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
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
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
Longer-haul visitors can pick up the orange-blazed Florida Trail in
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
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
3. Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge
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 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
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
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
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
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
“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.