We just got back from a fantastic trip to Crystal River, Florida, and we had the best time! My husband lived in Florida (Boca Raton) for a few years after college, but he never went to the west coast, so this was a new trip for him. I had been to Crystal River once before, and it was such a positive experience, I knew we had to go together and swim with their sweet manatees. Here are our best tips to help you start planning your trip, too!
The Manatees are Protected
Manatees are on the “threatened” (no longer “endangered”) list, and they are protected by no fewer than three acts of Congress. These gentle giants have no natural predators, but in the 1970s, there were only a few hundred manatees left, largely due to human-related issues. You’re surely planning your trip here to see the manatees in their own habitat, so please be respectful. You’ll enjoy it, they’ll enjoy it, and no one will go to jail as long as you give them their distance and respect. If you want to swim with them, definitely book a tour with one of the many companies in Crystal River so you can visit them as responsibly as possible.
Get all the details: How to Swim with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida
Where is Crystal River?
You’ll find Crystal River on the west coast of Florida, about an hour and 15 minutes north of Tampa. Winters can be a little chilly here, dipping down to the 50s and 40s, or even lower at times. The natural springs here offer warmer waters in wintertime, however, making this the perfect place for a manatee to spend its winters!
We were not so much expecting to need a lot of cash! At home in the D.C. area, and almost everywhere else we’ve traveled since COVID, even places that used to be “cash only” have now started accepting credit cards and contactless payments. Not so in Crystal River!
We needed to tip our manatee tour guides in cash (20% is typical unless you have a terrible time), The Crab Plant restaurant required cash (when was the last time you went to a sit-down restaurant that operated on a cash-only basis?!), and many Florida State Parks not only require cash, but also require exact change. Lesson Learned: Bring cash with you to avoid an awful lot of ATM fees!
Worth bringing the cash: The Best Places to Eat in Crystal River, Florida
Three Sisters Springs
Three Sisters Springs has a reputation online for being secluded and full of manatees. Neither is usually true! Here are some quick facts:
- Three Sisters Springs is one of the most popular spots for snorkelers, so you certainly won’t have it to yourself. And in fact, the day we went in February, there were exactly ZERO manatees in the Springs, but there were already several snorkelers swimming around by 8:00am!
- There is no parking at Three Sisters Springs. You have to park elsewhere and take a shuttle from 123 NW Highway 19. Alternatively, you can walk in! We parked in a public parking lot at historic downtown Crystal River, and then walked half a mile on the Crosstown Trail. It was pleasant in the morning, but it would be quite hot if you choose to walk it the afternoon.
- There is no land-to-water access at Three Sisters Springs itself. You can only swim into the Springs area from the water! So don’t spend the $20 fee for the park with the intent of swimming, only to realize too late that you can only view the spring from the boardwalk around it.
- You can rent kayaks and paddleboards at Kings Bay and paddle yourself in, but only from April 1-October 31. Access is limited to swimmers only during “manatee season” from November 1-March 31.
Read next: How to Plan a Trip (a step-by-step guide!)
Think Beaches? Think Again!
This is not the powdery, white, sandy beach destination you want it to be. There is exactly one true beach, and that’s Fort Island Gulf Beach. The rest of the land that touches water in Crytal River is river water. And in fact, it’s not even salty. It’s freshwater! If you want beaches, head south to St. Petersburg, Sanibel Island, or Sarasota; or, head North to the Panhandle for Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Panama City, and the famous “30A.”
There is a “Ton” of Wildlife to See
You’re probably here for the manatees, but you’ll also find all kinds of birds, alligators, turtles, lizards, freshwater fish, and even a Hippopotamus! Make sure you bring sturdy shoes for a bit of hiking, a mask and snorkel to do some underwater exploring, and sunscreen so you can really enjoy the great outdoors!
Want more? Take a look at all my Florida posts on my United States Page!
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