The biggest attraction at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is the up to 600 or so wild Florida manatees that migrate here during the winter. Crystal River, the only refuge created specifically to protect the endangered animals, manages 177 acres, including 40 acres of winter manatee sanctuaries within Kings Bay. The area was established as a national wildlife refuge in 1983 because it hosts more migrating manatees (some 10 percent of the manatee population in Florida) than any other natural manatee wintering area. The main area for manatee viewing is the Three Sisters Springs complex, added as protected waters in 2010. Inside Tip: Stop first at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge headquarters to get oriented and find out about available manatee viewing tours. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday, May to October, or 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Sunday, November to April.
When to Go: The best time to see manatees at the refuge is between November and early spring. Colder temperatures bring more manatees to the refuge’s warm spring waters.
Must Dos: It takes a bit of work to see the manatees because rules for public use of Crystal River are in flux. Traditionally, you could see the manatees from the water by boat, kayak, canoe, or paddleboard—and even swim with them. Environmental regulations set in 2015, however, may prevent water access to the animals. Check with the refuge office at +1 352 563 2088 about the status of water access before you visit. Inside Tip: If you do get in or on the water, be careful not to stress the manatees. Before your visit, watch the Manatee Manners videos on the refuge website. The best option for seeing manatees is to take a tour on the new elevated boardwalk that surrounds Three Sisters Springs, which offers a better view of the animals than from the water. The boardwalk is only accessible by shuttle from November 15 through March. Again, contact the refuge office for details about boardwalk tour operators. Best Bet: If you're visiting with your family during manatee season, call the refuge office at +1 352 563 2088 for more information about special programs designed for children and teens.
Fun Fact: Florida manatees have large round bodies that end in a flat, paddle-like tail; two flippers with three to four nails on each one; and wrinkled faces with a snout and whiskers. The elephant and the hyrax (a gopher-size mammal) are their closest relatives. They have an average life span of 60 years.
Photograph by James Schwabel, Alamy
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
For the best chance to get a view of Florida manatees, head to Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa. The park is permanent home to four manatees (which cannot be released into the wild) that slowly bob in the clear waters of a first-magnitude spring (defined as spewing a hundred cubic feet of water per second). Attend a scheduled feeding session by rangers (don’t feed the animals yourself) to see the manatees up close from above the water, and see them from below in the floating underwater observatory. If visiting in winter, you may also see wild manatees seeking warmer waters here. The park aims to preserve native Florida species, with captive black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, American alligators, American crocodiles, and river otters on display. From the parking lot, there are two ways to get to the spring entrance: by a scenic and peaceful boat ride up Pepper Creek or by tram. Go early in the day, when the animals are most active, and bring a camera for wildlife photography. Fun Fact: Homosassa is home to an aging hippopotamus named Lu, who was declared an honorary citizen of the state of Florida in 1991 by then Governor Lawton Chiles to prevent him from being moved from his home at the park.
Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway State Recreation and Conservation Area
In the 1930s and during the '60s and '70s, thousands of people worked at creating a massive canal across central Florida. Today, that ambitious project has been abandoned and the land for it has been turned into the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway State Recreation and Conservation Area, a 110-mile corridor covering more than 70,000 acres of recreation area winding from the Gulf of Mexico in the west to the St. Johns River in the east. The area features 290 miles of trails for hikers, bikers, and equestrians, including 80 miles of mountain biking trails from the Santos Trailhead near Ocala. Paddlers can ply the Ocklawaha and Withlacoochee Rivers from the conservation area. Best Bet: To see how the land has healed and adapted, hike the 40 miles of Florida National Scenic Trail sections along about a dozen 1930s Depression-era canal dig sites (ranging from .25 miles to two miles long) created by up to 8,000 men working with hand tools and mules.
Rainbow Springs State Park
Tubing two miles down the Rainbow River with turtles and fish darting through the green grass under the water is the hot weather activity of choice at Rainbow Springs State Park, three miles north of Dunnellon. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the park’s tubing entrance is open seven days a week, but be warned: The area fills up quickly and latecomers get turned away, so be sure to get there early. The park features other attractions, such as swimming in the headsprings in 72-degree water (there is a separate headsprings entrance), hiking, kayaking, birding, and touring the gardens and waterfalls. Best Bet: Stay overnight at one of 60 campsites, eight of which are accessible to those with mobility challenges. Make reservations with ReserveAmerica well in advance for weekend stays; weekdays are usually more available closer to your travel date.