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

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

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.

Related: This Week in NASA History: Apollo 11 Launches―July 16, 1969

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

5 Proven Places to Spot Wildlife Today

The U.S. and Canada are home to some incredible and unique wildlife

The United States and Canada have incredible diversity in both landscapes and natural life. From glaciers, geysers, marine ecosystems, and rich plant life that sustains incredible flora and fauna, there are so many ways to explore both nature and wildlife. Most travelers tend to gravitate toward the most popular and known areas. But there are many lesser-known areas that are a wildlife lover’s delight like epic bird migrations to viewing endangered species like manatees in the wild. And the best part is that many of these places are on public lands, accessible to all.

Pronghorns in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1 of 5: Pronghorn Antelopes

WHERE: Custer State Park, South Dakota; Upper Green River Basin, Wyoming, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota; along I-15 in southeastern Idaho and south-central Montana

Traveling at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour across the sagebrush country, pronghorn is the fastest land mammal in North America. Although pronghorn are not as fast as cheetahs, they can maintain a fast speed for a longer period of time than cheetahs.

Pronghorns in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pronghorns are generally reddish-tan in color with white patches on the chest, neck, underbelly, and rear-end. Pronghorn have large eyes and fantastic vision. Their large eyes can spot predators from very far away which is helpful on their flat grassland habitat. Both males and females can have horns although female horns are much smaller reaching only 4 inches in length whereas male horns can be as long as 20 inches.

Sagebrush leaves are an important source of food and water for most pronghorns particularly in winter. They are plant eaters feeding on flowering plants, cacti, and grasses.

Pronghorn in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Their natural range extended from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Today pronghorns are mainly found in the United States in the Great Plains, Wyoming, Montana, northeast California, southeast Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico and in Canada in southern Alberta. Some of the highest numbers of pronghorn are in Wyoming in the Red Desert and Yellowstone ecosystems. Pronghorn like open plains, fields, grasslands, brush, deserts, and basins. Between the summer and winter, pronghorn migrate between feeding grounds to survive the harsh winter.

INSIDER TIP: On a clear day, you will be able to spot pronghorn in herds along the highway. However, with their light-brown coloring, they blend very easily with the landscape.

Bison in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2 of 5: Bison or American Buffalo

WHERE: Custer State Park, South Dakota; Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota; Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming; National Bison Range, Montana; Elk Island National Park, Alberta

Custer State Park is South Dakota’s first and largest state park. It spans over 71,000 acres all around the Black Hills area. Custer State Park is also home to one of the largest bison herds in North America and is the best place to spot these animals outside of Yellowstone National Park.

Bison in Elk Island National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Through the early 1700s and1800s, bison were hunted to near extinction by the white settlers. But over the past century, bison reintroduction programs—like the one in Custer State Park—have paid off. Now the herd in the park is around 1,300-1,400 strong and they are visible all year round. But springtime is super special because it brings cute baby bison into the mix. The annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup (September 23-25 in 2021) is a popular event. Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they round up and drive the herd.

Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

INSIDER TIP: The number of bison at Elk Island National Park fluctuates year-to-year; there are generally around 400 plains bison and 300 wood bison.

Prairie dog in Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3 of 5: Prairie Dogs

WHERE: Badlands National Park, South Dakota; Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota; Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Park, Montana

Prairie dogs are closely related to the common ground squirrels and chipmunks both of which live in areas around Badlands National Park and the Great Plains of the West. The prairie dog species found in the Badlands is the black-tailed prairie dog which also happens to be the most common prairie dog species overall. Prairie dogs tend to be around 14-17 inches in length and weigh 1-3 pounds each. Some of their bodily adaptations have made them excellent at what they do. Their short, strong arms and long-nailed toes help them to dig burrows. Although their legs are short, prairie dogs can run up to 35 mph at short distances to escape predators for the safety of their burrows.

Prairie dog in Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prairie dogs live in underground colonies sometimes referred to as “towns”. Prairie dogs build their homes underground to protect against larger predators like hawks and coyotes as well as to protect their homes from flash flooding. One unique aspect of prairie dog life is communication. You can often hear them “talking” to each other via barks, squeaks, or yips. They use this method of communication to warn each other about the dangers and predators around.

INSIDER TIP: Because prairie dogs are so small compared to some of the larger animals in the area, they tend to get overlooked easily. Your best bet is to pull over onto one of the shoulder outlooks and just watch the landscape for any movement in the burrows.

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4 of 5: Sandhill Cranes

WHERE: Bosque National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico; Whitewater Draw, Arizona; Lodi, California; Platte River, Nebraska

Those of us who have experienced any kind of animal migration event know it is an experience of a lifetime. While Nebraska might not seem a likely place to see a migration event, it is home to one of the most epic bird migrations on the continent. And sitting in a bird blind with small cutout windows with just enough space for binoculars and cameras is the best way to watch the majestic sandhill cranes during their annual migration. These cranes can be found by the millions along the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska.

Sandhill cranes at Bosque National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the day, thousands of birds forage for food in the cornfields around Gibbon and at night they roost along the Platter River. Cranes are elegant in the way they dance among each other. And the moment they take flight in unison is simply breathtaking. Once you have experienced this, you might find yourself making the annual trip to Gibbon just to see them again.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

INSIDER TIP: The best place to see sandhill cranes along their migration route is along the Platte River about 20 miles east of Kearney, Nebraska along I-80. And the best time to visit is March to Mid-April during sunrise or just before sunset.

Manatee at Manatee Park, Tampa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5 of 5:  Manatees

WHERE: Along the Florida Coast

Manatees are one of the most popular marine life attractions in Florida and people travel from all over the world to see them in the wild. Known as gentle sea cows, manatees roam the waters of Florida from April through October. And when the temperature drops, they head to places with fresh water where temperatures are constant year-round. Manatees need waters of around 70 degrees to survive (and thrive).

Homosassa Wildlife State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Citrus County which is along Florida’s Gulf Coast north of Tampa is the world’s largest natural winter refuge for manatees. Manatees are attracted to the area because of the abundance of freshwater springs. Citrus County has many observation points to safely see these animals and it is also one of the few locations in Florida where you can legally observe manatees within the water. So, swimming with manatees is a popular activity here.

Homosassa Wildlife State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

INSIDER TIP: The manatee is one of Florida’s most iconic symbols and wintertime is the best time to see them. When the temperatures dip, manatees gather in springs and the warm-water outflows of power plants in large numbers.

Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)