spot. Some camping options close to Three Sisters Spring are Rock Crusher Canyon RV Resort, Smith Point Park Campground and Indian Island County Park.
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