Swim with Sea Creatures in This Little-Known Florida Town

Don’t worry, it’s not crocodiles or sharks

You can’t swim the length of two pools in the Bay of Crystal River without bumping into a manatee. That’s because this city in Florida is the only place in North America where you can legally (and ethically) swim with arguably one of the cutest marine creatures.

Thanks to the vital winter habitat in these warm southern waters, you’ll find tons of these gigantic gray mammals in Crystal River looking like they’re made of clay with stubby snouts and rotund bodies. It takes some imagination to see the resemblance but the closest living relatives to manatees (so-called sea cows) are actually elephants.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nicknamed the Gem of the Nature Coast Crystal River lives up to its name with aquamarine waters coursing through the area. The warm swamp lands offer lush, green trails through the local state park as well as paddle boating or kayaking on the calm waters of the river.

The quaint river-side city has small-town charm thanks to homes with white-picket-fences and a candy-cane-striped lighthouse on Monkey Island. In the small downtown area at Heritage Village on Citrus Avenue, you’ll find souvenir shops with gator jerky or manatee stuffed animals. That’s also where some of the city’s best restaurants are located offering a mixture of seafood and southern comfort with meals like shrimp and grits for breakfast or Florida lobster next to juicy beef for a surf ‘n turf dinner.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Swim with manatees

Spend the morning floating around in the slow-moving waters of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge from November 15th to March 1st and you’re basically guaranteed to have a face-to-face encounter with a wild manatee. About 400 migrate to these balmy waters every year hence the self-proclaimed title of Manatee Capital of the World.

The docile mammal grazes on water plants (it eats 150 pounds daily!) and won’t be fussed by your presence as long as you remain calm. That could be a challenge as your instinct may be to panic when you realize the massive nine-foot-long object next to you isn’t a rock but an animal.

While you’re not in any danger, raising your voice and splashing around will disturb it. The goal is not to startle the manatee so you can get up close and personal as you watch it glide slowly and elegantly through the water and maximize your time enjoying its squishy features. It’s believed that pirates often mistook West Indian manatees for mermaids as they have such a human-like face.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The gentle giant may swim right up to you and give you a smooch. But don’t be a jerk and try to touch, feed, or harass a manatee. Not only is it unethical to interact with wildlife but the State of Florida and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife laws protect manatees and harassing one can land you with a fine of up to $50,000 and a year in jail.

In fact, with no natural predators, humans are their biggest threat—mostly because of boat collisions. Manatees were one of the original species listed as being threatened with extinction in the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966. By 1991, there were only 1,267 manatees recorded in Florida. Manatees are a conservation success story as they’re now listed as vulnerable instead of endangered and there are at least 6,300 in Florida.

Swimming with manatees is the best way to learn about the animal but if you’re not too keen on being in the water with the creatures you can take a boat tour and see them feeding from the deck. For an overhead view of the manatees, stroll along the elevated 1,300-foot Three Sisters Springs boardwalk.

If you need more ideas, check out: Swim with the Manatees of Florida’s Crystal River

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stroll through ancient sites and wildlife-filled swamps

Swimming with manatees isn’t all there is to do in Crystal River. Go for a hike on the trails of the Crystal River Preserve State Park or rent a bike to ride along the nine-mile route. On the two-and-a-half-mile interpretive trail keep an eye out for raccoons, wild pigs, and turtles as you make your way through meadows, forests of pine trees, and a freshwater marsh. You can also rent a kayak or canoe to cruise around the area’s waterways.

At the National Historic Landmark of Crystal River Archaeological State Park, you could count each of the 51 steps as you climb to the top of enormous temples and burial mounds that overlook the surrounding marshes. Hear where Native American river dwellers buried their dead here and how they used the ceremonial hills or sift through BC arrowheads and pottery in the mid-century modern museum. You could also just basque by wandering the three-quarter mile paved loop weaving past six ancient sites where you can spot osprey, herons, and bald eagles.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Feast on Southern classics and seafood

If all that swimming with sea cows and climbing ancient graves have you feeling hungry enough to peck at some food, Crystal River offers tons of fresh seafood and southern comfort dishes. Dine with the locals at Amy’s On The Avenue for juicy roast beef on a croissant or lump blue crab bisque. Don’t leave without a slice of pie like the Pumpkin Crunch or Key Lime Cake.

At Vintage on 5th choose from southern classics including shrimp and smoked gouda grits, mac and (goat) cheese, or fried green tomatoes with apple-wood bacon. You might not automatically hear those dishes and think wine pairing but you’d be proven wrong by the selection of 25 wines by the glass.

For a quintessential waterfront dining experience, go to West 82 and eat freshly-caught local scallops or Florida beef. If you’re after crab, don’t skip the rustic Pecks Old Port Cove Seafood Restaurant and Blue Crab Farm—go at sunset to see that blood-red Florida sun reflecting off the lake water under the deck.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to camp near Crystal River

Here are a few RV parks and campgrounds throughout Citrus County to consider for your trip.

Rock Crusher Canyon RV Resort

A beautifully landscaped campground with a swimming pool, playground, fenced-in dog run, and a clubhouse for activities. Rock Crusher offers full hookups with 30- or 50-amp electric which can accommodate up to 40-foot RVs with plenty of room for slide-outs. All sites offer back-in and pull-through availability. They also have elite sites which include beautiful brick paver pads and a shed for extra storage.

Crystal Isles RV Resort

An Encore RV resort, this park offers numerous amenities including a pool, waterfront sites, and on-site laundry. Rent a boat, catch a fish in local streams, or visit nearby King’s Bay to swim with a manatee.

Rousseau RV Resort

Situated on 15 acres shaded by majestic, ancient live oak and cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, many of the sites are generous, and big rigs are welcome.  All sites are full hookups with 30-amp and 50-amp service. 

Nature’s Resort

Situated on the Homosassa River, this 97-acre resort offers RV sites and also cabin rentals. There’s a swimming pool, game room, and access to the Gulf for fishing and boating.

Worth Pondering…

A full-grown manatee which can weigh more than 1,000 pounds looks like the result of a genetic experiment involving a walrus and the Goodyear Blimp.

—Dave Barry

The Top 10 Christmas-Inspired RV Road Trips

While any corner of the United States brims with holiday joy and magic during the season, these are the top road trips and destinations to mark on your map to experience the creme de la creme of Christmas road trips

This festive season, many people are choosing to avoid flying and hit the road for the holidays instead. Whether you’re looking for famed mountain peaks frosted with snow, national parks devoid of tourist crowds, or iconic routes allowing you to cruise without traffic or something in between, one of these options is sure to fit the bill.

RV road trips are often reserved for the freedom of summer vacation but if you miss the open road there’s no reason you can’t find holiday-inspired adventure along the highway during the winter. Work these festival stops into a trip back to grandmother’s house or follow the trail for a merry and bright day trip.

Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, Arizona

While desert landscapes may not provide a winter wonderland experience, Phoenix knows how to do the holidays right with its famous Chandler Tumbleweed Tree tradition, a lighting ceremony, and Christmas parade.

Before or after enjoying it, take a road trip to the Grand Canyon where there’s a good chance you’ll see at least a dusting of snow with the South Rim sitting at about 6,800 feet in elevation, bringing lots of picture-perfect photo-ops without the crowds. And, during the holidays, you can ride the Polar Express Train from Williams to the South Rim.

Here are some helpful resources:

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Augustine, Florida to Savannah, Georgia

Winter transforms beautiful St. Augustine, America’s oldest city into a stunning spectacle of lights. Its magnificent Spanish architecture is lit up with over three million individual bulbs and there will be horse-drawn carriage rides to view them all.

Afterward, take off for Savannah to enjoy the Boats on Parade with more than 40 lighted vessels parading both sides of the waterfront accompanied by live music, a tree lighting ceremony, and fireworks. Or enjoy an old-fashioned celebration with Christmas on the River with local entertainment, music, seasonal treats, and more.

Here are some articles to help:

Mount Dora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Dora, Florida

Mount Dora’s slow pace of life and relaxed atmosphere paint the picture of a quintessential small town presenting a sweet escape from the urban hustle and bustle. This quaint destination is famous for its antique shops and festivals and by exploring the lively downtown you will discover several spots worth visiting.

One of the highlights is the Modernism Museum, a great place to admire intricate designs of modern furniture. But if you are interested in actual history, you can step into the Mount Dora History Museum. Here, you will explore a local legacy dating back to the 1880s through exciting exhibits.

Stepping outside, Mount Dora is surrounded by picturesque sceneries like Palm Island Park. This tranquil nature preserve features a promenade passing along Lake Dora and through a wooded area. You can find a laidback picnic area or fishing spot to spend quality time. Meanwhile, one of the best times in Mount Dora is during winter festivals like the Mount Dora Arts Festival or the Mount Dora Half Marathon. 

Check this out to learn more: 11+ Sensational Things to do in Mount Dora

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe makes a great alternative to the norm for your best Christmas travel ideas. A trip here allows you to view Christmas through the lens of Pueblo and Hispanic cultures.

Celebrate a midnight mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis de Assisi. Discover the GLOW light display at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden.

Pick up some unique gifts at the Winter Santa Fe Winter Indian Market. There are also many music and dance performances to check out. The lanterns adorning the rooftops on Christmas Eve are a sight to behold as well!

Santa Fe has more to offer the Christmas traveler than you would think! Activities, traditions, candles, and lights all make this a unique offering. Enjoy sipping hot chocolate while watching the winter sunsets.

Check this out to learn more: Santa Fe Never Goes Out of Style

Helen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helen, Georgia

A Bavarian Christmas in America? Yes, it is possible and Helen in Georgia serves it up for you with the snow-capped Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop.

Helen is one of the cutest small towns in the South and it only gets more adorable during Christmas. You can drink Glühwein, visit the Christkindlmarket, marvel at the architecture, and all without having to leave the U.S. For a Bavarian Christmas, Helen offers something different when it comes to the best American Christmas vacations.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park to Moab, Utah

The onset of winter shouldn’t automatically mean that sunny days in the great outdoors are over; to chase bright, dry skies, head for the desert. This jaunt will have you swooning over Utah’s myriad of red rocks, elaborate hoodoos, and slot canyons with pitstops in Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Arches National Parks. Spend a full week to soak up the scenery (and craft beer).

Begin early in Zion to take in the sunrise glow from within the fabled canyon walls. Stop for photos and say hello to the horses in rustic, cliff-lined Fruita in Capitol Reef National Park then cruise up to Moab for the Arches scenic drive before taking in the sunset at Dead Horse Point.

Here are some helpful resources:

Manatee in Crystal River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crystal River, Florida

Cool temperatures in Florida bring to life one of the state’s most famous marine mammals. The gentle Florida Manatees escape the colder waters of the Gulf of Mexico to warmer springs in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, such as the gorgeous Three Sister Springs. Crystal Rivers boasts a long list of park spaces that are perfect to visit during the winter season. At Crystal River Preserve State Park, you find various fun recreational opportunities, including kayaking, paddle boarding, hiking, and bird-watching. 

Alternatively, you can mix your love for history and the outdoors at the Crystal River Archeological State Park. This pre-Columbian site houses a plaza area, temple mounds, and burial mounds that portray a primitive way of life in ancient Native American societies. A visit to Crystal River would not be complete without an intimate encounter with the town’s most famous marine resident and the Swim with Manatees boat tour provides tourists with this rare opportunity. 

Check this out to learn more: Swim with the Manatees of Florida’s Crystal River

Gulf Shores © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf Shores, Alabama

It is not just the name. This well-known Alabama jewel provides the ultimate Gulf Coast winter experience. Relaxing coastal breezes, mild temperatures, and heart-ravishing views will see one’s vacation end before it starts. With its miles of white-as-sugar sandy beaches, bayous, rivers, and lakes, winter here is not the time to dress as someone going to the moon.

Gulf State Park boasts 8 miles of paved trails perfect for biking—while Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest undeveloped parcels of land on the Alabama coast is bearably cooler in winter and, hence, an awesome outdoor adventure spot. In winter, you will likely see birds such as Red-breasted Mergansers and Peregrine Falcons—at the wildlife refuge. The latter is not only the world’s fastest bird but also the world’s fastest animal. For those who love skating, The Wharf boasts an ice skating rink and is worth checking out.

For more tips on exploring this area, check out these blog posts:

Jekyll Island Club at Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Holly Jolly Jekyll

Jekyll Island is home to more than a million lights during the Holly Jolly Jekyll season. The Great Tree alone has more than 45,000, which is more per square foot than the NYC Rockefeller Center Christmas tree! Purchase tickets online for the guided tram tours that take place on select nights. Trolley riders will enjoy festive holiday beverages, music, and a one-of-a-kind tour souvenir! 

Don’t miss the light parade, holiday fireworks, and special drive-in movie presentations.

Here’s a great article to help you do just that: Holly Jolly Jekyll.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park to Nashville

One of the best things about East Coast mountains (apart from their rich human history) is their year-round accessibility due to being lower in elevation than their counterparts out west. This trip is all about soaking up the best of both worlds—the human and the wilderness—from the panoramic views of Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive to a spooky tour of Mammoth Cave and even the lively honky-tonk bars in Nashville’s historic downtown. 

Shenandoah National Park in Northern Virginia is a hiker’s dream with 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail cutting right along the park’s spine. From there, it’s easy to continue onto the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Great Smoky Mountains. Head to Cades Cove to take in the centuries-old Cherokee and homestead history before veering north towards a self-guided tour of Mammoth Cave National Park.

If you need ideas, check out:

Worth Pondering…

Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.

—Norman Vincent Peale

10 Amazing Places to RV in January 2023

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in January

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.

—Amelia Earhart

It’s unknown exactly when Amelia Earhart, the first woman to complete a solo flight across the Atlantic, said this quote but it reflected her personality in full. The remainder of the quote says, “The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and the procedure. The process is its own reward.” Earhart chased her own dreams and her words inspire us to do the same regardless of the challenges. You can have as much determination as you want but to reach your goals you also have to take the difficult step of acting on that will.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in November and December. Also, check out my recommendations from January 2022 and February 2022.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Winter in Palm Springs 

The winter climate in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley cities is reliably sunny and among the warmest, mildest weather, and most beautiful climates in the U.S. In Palm Springs, you can count on consistently sunny blue skies. Most visitors think it’s warm in the winter in Palm Springs. Locals think it’s cool. And everyone agrees it’s beautiful. There is very rarely (perhaps once every couple of years) a brief (nighttime or early morning) frost or a freeze during the winter months in the Coachella Valley. The morning sun thaws any light freeze very quickly.

World’s Largest Killer Bee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. The Killer Bee of Hidalgo

There’s a line in Act IV of Hamlet where Claudius says to Gertrude, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Change the word “sorrows” to “bees” and while the result may be an unpopular sentiment among Shakespeare scholars, it will assuredly resonate with people who have faced the threat of a swarm of killer bees. People like the residents of Hidalgo, Texas.

The buzz started in 1990 when the first colony of Africanized killer bees was found to have reached the United States via Brazil—the outcome, literally, of a scientific experiment gone wrong. The bees decided to settle just outside of Hidalgo upon arrival where news of the event provoked widespread panic among many.

Killer bee of Hidalgo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Chamber of Commerce approached then-mayor John Franz about turning an occasion that might have been swept under the proverbial rug into a bold symbol. “We need to put Hidalgo on the map,” Franz told the Houston Chronicle in 1993. And the gears of the merch machine began to spin.

The Killer Bee of Hidalgo or The World’s Largest Killer Bee as it’s promoted was commissioned for $20,000 by the City of Hidalgo. Constructed to scale, the replica of the menacing insect is a black and yellow sculpture made of steel overlain with a fiberglass exoskeleton. The whole creature reaches to about 10 feet tall and 20 feet long, not including its ominous antennae.

Killer bee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Suffice it to say, Hidalgo, the self-proclaimed Killer Bee Capital of the World embraces just about every aspect of its claim to fame with T-shirts, postcards, and other merchandise emblazoned with images of killer bees to be had all over town. All reminders that when killer bees come to Texas—whether they be a single spy or in battalions—the people of Hidalgo are ready.

Palms to Pines Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Palms to Pines Scenic Byway

On this drive, you don’t have to choose between desert and mountains—you get both. Play golf under swaying palms then watches the snow falling on cedars. This byway zigzags from Palm Desert to nearly 6,000 feet cutting through the lands of Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument. Pull over at Coachella Valley Vista Point for a view north and east of Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, and the San Jacinto and San Gorgonio mountains. From there ascend to Paradise Valley where the Pacific Crest Trail passes through. Pause for lunch and boutique shopping in the charming mountain hamlet of Idyllwild or relax under Humber Park’s big conifers before zipping down the switchbacks to Banning.

Edisto Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Discover South Carolina’s best-kept secret

Edisto Island, a sea island in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, lies only about an hour south of bustling Charleston as the pelican flies. But Edisto, part of a chain of more than 100 tidal and barrier islands along the Atlantic coast between the mouths of the Santee River in South Carolina and St. Johns River in Florida, is a world apart.

This is a rustic world of majestic live oaks that are thickly draped with light-as-air beards of Spanish moss, salt marshes, meandering creeks, and historic plantations.

Edisto Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Edisto Island State Park includes an interpretive center and two campgrounds that offer 112 standard sites with water and electric hookups—ocean-side and near the salt marsh. 49 of the standard campsites offer 20/30/50 amp electrical service. Several sites accommodate RVs up to 40 feet. 

Atchafalaya Basin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Atchafalaya Basin

The largest wetland in the United States covers over 2,200 square miles of Louisiana and is home to hundreds of species of reptiles, mammals, and birds. True wilderness is difficult to find in the United States, but the Atchafalaya Basin may just be one of the last remaining landscapes where visitors are completely entrenched in pure nature. While highways, levees, and other man-made structures exist around the Basin, the inner waterways are a natural maze. If you take a tour of the Basin with the Nature Study Project, you’re in for a day (or more) of tranquility, bird watching, and awe of the biospheres that have formed in and around this watery paradise.

Sonoran Desert National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Wandering in Sonoran Desert National Monument

Containing almost a half-million acres of diverse and sprawling tall cactus desert, Sonoran Desert National Monument is a special place hiding in plain sight about 60 miles southwest of Phoenix. What it lacks is a centerpiece attraction. There are no signature sights, no defining experience. There’s no official entry point, just a lot of barely marked dirt roads. Maybe that’s why I like the monument. It challenges visitors to make their own fun.

The monument contains three distinct mountain ranges, the Maricopa, Sand Tank, and Table Top mountains as well as the Booth and White Hills, all separated by wide valleys. The monument also contains three designated wilderness areas, archaeological, and historic sites and remnants of several important historic trails.

Sonoran Desert National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just park and set off cross country—you’ll have a great day making your own discoveries far from civilization, mingling with the saguaros, and chatting with lizards.

Sonoran Desert National Monument is in central Arizona. Easiest access comes via some dirt roads bearing north off State Route 238 that winds between Maricopa and Gila Bend and from Vekol Road (Exit 144) turning south off Interstate 8. Bring water, plenty of gas, and real maps. Don’t expect your cellphone to work.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. 70 Miles of Protected Coastline

Padre Island National Seashore protects the longest stretch of an undeveloped barrier island in the world with 70 miles of protected coastline including a coastal prairie, a dynamic dune system, and wind-tidal flats teeming with life. It’s a sanctuary and nesting grounds for the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and a haven for 380 species of birds which, impressively, represents roughly half of the all documented bird species in North America.  

From the beach to the bay, Padre Island National Seashore offers countless opportunities to discover and enjoy the amazing recreation and resources of the park. Take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico or build a sandcastle. Swim in the recreation area at Bird Island Basin or in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Manatee in Crystal River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Swim With Manatees in Crystal River

Every winter, ocean temperatures plummet, rendering the water too cold for manatees. To escape the cold these large mammals migrate up into Crystal River, a natural spring-fed oasis continuously emitting water at 72°F.  Finding the temperature just right manatees huddle around the source of the spring by the hundreds. It’s the perfect opportunity to experience one of the coolest things to do in Florida: snorkeling with manatees!

Yuma Territorial Prison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park in Yuma, Arizona is a wealth of history, interesting people, and stories from the past 400 years. Sitting on a bluff overlooking the Colorado River, three miles west of the confluence of the Colorado and the historic Gila River, stand the ruins of Arizona’s famous Territorial Prison and a short distance west are the remaining buildings that served as a part of the Yuma Quartermaster’s Depot. $25,000 was budgeted for the project in 1875 and some of the prisoners were pressed into service to build their cells. A total of 3,069 prisoners including 29 women lived within the walls during the prison’s 33 years of operation.

Quartzsite RV Show © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. A quirky desert town

Quartzsite is a small town that welcomes up to two million visitors each winter. Located just 17 miles from the California border at the intersection of I-10 and U.S. Highway 95, Quartzsite has been a rock hound’s paradise since the 1960s. Thousands of acres of dispersed BLM (Bureau of Land Management) camping draws upwards of a million RVing visitors a year. Snowbirds enjoy the warm winters while camping in over 70 RV parks and 11,000 acres of BLM Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA) plus five 14-day free dispersed camping areas.

With over a thousand vendors arriving each winter, Quartzsite is also known for its RV and ATV friendly atmosphere. Off Road Vehicle (OHV) trails lead in all directions from town with beautiful desert scenery along the way.

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the influx of RV snowbirds, there’s plenty to do all winter long. Seasonal restaurants, multiple swap meets and shows, gem and mineral shows, live music, OHV trails, art/quilt/arts and craft shows, bingo, rock hounding, gold hunting, gem and mineral classes, dancing, RV show, and more!

Worth Pondering…

Always maintain a kind of summer, even in the middle of winter.

—Henry David Thoreau

Swim with the Manatees of Florida’s Crystal River

Meet a manatee

Every year, tourists from around the world flock to Crystal River. A brief drive through the charming Citrus County hamlet provides a hint as to why: You’ll find manatee-shaped mailboxes, manatee placards on the streetlights, manatee statues, and murals. The city’s logo, a smiling sea cow, is festooned upon a water tower downtown.

Citrus County is revered as the manatee capital of the world and rightfully so. Only in the waters of Citrus County are you able to legally swim with manatees in their natural habitat. Home to roughly 3,000 people, Crystal River is located 80 miles north of Tampa. For snowbirds looking for a magical getaway, this is the perfect place to get up close with these gentle creatures.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Much like other mammals (humans included), at the first sign of winter, manatees seek out a warm locale to wait out winter’s wrath. For West Indian manatees, their go-to spot is Crystal River, Florida.

For generations, West Indian manatees (also known by their subspecies, Florida manatees) have been following the same migratory pattern from as far north as New England to this stretch of warm water located 85 miles northwest of Orlando and several miles inland from Crystal Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. This is where these herbivores will stay from roughly November through March spending much of their time munching on sea grass and other shoreline vegetation (they’ll consume as much as 10 percent of their body weight a day amounting to between 100 and 300 pounds of vegetation) while floating languidly in the warm waters of Crystal River and Kings Bay which average 72 degrees thanks to their shallow nature (manatees can’t tolerate water temperatures when they dip below 68 degrees).

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Crystal River area is considered the largest natural winter refuge in the world for manatees and is comprised of 70 springs including Three Sisters Springs where between 400 and 500 manatees have been sighted during the winter in recent years thanks to its ample vegetation and temperate waters.

Because of their calm demeanor and sheer cuteness—they’re a distant relative to elephants—seeing one of these gentle giants in the wild has become a bucket-list item for people around the world. But because they’re protected under the Endangered Species Act and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers them a threatened species (there are about 6,300 manatees in Florida today a significant increase from 1,267 in 1991). Citrus County is the only place in the United States where people can legally swim with wild manatees in their natural habitat.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Are manatees friendly to humans?

The manatee is the world’s most humble creature. They don’t know any form of aggression. They have no natural predators and no prey. They don’t even compete for resources.

Manatees are completely vegan subsisting on a diet of aquatic vegetation. They need to consume 10-20 percent of their body weight in wet vegetation every single day to keep their body temperature regulated. For an animal that weighs 1,000 pounds on average—that is a lot of food!

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They aren’t picky eaters; they will munch and crunch on any kind of grass, leaves, and even sweet potatoes if they can access them. Their most nutritious food sources are in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico where grasses grow in abundance and variety. In Kings Bay, they feast on the native Eelgrass which has been planted by our Grass Restoration Project to the tune of about 17 million dollars. Each acre of planted grass can support about 40,000 fish and 50 million small animals and it provides a necessary food source for our manatees.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Kings Bay, Crystal River, and Three Sisters Springs region

Three Sisters Springs gets all the attention and for good reason. It’s gorgeous: A rare freshwater spring that has never been developed as a swimming hole or park still features natural lush vegetation around its vivid and clear turquoise waters. And it’s popular with manatees as well as people.

But the Three Sisters Springs group represents just three of the 70 springs within the 600-acre bay. The Fish and Wildlife Service has maps that show areas that are off-limits to boats because manatees congregate there and those maps indicate a half dozen other manatee refuge zones in addition to Three Sisters.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two other areas are popular with swim-with-manatee outfitters and kayakers exploring on their own:

  • Adjacent to a mangrove-filled Banana Island in Kings Bay is Kings Spring, the largest and original spring that prompted the creation of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in 1983. In the winter, manatees congregate here and boats—but not swimmers—are barred from Kings Spring.
  • Not far north of Three Sisters Spring, Hunter Spring City Park is the most popular place to put in kayaks and is close to Jurassic, House, and Hunter springs, all of which attract manatees as well as people who want to swim with manatees.
Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crystal River is a year round home for the manatee

But, this isn’t what makes Crystal River so special. Crystal River didn’t earn its designation as Home of the Manatee from the ones that visit in the winter. That’s right! Crystal River is uniquely the only place in Florida that has a consistent year-round population of 50-60 manatees that decided to become permanent residents. No matter the day of the year, you are almost guaranteed to see a manatee in the Crystal River National Wildlife refuge. Visiting before the season is a great way to get close to these creatures while avoiding the crowds.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why do manatees love Crystal River?

The life of a manatee is pretty consistent—they sleep, eat, and repeat! Because of this, Crystal River is just perfect for them. For instance, there are a lot of quiet secluded backcountry for these solitary animals to rest, plenty of fresh water for them to drink, and plenty of food here to feed their humongous appetite.

Manatees are always on the food search. They graze about 8–10 hours a day consuming about 10 percent of their body weight daily. Weighing in at about 1,500 pounds, your average manatee consumes about 150 pounds of grass a day! That’s what I call a HEALTHY appetite!

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meet a manatee

There are plenty of ways for anyone to see manatees from swimming with manatees to kayaking and stand up paddle-boarding and boat tours to visiting the incredible fully accessible boardwalks at Three Sisters Springs Refuge in Crystal River and Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa.

However you choose to meet a manatee, remember to keep calm, enjoy the moment, and don’t be surprised if meeting a manatee changes your life.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All swimmers on manatee tours learn their manatee manners before ever getting in the water.

Find a tour group that takes a conservation-minded approach. Explorida is a company that starts each swim session with a lesson. These animals are protected by federal law and harassing or harming them can mean hefty fines and jail time. They emphasize the art of passive observation which involves quietly enjoying the animals from a distance. If manatees want to venture closer and touch you that would be fine but initiating contact is a big no-no.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the short boat ride, your in-water guide offers tips such as the following:

Manatees will be able to feel you coming thanks to the tiny hairs that cover their body. They are curious and friendly and generally don’t mind respectful humans. To keep them comfortable, it’s best to avoid loud noises or splashing. In other words, stay still and act like a manatee.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To spot manatees from the boat first look for a mound of bubbles. Then a whiskered nose will emerge from the water—the tip of the manatee iceberg. If the water is clear, you’ll see the round silhouette of the rest of its body under the surface.

The sleeping sea cow will hover in a cloud of bubbles. Every few minutes she/he will float to the surface to inhale before sinking back down. Small catfish may swirl around her. She won’t mind them or a group coming close to watch.

This process will be repeated several times. Find a manatee and get a peek into its morning routine.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other things to do in Crystal River

There is more in Crystal River than manatees. Here are a few other ideas:

Crystal River Archaeological State Park: An ancient Native American ceremonial site located in a beautiful setting overlooking the wide Crystal River. The mounds here are surprisingly impressive but little is known about the people who built them starting 2,500 years ago. A small museum has interesting artifacts and the picnic tables along the water are a great place to relax. Located at 3400 N Museum Point, Crystal River.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crystal River Preserve State Park: Located adjacent to the archaeological park, it has several trails with forest, marsh, and water views. Located at 3266 N. Sailboat Ave., Crystal River.

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park: 15 minutes south of Crystal River, you can see manatees every day via the park’s underwater observatory of its resident manatee population. Visitors start a visit on a pontoon boat ride down Pepper Creek to the wildlife park where you also see Florida panthers, bears, bobcats, deer, alligators, and a wide variety of birds. In winter, the gates into the first-magnitude spring are opened, and wild manatee flock to the warmer waters. On cold days, you may see dozens of wild manatees. The park has many attractions and charges an adult admission of $13. Children aged 6-13 are $5.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to camp near Crystal River

Here are a few RV parks and campgrounds throughout Citrus County to consider for your trip:

  • Rock Crusher Canyon RV Resort: A beautifully landscaped campground with a swimming pool, playground, fenced-in dog run, and a clubhouse for activities. Rock Crusher offers full hookups with 30- or 50- amp electric which can accommodate up to 40 feet RVs with plenty of room for slide-outs. All sites offer back-in and pull-through availability. They also have elite sites which include beautiful brick paver pads and a shed for extra storage.
  • Crystal Isles RV Resort: An Encore RV resort, this park offers numerous amenities including a pool, waterfront sites, and on-site laundry. Rent a boat, catch a fish in local streams, or visit nearby King’s Bay to swim with a manatee.
  • Rousseau RV Resort: Situated on 15 acres shaded by majestic, ancient live oak and cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, many of the sites are generous and big rigs are welcome.  All sites are full hookups with 30-amp and 50-amp service. 
  • Nature’s Resort: Situated on the Homosassa River, this 97-acre resort offers RV sites and also cabin rentals. There’s a swimming pool, game room, and access to the Gulf for fishing and boating.
Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

A full-grown manatee which can weigh more than 1,000 pounds looks like the result of a genetic experiment involving a walrus and the Goodyear Blimp.

—Dave Barry

Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek Out this Winter

Favorite lesser-known destinations from around America to consider for your winter adventure

For RVers, the colder months provide opportunities to make the most of having a hotel on wheels. Make tracks in the snow to spots blanketed in white, follow fellow snowbirds to warmer shores, or simply enjoy the peace and quiet in places that are usually packed all summer long. Here are the best small towns to visit in your trailer, camper van, or motorhome during the winter.

Borrego Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Borrego Springs, California

Borrego Springs is completely surrounded by nature, set in the midst of 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California. Five hundred miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, and many miles of hiking trails, the park features washes, wildflowers, palm groves, cacti, and sweeping vistas of mountains and desert. Anza-Borrego is an International Dark Sky Park, and the town of Borrego Springs is a Dark Sky Community, offering opportunities for exploring the star-filled night sky.

Aransas Pass © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aransas Pass, Texas

Aransas Pass offers cool breezes and unique, crystal clear waters, beautiful seagrass, and excellent bay fishing. There are many marinas and boat ramps available with the largest at the historic Conn Brown Harbor. This picturesque harbor setting is a favorite spot for photographers and a preferred location to buy fresh seafood right off the boat. Nearly 500 species of birds pass through Aransas Pass. Some of the best birding is found in the Aransas Pass Nature Park within the 36-acre Aransas Pass Community Park bordering Redfish Bay. This area is a haven for migrating and regional birds. Another favorite site, Newberry Park is a 1.2-acre mall central city park landscaped to attract birds and butterflies.

Related Article: Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek (Out)

Fairhope © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairhope, Alabama

Shangri-La may be a fantasy but you can find a real-life utopia on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. The village was created by a group of hardy souls seeking adventure and being practical, who also wanted a “fair hope of success”. This experimental community has come a long way from those “old days”. It’s still entirely unique and keeps a small-town ambiance with a large and active arts community. If you love the Gulf Coast, there are few places more scenic with antebellum homes, streets lined with live oaks, and a charming, walkable downtown. With a population of about 17,000, Fairhope sits on bluffs that overlook Mobile Bay, so you’re never far from a view of the water.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alamo, Texas

Alamo’s claim to fame as the “Refuge to the Valley” illustrates its symbiotic relationship with the adjacent Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, an internationally renowned birding destination. The subtropical thorn forest along with the resacas draws birds such as tropical green jays, Altamira orioles, great kiskadee, and chachalacas. After exploring the refuge, check out the Mercadome Flea Market and Alamo Dance Hall which draws thousands of weekend visitors to shop, eat, and move their feet to the sound of accordion-driven conjunto and norteño music.

Ajo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ajo, Arizona

With its rich tradition as a former copper mining hub, Ajo is a casual town with relaxed charm. Ajo is surrounded by 12 million acres of public and tribal land waiting to be explored. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge offer expansive hiking, camping, and birding places. Home to 4,000 people and only one stoplight, Ajo is a place to slow down and enjoy life. You could say it’s a small town with a huge backyard.

Related Article: American Small Towns Can’t-Wait To Visit Again

Seaside © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seaside, Florida

A small resort community in the Florida Panhandle, Seaside is the epitome of cute. Featuring pastel-colored homes and pedestrian-friendly streets, the beach community is tranquil and picturesque. Just how adorable is this place? The fictional town from the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show was set here. West of the town visit the Grayton Beach State Park for some coastal trails.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek, Arizona

Located in Maricopa County, Cave Creek is conveniently located 27 miles northeast of Phoenix so you’ll never be too far away from a big city even if you’d never know it by the relaxed pace of life here. Not to be confused with the Cave Creek town that is tucked away in the Chiricahua Mountains, this one is said to have been the original town of Cave Creek and therefore has a true claim to the charm of the name. Be sure to bring your walking shoes so you can hike at Cave Creek Regional Park or head out to Bartlett Lake. Be sure to pack a picnic lunch and fishing gear for Bartlett. Enjoy getting back to nature without feeling like you’ve spent forever in travel.

Related Article: Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek Out this Summer

Port O’Connor © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Port O’Connor, Texas 

Port O’Connor is a small fishing village on the Texas Coast. It is often known as the “Best Kept Secret on the Gulf Coast” for its relaxing, laid-back atmosphere, and numerous fishing and boating venues. The most common activity in Port O’Connor is fishing followed by recreational boating and coastal sightseeing. The Port O’Connor area is an excellent place for birding. Some places to view birds in town are at the Nature Park at Boggy Bayou, King Fisher Beach, the Little Jetties as well as walking the residential areas.

Crystal River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crystal River, Florida

Located on the Gulf of Mexico, Crystal River is centered around its pristine waterway, Kings Bay, and is the self-proclaimed “Home of the Manatee”. The small town of approximately 3,200 residents welcomes hundreds of manatees each winter to its many warm springs including the famous Three Sisters Springs. Together with neighboring Homosassa, the Crystal River is the site of the largest gathering of manatees in North America. Located along Florida’s “Nature Coast,” the waters of Crystal River have the only legal “swim-with” Manatee program in the Country meaning visitors can passively observe the mammals in their natural habitat. The springs flow at a constant 72 degrees, making the water attractive to all sorts of swimmers.  

Rockport-Fulton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rockport-Fulton, Texas

Best known as a mecca for Texas artists, Rockport is also home to the Maritime Museum, prime saltwater fishing, and tons of outdoor activities. The area is popular for being a great place for bird-watching due to its small crowds and vibrant natural landscape, and visitors often come from all over the Texas coast to see the flocks of coastal birds that call the region home.  

Related Article: Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek Out this Fall

Worth Pondering…

This is not another place.

It is THE place.

—Charles Bowden

Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek (Out)

Favorite lesser-known destinations from around America to consider for your next adventure

Across the country, you’ll find plenty of adventure as well as relaxing beaches, lesser-known islands, and tucked away villages where you can avoid the tourist crowds and enjoy the small town life. Whether you’re looking for an exhilarating adventure or simply some quiet time, these 10 small towns are definitely must-see under the radar small towns in America to seek out.

St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Marys, Georgia

Located on the easternmost fringes of the Florida-Georgia line, St. Marys is perhaps best-known as the launching point for those visiting Cumberland Island, the largest of Georgia’s seaside isles. Though Cumberland’s sprawling sandy beaches and centuries-old ruins are truly a sight to behold, St. Marys is fully capable of holding its own as a fascinating destination packed full of historic landmarks, museums, and dining venues. The bulk of recreational activities are centered around the city’s namesake: the St. Marys River. 126 miles in length, this waterway stretches from the depths of Okefenokee Swamp into the Atlantic Ocean. Take a leisurely stroll along the St. Marys Waterfront, a charming promenade complete with a gazebo offering a spectacular view of the river.

National D-Day Memorial, Bedford © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bedford, Virginia

Resting at the foot of the Peaks of Otter in the heart of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and only 9 miles from the Parkway, Bedford is surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in Central Virginia. The town is home to several historic landmarks including the National D-Day Memorial, the Elks National Home, and the Avenel Plantation. Nearby, visitors have a wide range of attractions: Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, Smith Mountain Lake, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Peaks of Otter, and the Sedalia Center for the Arts. There are a dozen wineries within a short drive out of the town and plenty of antiquing, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor sports.

Wolfeboro © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wolfeboro, New Hampshire

This town’s motto is “The Oldest Summer Resort in America” and its prime location on Lake Winnipesaukee proves why. People from all over New Hampshire and Boston vacation here during warm summer months. Incorporated in 1770, it stakes its claim based on an early mansion built by Governor John Wentworth on what eventually became Lake Wentworth, just east of Winnipesaukee.

Helena © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helena, Montana

One and a half centuries ago, Helena became the “Queen City of the Rockies” with the boom brought on by the 1864 gold strike. Helena grew along Last Chance Gulch and in 1875 became the Montana territorial capital. Today the state capital’s grand architecture, numerous museums, and historic sites offer a real glimpse into the rich and deep history of the city. There are 75 miles of nearby trails waiting to be explored or biked – and those are just the ones that start downtown.

Jacksonville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jacksonville, Oregon

Jacksonville is nestled in the Siskyou Mountain foothills along the Rogue River Valley and is easy to fall in love with. The little town is the Heart of Rogue Valley wine country which includes the Applegate Valley Wine Trail. Though sometimes busy the small-town ambiance (population 2,860), gorgeous setting, and beautifully preserved late 1800s architecture combines to make a very attractive town. The little gem of a town is highly walkable and has at least one of everything—except chain stores. Everything from wine to cheese to chocolate, art, and fine dining.

Berea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Berea, Kentucky

In Berea you can celebrate Kentucky crafts by visiting dozens of artist’s studios, galleries, and stores. The Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky, Berea is ranked among the top art communities in the U. S. Nestled between the Bluegrass region and the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, Berea offers visitors over 40 arts and crafts shops featuring everything from handmade dulcimers and homemade chocolate to jewelry stores, art galleries, quilt-makers, and even glassblowing studios. Sculptures of mythical beasts, vibrantly painted open hands, and historic architecture are a few of the delights as one wanders the town and college. Berea is a growing, unique, and creative community—a place where it can indeed be said that the—Arts are Alive!

Billy’s Boudin, Scott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scott, Louisiana

The city of Scott’s motto is “Where the West Begins and Hospitality Never Ends” and that’s pretty fair. Its close proximity to Interstate 10 makes its quaint downtown district accessible to visitors for local shopping, art galleries, and boudin―lots and lots of boudins. The title “Boudin Capital of the World” was awarded to Scott by the state of Louisiana about five years ago. You can find the rice and meat-filled sausage staple at iconic joints like Billy’s Boudin and Cracklin, Don’s Specialty Meats, Best Stop Grocery, and NuNu’s Cajun Market.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesilla, New Mexico

Home to a mere 2,196 people, the town of Mesilla in Southern New Mexico is a fascinating place to visit. Here you’ll find well-preserved architecture, history worth delving into, and high-quality restaurants. The plaza is the heart of Mesilla and that’s a good place to start exploring. The San Albino Basilica dominates one side of the plaza. This Romanesque church was built in 1906 although its bells are older, dating back to the 1870s and 1880s.

Moke Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mokelumne Hill, California

Mokelumne Hill which sits on the edge of the beautiful Mokelumne River Canyon is commonly referred to as “Moke Hill” by locals. Well-preserved historical architecture, narrow streets, and its small size, all contribute to the town’s charm. Mokelumne Hill was one of the richest gold mining towns in California. Today, the charming Hotel Léger is the center of the community. Ancestors of current locals are reputed to have played cards in the saloon with the infamous outlaws, Black Bart and Joaquin Murieta. The present hotel is actually three separate buildings, one of which served as the Calaveras County Courthouse from 1855 to 1866 and housed the county jail in the basement.

Swimming with the manatees © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crystal River, Florida

Located on the Gulf of Mexico, Crystal River is centered round its pristine waterway, Kings Bay and is the self-proclaimed “Home of the Manatee”. The small town of approximately 3,200 residents welcomes hundreds of manatees each winter to its many warm springs including the famous Three Sisters Springs. Together with neighboring Homosassa, Crystal River is the site of the largest gathering of manatees in North America. Located along Florida’s “Nature Coast,” the waters of Crystal River have the only legal “swim-with” Manatee program in the Country meaning visitors can passively observe the mammals in their natural habitat. The springs flow at a constant 72 degrees, making the water attractive to all sorts of swimmers.  

Worth Pondering…

This is not another place.

It is THE place.

—Charles Bowden

The Real Florida Comes Alive at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

This state park offers many opportunities to observe the Real Florida and its wildlife

Meet a manatee face-to-face without ever getting wet at Florida’s Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Underwater viewing stations allow visitors to see the manatees—and other fish as they swim by—up close and personal at this showcase for Florida’s native wildlife.

Manatee as seen from the Fish Bowl at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Fish Bowl underwater observatory floats in the main spring and allows visitors to “walk underwater” beneath the spring’s surface and watch the manatees and an astounding number of fresh and saltwater fish swim about. A television screen with a viewing control is located on the sundeck allowing visitors in wheelchairs to appreciate a view out the underwater windows.

Manatee as seen from the Fish Bowl at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park also features a variety of captive animals such as alligators, black bears, red wolf, key deer, flamingoes, whooping cranes, and the oldest hippopotamus in captivity. The native wildlife that reside in the park serve as ambassadors for their species providing visitors face-to-face connections between the diverse Florida habitats and the animals that call those habitats home. Each with a unique life story, all of the animal inhabitants are here for the same reason: they are unable to survive in the wild on their own. Daily programs educate visitors about the various species and what can be done to protect Florida’s valuable natural resources.

Fish as seen from the Fish Bowl at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Included in your admission, weather permitting, is a boat tour that transports visitors along Pepper Creek from the visitor center to the main entrance of the wildlife park. Rangers give an introduction to the park. Native wildlife is identified along the way. The pontoon boats are accessible with a ramp for wheelchairs. There is an elevator from the visitor center level to the boat dock for wheelchairs and strollers.

Manatee Program at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 1.10-mile trail winds throughout the wildlife park including paved trails and elevated boardwalk systems. 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 observe and photograph the Real Florida and its wildlife.

Flamingos at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Alligator at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pets are not allowed at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park because of the captive wildlife. The park provides kennels at the main entrance of the park on U.S. 19 for those visitors traveling with pets. The kennels are self-service and free. Service animals are welcome where the public is normally allowed.

Roseate spoonbills at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park includes the Wildlife Walk and paved trails for wildlife viewing. The Wildlife Walk consists of elevated boardwalks that are accessible for visitors in wheelchairs or strollers. The boardwalk allows an elevated view into the natural habitats and provides rain shelters along the way.

Flamingo at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is an excellent site for birding. The Pepper Creek Birding Trail runs from the Visitor Center parking area along the tram road and loops through the parking areas at Fish Bowl Drive and returns via a boat ride along Pepper Creek. An information kiosk is located at the trailhead behind the parking area of the Visitor Center on U.S. 19.

Fish as seen from the Fish Bowl at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State park has been a tourist attraction since the early 1900s when trains stopped to let passengers off to walk the short trail to the first-magnitude spring. The tracks ran alongside what is now Fishbowl Drive. While passengers enjoyed a view of Homosassa Spring and its myriad of fresh and saltwater fish, the train’s crew was busy loading their freight of fish, crabs, cedar, and spring water aboard the Mullet Train.

Roseate spoonbills at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 50-acre site and surrounding 100 acres was purchased in the 1940s and was turned into a commercial attraction. At one point, a 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.

Wood duck at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is located in Homosassa on the west side of U.S. 19/98. Admission is $13 for age 13 and older and $5 for children 6 to 12. Children 5 and under admitted free. The park is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Worth Pondering…

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

10 Amazing Places to RV in January

RV travel allows you to take the comforts of home on the road

January is a great time to travel and if you’re looking for someplace warm with ample sun there are some great destinations to consider especially for the RVing snowbird escaping the ravages of a Northern winter.

Wildlife World Zoo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bad news is COVID-19 has taken its toll on the tourism industry and as we head into winter, it’s now impacting snowbird travel. Canadian snowbirds won’t be flocking south this winter to escape the cold and snowy weather. With their wings clipped by border closures, Canadian snowbirds are trading in the golf clubs for snow shovels, preparing for the long Canadian winter ahead.

Naturally, RVers—and, in particular, Canadian snowbirds­—are looking forward to the relaxation of these restrictions. But where are the most amazing places to RV this month?

Also check out our recommendations from January 2019 and January 2020.

Wildlife World Zoo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife World Zoo Aquarium and Safari Park, Litchfield Park, Arizona

Wildlife World Zoo has Arizona’s largest collection of exotic and endangered animals with more than 600 separate species, rides, a petting zoo, and daily shows. Wildlife World Zoo is a 215-acre facility which specializes in African and South American animals. The Log Flume Ride surrounds three primate islands and takes riders past aquatic animals and through the Aquarium’s south pacific reef tunnel tank—the longest acrylic tunnel in Arizona—before splashing down three stories. With more than 75 indoor exhibits, the aquarium hosts sea life from sharks to stingrays to piranha and sea lions. Slow down and enjoy the view from high atop the Idearc Media Skyride. This round trip through the tree tops is approximately 15 minutes and will give you an unparalleled view of the park.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargazing at Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia

Pack your binoculars and head down south for blackwater and dark skies. This remote park is not only the primary entrance to one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders, the Okefenokee Swamp, but is also a certified “Dark Sky Park” by the International Dark Sky Association. With minimal light pollution, guests to Stephen C. Foster can experience some incredible stargazing. During the day, cruise through the black waters and cypress trees while watching alligators and wildlife cruise by. At night, when the day winds down, enjoy the serene sounds of nature and take in the light show above.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Few landscapes warp the mind quite like Joshua Tree National Park, a lumpy, Seussian dreamscape that beguiles the imagination. There are a couple of ways to best explore the park, and both take place on foot: hiking to points of interest and rock climbing. A climbing mecca, there are 8,000 climbing routes in Joshua Tree.  While the best hikes in Joshua Tree show off the best of the rock outcroppings especially at Arch Rock Nature Trail and Hidden Valley Nature Trail, the most interesting flora can be found while on the road. The Cholla Cactus Garden showcases one of the parks most peculiar and comical plant inhabitants and the Ocotillo Patch in the Pinto Basin ignites after rain when the 30-foot-tall ocotillo cactus blooms.

Manatee at Crystal River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crystal River, Florida

After months spent roaming the coast, the cooling temperatures of early autumn begin to drive manatees back to the rivers of Florida, packing the state with huge populations of these iconic mammals. Manatee viewing season peaks in the dead of winter, but those who get an early start can spot some of the year’s early movers without the hassle of huge crowds, providing an intimate viewing experience that’s tough to recreate once the season really kicks in. Your best bet for spotting manatees is Crystal River, an area rife with natural springs that create a safe haven for the gentle beasts with year-round populations calling the waterways home.

Yuma Territorial Prison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, Arizona

Yuma is officially the sunniest place on earth so it must have been particularly torturous for those locked in the tiny, airless cells of Yuma Territorial Prison. The first prisoners, incarcerated in July 1876, were even made to build their own cells—during a searing Sonoran Desert summer. Though it was held up as a model example of a prison for its time, punishments were harsh by modern standards. Those who broke prison rules were kept in a dark, solitary cell while those who attempted to escape were attached to a ball and chain. The last prisoners were moved to new facilities in Florence in 1909 and now the buildings including adobe structures are part of Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park comprising a museum that gives a fascinating insight into 19th-century prison life. Visitors can peer into the iron-barred cells, some of which held six prisoners at a time and the stifling solitary chamber and view photographs of former inmates.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Gulf Coast 

Stretching some 350 miles from Beaumont and the Louisiana border all the way to South Padre Island and the Rio Grande Valley, this region is renowned for its wildlife and natural beauty as well as the home of America’s space program. You’re never far from the sand on this trip—from the Galveston Seawall through the bird-watching trails of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and South Padre Island beach life. There’s good food and good fun all the way down the curve of the Texas coast. Other highlights include Goose Island State Park, the beach towns of Rockport-Fulton and Port Aransas, and the waterfront city of Corpus Christi

Corkscrew Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Naples, Florida

Naples is a city located along the southwestern Florida coast on the Gulf of Mexico. The city is known best for its high-end shops and world-class golfing. Naples Pier has become an icon of the city and is a popular spot for fishing and dolphin watching. On both sides of the pier you’ll find beautiful beaches with white sand and calm waves. At nearby Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary outdoor enthusiasts will find a gentle, pristine wilderness that dates back more than 500 years.

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden Isles, Georgia

Although Georgia’s beaches are some of the biggest attractions for visitors to the Golden Isles, there are numerous other activities and events to enjoy during your stay in St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island, or Brunswick. The temperate climate and beautiful scenic backdrop provide ample opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Quaint shopping boutiques, first-class dining experiences, unique attractions, and historical tours of the islands and mainland provide one-of-a-kind experiences that will make your trip unforgettable.

Dauphin Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dauphin Island, Alabama

A narrow, 14-mile-long outdoor playground near the mouth of Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island provides a getaway atmosphere with attractions aimed at the family. The Dauphin Island Park and Campground is a great place to enjoy all the island has to offer. The 155-acre park offers an abundance of exceptional recreation offerings and natural beauty. The campground is uniquely positioned so that guests have access to a secluded beach, public boat launches, Fort Gaines, and Audubon Bird Sanctuary. The campground offers 150 sites with 30/50 amp- electric service and water; 99 sites also offer sewer connections.

Jungle Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avery Island, Louisiana

Lush subtropical flora and venerable live oaks draped with Spanish moss cover this geological oddity which is one of five “islands” rising above south Louisiana’s flat coastal marshes. The island occupies roughly 2,200 acres and sits atop a deposit of solid rock salt thought to be deeper than Mount Everest is high. Geologists believe this deposit is the remnant of a buried ancient seabed, pushed to the surface by the sheer weight of surrounding alluvial sediments. Today, Avery Island remains the home of the TABASCO brand pepper sauce factory as well as Jungle Gardens and its Bird City wildfowl refuge. The Tabasco factory and the gardens are open for tours.

Worth Pondering…

We will open the book. Its pages are blank.
We are going to put words on them ourselves.
The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.

—Edith Lovejoy Pierce