Discover the Wild Side of Florida at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Be surrounded by wildlife at this state park on Florida’s Gulf Coast

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.

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Manatee program at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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.

Related: Myakka River State Park: Place of Abundance Offering Varied Experiences

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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.

Manatee program at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Roseate spoonbill at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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.

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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. 

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © 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.

Manatee program at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Related: The Real Florida Comes Alive at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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.

Bald eagle at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Related: The Top 10 Things to See and Do on Amelia Island

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

The Top 10 Things to See and Do on Amelia Island

What are you waiting for! Read on and find out about the best things to do in and around Amelia Island.

The southernmost of the Sea Island chain, Amelia Island attracts visitors because of its wide beaches lined with 40-foot, sea-oat-flecked dunes. But there’s more to do than just lay out on the sand.

Envision a nature lover’s retreat, a sportsman’s playground, and foodie’s paradise all coming together on one special barrier island. Here are 10 of the best things to see and do on a visit to Amelia Island.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cruise the Amelia River

Head down to the dock at Fernandina Harbor Marina and catch a tour offered by Amelia River Cruises. Choose from a variety of cruises along salt marshes, wilderness beaches, and historic riverbanks. Discover wildlife—dolphins, sea turtles, and manatees—narrated by local history and nature experts or with live local musicians on board.

The 2.5-hour trip down the Amelia River and around Amelia and Cumberland Islands is entertaining and educational. Your guide will tell you about the history of the area including how Amelia Island came under the governance of six different nations and about the Carnegie family’s connection to Cumberland Island. Look for wild horses and an array of seabirds as you cruise past beautiful shorelines and unique photo ops.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Amelia Island Nature Center

Nestled on 1,350 acres at the tip of Amelia Island, the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort offers luxurious oceanfront accommodations with amazing views of the Atlantic, resort pools, championship golf, and a full-service spa.

Part of the resort, the Amelia Island Nature Center is open to the public. Once you enter the property, turn left just before the gate to find the nature center. Be sure to say hello to Buddy, the rescued tropical parrot and resident mascot.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The marsh around the resort is a haven for wildlife found in the dunes, grasses, and sandy shores. Keep your eyes open for herons, roseate spoonbills, pelicans, osprey, eagles, and cormorants. During the summer you may also see dolphins and manatees in the marsh.

The nature center offers eco-biking, hiking, bass fishing, and birding adventures on which you can learn about the thriving ecology and delicate balance of the barrier islands. The center offers kayak tours, stand-up paddleboard tours, and eclipse pedalboard (think elliptical with pontoons) tours. You can join a tour or rent equipment and explore on your own.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hit the Beach

Ever combed a beach for seashells? How about shark teeth? Searching for shark teeth will give your walk purpose as you stroll down some of the 13 miles of beautiful sandy beachfront on Amelia Island. Head out as the tide begins to recede or just after a storm for the best finds. With five distinct beaches on the island, you’ll be sure to find your perfect toes-in-the-sand, sun-worshipping spot. Choose from Amelia Island State Park, American Beach, Main Beach Park, Peters Point, and Fort Clinch State Park Beach. Lifeguards staff the beaches from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amelia Island State Park

A sanctuary for fishing and bird-watching, Amelia Island State Park protects over 200 acres of unspoiled wilderness along the southern tip of Amelia Island. Beautiful beaches, salt marshes, and coastal maritime forests provide visitors a glimpse of Real Florida. Visitors can stroll along the beach, look for shells and sharks’ teeth, or watch the wildlife. Anglers can surf fish along the shoreline or wet their lines from the mile-long George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier. Amelia Island is the only Florida state park that offers horseback riding on its beaches!

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier State Park

A pedestrian-only fishing bridge, George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier spans Nassau Sound and provides access to one of the best fishing areas in Northeast Florida. Anglers catch a variety of fish, including whiting, jack, drum, and tarpon. The mile-long bridge is open from 8 a.m. to sunset, 365 days a year. Access to the bridge is through Amelia Island State Park.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore Fort Clinch State Park

History meets nature at Fort Clinch State Park. Whether you’re a history buff, nature lover, or a bit of both, enjoy exploring the natural and historic resources of this park. A row of cannons staring across the St. Mary’s River into Georgia are silent testimony to the strategic importance of Fort Clinch during the Civil War. Visitors can explore the fort’s many rooms, galleries, and grounds, and learn about the life of a Union soldier through living history programs.

The historic fort is only one aspect of this diverse 1,400-acre park. Maritime hammocks with massive arching live oaks provide a striking backdrop for hiking and biking on the park’s many trails. The park is known for its gopher tortoises, painted buntings, and other species of wildlife. Camping, fishing, shelling, and shark-tooth hunting are popular activities.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walk the Willow Pond Nature Trail

After seeing historic Fort Clinch and the beautiful sand beaches, take the time to walk the serene Willow Pond Nature Trail. The mile-long trail provides a refreshing break from the warm Florida sunshine. As you start your stroll down the path, you will pass through a forest of historic live oaks with their aerial gardens of resurrection fern, orchids, and Spanish moss. Arriving at a series of breaks in the trees, you suddenly come upon Willow Pond which is actually a collection of coastal depression ponds. Crossing the bridge, you leave the lush green of the palm trees and saw palmettos, trekking the steep incline of the ancient sand dunes until you are surrounded by more live oaks, magnolias, and holly trees. Soon you will finish back where you started.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is a 46,000-acre area with individual park sites to explore. Each park site is unique for an aspect of natural or cultural history. Trails in the Timucuan Preserve take you through shady hammocks and along pristine beaches. The Timucuan Preserve’s Boneyard Beach offers a stunning, stark backdrop for photographers with 30-foot bluffs and huge driftwood trees scattered along the shore. A historic Sea Island cotton plantation, Kingsley Plantation includes the oldest standing plantation house in Florida. Self-guiding, interpretive exhibits can be viewed throughout the grounds.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hit the Links

Every golfer’s dream is to enjoy glorious sunshine and gorgeous views while conquering challenging greens and fairways. The courses on Amelia Island offer all this and more. The island offers five golf courses including an 18-hole championship option at The Ritz-Carlton designed by PGA Tour veteran Mark McCumber and World Golf Hall of Famer Gene Littler. Fernandina Beach Golf Club is a reasonably priced public golf course offering 27 holes. The Golf Club of Amelia Island designed by Mark McCumber and Gene Littler offers 18 holes with beautiful vistas and challenging water hazards. Amelia Island Omni Plantation Resort offers two 18-hole golf courses. The Oak Marsh Golf Course designed by Pete Dye is open to the public. The Long Point Golf Course was designed by Tom Fazio and is a members-only course that is also available to resort guests. Amelia River Golf Club is a semi-private club that offers challenging holes for a reasonable fee.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fernandina Beach

Be sure to venture over to Fernandina Beach, a city on the northern part of the island with a 50-block National Historic District. Stroll the charming downtown to see a mix of Queen Anne, Italianate, Gothic Revival, and Victorian architecture and peruse mom-and-pop shops like Fantastic Fudge, popular for its ice cream and fudge with the latter making a sweet Amelia souvenir.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Location

Amelia Island is located in northeastern Florida, 33 miles northeast of Jacksonville and 26 miles southeast of St. Marys, Georgia.

Amelia Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Life at the beach can be busy on Amelia Island if one so chooses. I’d rather swing on the porch with a book, take a nap, and go for a long barefoot walk at the water’s edge. Serious loafing.

—John Grisham, Ode to Amelia Island

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