The Florida of glossy magazine advertisements is covered in wide, sandy beaches and glitzy high rises. Weird, because that’s not representative of most of the state. If you want to get a look at what we’ll just call the real Florida, head to the Crystal River region on the Gulf Coast.
On my first visit, I — like most other first-timers — was drawn by the opportunity to swim with manatees in the only place in North America where you’re legally allowed to do so. And while the giant, friendly creatures are undoubtedly the stars of the show around here, I quickly learned that Crystal River and surrounding Citrus County have more than one way to keep folks entertained. Here are a handful of spots more than worth a detour along Florida’s “Nature Coast.”
1. Withlacoochee State Trail and the Florida Trail
Florida will be the next American hub for hiking and biking — or, at the very least, it should be. From the Crystal River area, you’ll be able to access two truly awesome trails: the 46-mile paved Withlacoochee State Trail and the 1,300-mile Florida Trail. They share the same path through northern Citrus County, then split going south.
For a speedier journey, take the shorter Withlachoochee State Trail — but don’t speed past the 19,000+ acres of Tsala Apopka Lake (you can use the panoramic views as an excuse for your first break). Also make sure to check out Fort Cooper State Park and shady Floral City, too.
Longer-haul visitors can pick up the orange-blazed Florida Trail in Whispering Pines Park, in Inverness. From there, the trail snakes south into the tall, piney Withlacoochee State Forest, an Important Bird Area for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. Wait patiently for signs of life at the pine trees painted with white rings around the trunk, which indicate an active woodpecker cavity. The area is also pockmarked with explorable caves that are evidence of the underlying karst geology.
2. Ferris Groves
Roadside produce stands are hard to pass by, especially when they look as retro and awesome as Ferris Groves on US-41. Doc Ferris, “The King of Citrus,” built Ferris Groves with his family, and the orange and white tent is a Floral City landmark harking back to rural “Old Florida.”
It’s been more than 80 years since Doc started planting citrus, and Ferris Groves still attracts crowds with their absolutely legendary fruits and desserts each year from October until the end of March. If it’s winter, it’s citrus season, so make sure to buy a bushel of oranges to take with you (you’re in Citrus County, after all). The main event, however, is probably the strawberry shortcake. The cake is moist, and of course, the strawberries are pluh-uh-ump.
You can walk off your dessert at the nearby Avenue of the Oaks. Planted in the 19th century, the Spanish-moss-draped oak trees provide a fantastic photo-op.
3. Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge
The “Chaz” is a favorite of many, but somehow still a locals’ secret. With just over 30,000 acres of mostly water and marsh, everything here seems like a backcountry adventure. Wildlife is especially abundant right on the Chassahowitzka River.
The easiest spot for access — and a convenient place to rent a kayak and stay the night — is the Chassahowitzka River Campground off W Miss Maggie Drive. From there, canoe along the river to check out the off-the-grid homes deep in the marsh, and stop off at the rope swing at The Crack. It hangs over a quiet spring deep in Baird Creek, a tributary of the Chassahowitzka River going south.
4. Copp Winery and Brewery
Florida’s climate and geography may not technically be suited for wine production, but that doesn’t keep local wine enthusiasts from trying. Copp Winery and Brewery started as a winery that imported its grapes, turning them into quality wine. But the craft beer craze reached Citrus County a few years ago, and Copp Winery jumped right into that, too.
Copp currently occupies an unassuming building across from the Crystal River Post Office (but is so popular it will soon be moving to a new, larger location). This isn’t one of those trendy bars with string lights and shellacked hardwood, but the drinks are good, and that’s what matters. Grab a bite to eat inside, then take advantage of the lingering Florida sun by bringing your drink — the award-winning pale ale Southern Grit or the 1821 English ESB will serve as your crash course — to an Adirondack chair in the front garden. You’ll see plenty of locals here on a busy night, in case you need advice for the next day’s adventures.
5. Old Homosassa
You might find yourself in Old Homosassa for dinner at one of the waterfront restaurants, but arrive a few hours early to poke around. It’s a super artsy community, you just might not be able to tell it straight away — you’ll probably pass the budding art center of Old Homosassa without even realizing it. Don’t judge a book by its hidden-in-plain-sight cover, ‘kay?
Besides the camouflaged arts center, stop and explore W Yulee Drive, the best place to start your tour of the village’s art galleries. The Glass Garage features colorful glass work, oil paintings, and jewelry; the bright blue house of Pepper Creek Pottery has ceramic gifts and kitchenware; and Kevin Jenkins’ Riverworks Studio hosts his renowned metal sculptures of the fish so important to Old Homosassa’s history. You can get in on the art scene yourself by setting up a class with family or friends at Watson’s Art Gallery. The staff will provide the supplies and guidance, and you’ll have a not-at-all-tacky souvenir.
6. Crystal River Archaeological State Park
Thousands of years ago, Citrus County was kickin’. It’s estimated that 7,500 Native Americans traveled yearly to what is now Crystal River Archaeological State Park to honor their dead, trade, and socialize. Why here? No one’s quite sure, but the river likely had something to do with it.
Don’t let the size of the park (61 acres) fool you — there’s plenty to see. Stop by the small museum (open Thursday through Monday) to get your bearings, and then move to the two tall mounds that experts think were used for ceremonies. Atop the tallest mound, “Mound A,” consider that what’s left is actually only part of the original structure. Some of the smaller mounds on the site are burial places; others are refuse piles called “middens,” containing shells, bones, and other artifacts that paint a picture of daily life at the site as it once was.
Pro tip: Don’t miss the Gary Madoff Trail when driving out to the beach. It’s right after the Salt River Bridge and the impressive Academy of Environmental Sciences Buildings.
7. Fort Island Gulf Beach
If you fall into the camp that believes a trip to Florida isn’t complete without a lazy day on the sand, you need to hit Fort Island Gulf Beach. It’s on the outer edge of Crystal River’s seemingly endless marsh on W Fort Island Trail, and the drive alone is worth it. There are a number of pull-off spots with good views, as well as short roadside hiking trails.
The beach itself is perfect for snagging a quiet spot or building some sand castles. Check out the views from the adjacent pier or bring a fishing rod to cast a line. Stay late and treat yourself to one of the Gulf’s world-famous sunsets. Just take it easy. You know how to do that, right?
Pro tip: Bike to the beach if you can. The road is super scenic, but go early to avoid afternoon headwinds off the marsh.
8. The Freezer Tiki Bar
It’s almost guaranteed that, at one point or another in Citrus County, you’ll work up one heck of an appetite. Remember those waterfront restaurants in Old Homosassa we mentioned? Well, one of those is the Freezer Tiki Bar, and yes, you can start your beeline now.
“The Freezer” is a true hole-in-the-wall spot if ever there were one. It’s housed in an old fish warehouse, where you’ll enter up the old loading ramp while commercial fishermen tie up along the wharf and unload their daily haul. Still. Today. Right now.
Check for seats inside or out, then get in line to order at the bar (cash only). Local specialties are shrimp and crab, but the chowder is good, too. If it’s a busy winter weekend, that’s okay. Grab a cold beer (or a bucket for your friends), and enjoy the laid-back vibe of this part of Florida while you wait. Here, that’s a 24/7 type of thing.