Florida's West Coast: Crystal River
If you like to kayak and get an up-close experience with wildlife, Crystal River is a great destination. With access to several warm springs in the area, manatees make this a winter playground and seem curious about kayakers. You may also see dolphins swimming by, while cormorants, gulls and hundreds of pelicans haunt the small islands in Kings Bay. The area is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, preserving 20 bay islands. There is also a 61-acre archaeological site that is part of the expansive Crystal River Preserve State Park that includes salt marsh, tidal creeks, mangrove islands, and hardwood forests.
In Florida, getting an RV campsite during the 'snowbird' months is a challenge. We finally found a spot at a private campground operated by Sun RV Resorts. The entrance was quite grand, the clubhouse and pool very nice but they didn't have much to offer us when we arrived. Most of the sites are long-term stays and, as transient guests, we were relegated to the back fence on a dirt site overgrown with vegetation. The site provided water and electricity as well as a picnic table. It was fine for one night but I don't think we would stop there again.
Things To Do
Crystal River is all about the natural environment. The area is surrounded by wildlife preserves and refuges offering great kayaking and some nice hikes through the coastal forests. Not the typical Florida beach scene, but worth the trip to see the manatees during their winter stay in the springs.
Kayaking - There are lots of great opportunities to paddle in Crystal River. Kings Bay, the Three Sisters Springs, and the State Preserve all offer put-in points and there are several kayak rental outfits in Crystal River. We were fortunate enough to have a great guide on our kayaking adventure from Aardvarks Kayaking. (see our story below). The Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge also offers lovely quiet kayaking through natural settings.
Hiking/Walking - Florida is pretty flat, so the hiking is more like walking! Nonetheless, the trails offer a glimpse in the way Florida was before all the development.
1/3 Mile: Churchhouse Hammock Boardwalk Trail - The hammock is being restored to encourage the return of native species like the Longleaf Pine and the gopher tortoise.
3/4 Mile: Primitive Trail - This trail loops off of the Boardwalk Trail and leads out to a sawgrass marsh.
3/4 Mile: Hammock Island Trail - Leads you from coastal scrub through a salt marsh and onto a hammock island.
Hit the Reset Button
There is something wonderful about engaging with wildlife. We had the great opportunity to kayak among the manatees and enjoyed seeing them swim close to us. In a kayak, you sit very low in the water, so it almost feels as if you are swimming along with them. Time in Kings Bay kayaking is a great 'reset' activity. A good physical workout paddling against the current and light wind, wildlife sightings and just being immersed in the coastal environment is calming. By all means, find a guide to really enjoy your time on the water. Understanding the environment you are paddling makes the trip much more enjoyable.
Don't Forget To Bring
- Polarized sunglasses. Seeing the Manatees through the murky water with lots of sun glare requires good sunglasses.
- Camera and a GoPro. You can get great photos/video of Kings Bay and all of its wildlife not to mention your kayaking adventure!
- Inflatable Kayak. You can rent kayaks all around Kings Bay and Crystal River, but if you have your own, it saves quite a few bucks over the course of a trip!
Our Experience At Crystal River
Wow, what a morning! Jim and I had arranged a guided kayak tour around Kings Bay at Crystal River with Aardvark's Kayak Tours. The owners, Matt and Susan Clemmons, are unusually qualified to give wildlife tours of the area. Susan, a native of the Crystal River area, had a long career with the Florida State Park Service and was one of the first female Florida State Park Rangers. Matt too has an extensive conservation career protecting Florida's natural environment. With degrees in Marine Science and Wildlife Biology, he is the go-to resource for Manatees.
Together, they offer a one-two punch of history, conservation efforts, and deep understanding of the marine life, animals, and habitats of this precious area. After spending the morning with them, Jim and I walked away with a new appreciation for conservation and sensed an urgency to protect the wild places and creatures that still survive urban sprawl and overdevelopment. Susan and Matt met us at the launch area early on Saturday morning and we were in our kayaks and on the water in a jiffy.
The water was quite still at first, and the paddle was a delightful, easy going glide through the bay. The wind kicked up after about an hour but the sun was shining and the temps absolutely perfect. I felt a little like I was entering a National Geographic shoot with all the wildlife around and Matt's expert narrative about each species and their habitat.
First the dolphins - it was quite unexpected, but a small pod appeared right around our kayaks feeding and playing with a crab trap marker buoy. They pulled it around and dove down with it... Matt was a little concerned that they might actually be caught in the line, but they swam off seconds later, so the concern was unfounded - this time.
A couple of small islands in the bay caught our attention. The first was quite wooded and the trees were loaded with Pelicans! It was a noisy roost and quite a sight to see such large birds like Pelicans sitting in the trees.
The other, Christmas Island, had a vacation home on it, but it was completely overtaken with birds. Like college students at a house party, Vultures, Pelicans, and Cormorants sat on the roof, on the screen porch, around the deck, and down the steps. The sandbar in front of the island played host to dozens of Gulls. The whole scene reminded me of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
The Three Sisters Springs area in the narrow canals were crowded with dive boats - with many, many snorkelers and people floating around trying to get close to the manatees. it was a little disturbing. Too many people in such a small space I figured the poor animals had to feel a little trapped by all the commotion.
Matt told us that Manatees seem to like people and will quite willingly come up to them to see what they are all about. They are curious and very passive creatures. Nonetheless, we paddled by keeping our distance from the crowds and were rewarded with several sightings of large and small manatees - even a mother and baby - swimming close to our kayaks. They are quite graceful for such large animals. They pop to the surface to breathe and their "puff" on the surface was an alert they were near. Jim froze with his paddle in mid-stroke when he saw a large manatee swim towards him and then under his kayak. Though enthralled, he did manage to catch a photo of the tail!
Matt told us that in the winter the manatees come up the river to warm themselves over the spring outlets leaking from the aquifer. The water rising up from below keeps them warm. Unfortunately, there is little food for them in the springs area, so as soon as the weather warms up, they head for the Gulf to feed. In summer, they remain in the Gulf, although a small population seems to have made a permanent home in the springs area.
We went on to other, less crowded areas of the bay and enjoyed the wildlife along the way. By the time we finished two of the three hours allotted for the tour, our arms and backs were ready to call it a day! Matt was gracious and guided us back to the launch area. We had a wonderful time, a great upper body workout and learned about wildlife and conservation in a most entertaining way. We were so impressed with the good work Matt and Susan continue to do and were grateful to be able to spend time with them and share their passion for the Crystal River area, its wildlife and conservation.