Top Things to do in Crystal River Florida including swim with manatees
Crystal River is one of the most beautiful parts of Florida but somehow flies under the radar! Only 90 minutes from both Orlando and Tampa, Crystal River is a gorgeous natural freshwater river system where manatees congregate especially in the wintertime when it gets too cold in the Gulf of Mexico. Fun Fact: Crystal River is the only place in the US you can legally swim with manatees! If that’s on your travel list, Crystal River is a must. Even if it’s not, I’d highly recommend adding it to your Florida trip.
About the Manatee Experience
- While any time of year is beautiful to visit, November-March is when the largest number of manatees come in from the chilly Gulf of Mexico.
- From Nov 15 – Mar 31, the Three Sisters Spring is protected as manatees congregate there and you’ll need to pay attention to off-limits kayak areas. You can still swim in most areas but will need to tie up your watercraft to do so.
- While there’s a viewing platform at Three Sisters Springs you can drive to, you’re not allowed to swim from there; you’d have to paddle to the water entrance and then swim into the spring.
- When we went in mid-November right before the ban, we were able to see quite a few manatees and could still kayak into the springs directly. I imagine early April would be great for this same reason. However, when we went in early December, we saw many more manatees!
- Manatees are most active in the morning, so it’s best to stay overnight in the area so you can go out first thing in the morning. I would highly recommend staying at The Hampton Inn right in town (read about our stay below!)
- If you swim in the water with manatees, the number one rule to remember is to not touch them; the best thing to do is freeze and float when they’re around you. And don’t come in between a baby and mom. They are the kindest animals and these rules of thumb should keep the experience safe and enjoyable. Watch this video for more information!
Things to Do in Crystal River
- Take a Manatee Tour: If you’ve never been around manatees, starting with a tour is great because the guides teach you about manatees and ensure you’re comfortable in the water around them. The tour companies also provide wet suits and snorkels/fins. We went with Bird’s Underwater on our first visit and they were great.
- Kayak/Paddleboard the Springs: You can paddle around on your own – don’t forget a snorkel/goggles! Bird’s offers a discount on kayaks if you do their manatee tour. Otherwise, check out Crystal River Kayak Company, located near Three Sisters or Hunter Springs Kayaks & Tours which, in addition to regular kayaks and paddleboards, has all-clear kayaks and launches from Hunter Springs. Both offer tours & rentals.
- Bring your own watercraft which is what we did on our second visit. Hunter Springs Park is a great launch because some manatees hang out there where it’s less busy and it’s only a ~30 min paddle from there to Three Sisters Springs. Plus, it’s only $5 to park all day. Crystal River Kayak company also lets you launch from their site near Three Sisters – just call head; they close for launches for the day around 2pm.
- Visit Three Sisters Springs. Your options are to paddle in April 1 – Nov 14, paddle to the entrance and then swim in Nov 15-Mar 30, or drive to the viewpoint at any point during the year. Make sure you do see it because it’s absolutely gorgeous!
- Enjoy delicious seafood: I highly recommend Dans Clam Stand – they are following great COVID procedures and their seafood is high quality. There’s also a fun outdoor seating space. There are a few other great seafood spots – we enjoyed Seafood Seller & Café pre-COVID. I’ve also been told Charlie’s Fish House and Peck’s Old Port Cove are great.
- Grab an ice cream treat from Twistee Treat. Delicious ice cream from a fun cone-shaped building that’s following great COVID procedures.
- Visit Homosassa Springs. We did not visit since it felt more built up than the Crystal River springs area but you can consider checking it out if you have more time.
- Visit Withlacoochee State Park. I didn’t visit as my focus was on the manatees and springs but this could be a fun activity to add on for either cycling or hiking.
Where to Stay
The Hampton Inn was my top choice to stay in Crystal River because it’s centrally located, extremely clean (even more so now with the Hilton Clean Stay guarantee), has breakfast included and great amenities including a gym and swimming pool. Since we visited during COVID, I was really focused on staying someplace safe and the Hampton Inn delivered. The staff was so kind and provided recommendations as well for things to see and do in the area.
We stayed in a King Suite which was beautiful and extremely comfortable! The Neutrogena products provided felt very nice after a long day on the water.
Even during COVID, the staff found a way to provide a warm breakfast safely. The breakfast area is only accessible by one staff member who puts wrapped food on a plate and hands it back to you to enjoy either in the dining space (which has spaced out tables) or you can take it to go.
I can’t recommend this hotel enough – it’s really a perfect base for all your Crystal River exploring!
Note: The Hampton Inn hosted an overnight hotel stay. These opinions are my own.