When you think of Florida, your mind probably jumps to the crowds of Disney World or the jam-packed beaches of the coast. But the Sunshine State offers so much more. One of the best—and most underrated—destinations to visit is Homosassa Springs State Park.
Meet a manatee face-to-face without even getting wet at Florida’s Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Underwater viewing stations allow visitors to see the manatees—and other fish they swim with—up close and personal at this showcase for Florida’s native wildlife.
Many communities are built around their most distinctive feature. The town of Homosassa Springs is not only built around but also named after its most impressive natural wonder. For thousands of years, the Homosassa main spring has lured humans and wildlife alike.
Florida’s earliest people camped near the spring’s banks while thousands of fish swirled through the steady flow of freshwater. Today, visitors from around the world come to those very spring banks to take in the same dazzling sight of water and wildlife found in this massive spring.
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The Homosassa main spring is the largest in the Homosassa Springs Group which is comprised of nearly thirty springs. Collectively, this group discharges around 65 million gallons of water daily, qualifying this group as a first-magnitude spring and one of the largest springs in Florida.
The water boiling out of the 40-foot basin arrives here from the Homosassa springshed that covers about 270 square miles across Citrus and Hernando counties. The above-ground activities by people in the springshed directly impact, either positively or negatively, the quality and quantity of water exiting the springs. These springs form the head of the Homosassa River, which calmly flows west for about eight miles before reaching the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the unique features of the Homosassa headspring is that the main vent flows from three points underground with each vent having different salt content and water quality. The three sources blend together in the basin before exiting down the spring run and into the Homosassa River. Given this, the Homosassa Spring is filled with a variety of saltwater and freshwater fish species but is perhaps best known for its historic value as a warm water haven for wintering West Indian manatees.
When Homosassa Springs was a popular train stop in the early 1900s, passengers could picnic and take a dip in the spring while train cars were being loaded up with cedar, crabs, fish, and spring water. On a 1924 visit, Bruce Hoover of Chicago called it “The most beautiful river and springs in the world.” In this regard, Homosassa Springs hasn’t changed much.
Known as a year-round home for West Indian manatees, the park is also an animal education center with mammals such as panthers, bobcats, foxes, deer, wolves, black bears, and otters; birds such as eagles, hawks, flamingos, vultures, and owls; and, of course, plenty of alligators. Plus, assuming he’s still around and breaking records as the oldest of his kind in captivity, you, too, can meet Lu the hippopotamus, now age 60.
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Visitors enter the preserve by taking a tram or a boat ride. You also can walk to the main entrance via the ¾-mile Pepper Creek Trail. The tram is the fastest way to go and it may be your only option if the weather is not cooperating. If the weather cooperates you can opt for the boat. You may see alligators, raccoons, and deer; birds small and large, such as nesting ospreys; and turtles, including the alligator snapping turtles, painted turtles, and red-eared sliders.
A 1.10-mile trail winds throughout the wildlife park including paved trails and elevated boardwalks. Benches and rain shelters are conveniently located along the trail. Bleachers are available at the Manatee Program area and at the Wildlife Encounters pavilion. The park offers many opportunities to photograph the Real Florida and its wildlife.
Outside of the park, you can enjoy a shaded walk along Pepper Creek Trail, a ¾-mile multi-use paved trail that connects the Visitor Center on US 19 to the West Entrance of the park. This Great Florida Birding Trail meanders through natural communities, from hydric hammocks to flatwoods.
Manatee programs are offered daily at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. From April 1 through November 15, the programs are presented alongside the main spring in the bleachers overlooking the Fish Bowl underwater observatory. From November 15 through March 31, the programs are presented alongside the in-ground manatee pool at the Manatee Care Center.
At 12:30 p.m., get near the bridge between the alligator lagoon and the hippo pool. Lu the hippo is so accustomed to being fed regularly that he entertains with his quirky antics, all the while earning a daily supply of fruits and veggies. Presentations with small live animals take place daily at the Wildlife Encounters Pavilion, too.
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This park has an old-time shine to it, even in 2020. It was originally a 1900s train stop. Passengers walked a short trail to the spring, and the train ran alongside what is now Fishbowl Drive. In the 1940s this spot was turned into a commercial attraction and was expanded in the 1960s. At one point, a commercial company called Ivan Tors Animal Actors housed some of its trained animals here in between their appearances in movies and TV shows (remember “Flipper” and “Sea Hunt”?). Lu the hippo was brought here through that company many years ago.
The park lies approximately one hour north of Tampa along Florida’s Gulf Coast. It’s also only 90 minutes from Orlando. Its location makes it a convenient day-trip destination or a stop along the way for RVers headed elsewhere.
The park is located in Homosassa on the west side of U.S. 19/98. Admission is $13 for aged 13 and older and $5 for children 6 to 12. Children 5 and under are admitted free. The park is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
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Parking is free and ample space is available for RVs. No overnight parking, however. Dogs are not permitted to tour the park, but owners can let them stay in their RV or use the complimentary outdoor pet kennel located near the visitor center.
A string of counties studded with emerald-like gulf waters, deep springs, and rivers…If you’re looking for a place of stunning natural beauty, undisturbed…habitats, and silence, you’ve come to the right place.
—John Muir on his visit to the Nature Coast in 1867