North of Tampa and west of Orlando, Citrus County is known for its waterways, especially the abundance of freshwater springs. Three Sisters is part of the Crystal River system that originates in Kings Bay, a first magnitude spring flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. The area is the world’s largest natural winter refuge for West Indian manatees, and one of the few locations in Florida where swimming with manatees is allowed.
This water-lover's Shangri-la is ideal for a kayak or paddleboard adventure as you glide over bubbly springs, wild rivers, lakes and tributaries while admiring the local, scenic wildlife.
Start with a paddle ride on Crystal River’s King’s Bay, where the first magnitude spring system originates. Launch from Hunters Spring Park and take a short paddle to Three Sisters Springs, Citrus County’s sparkling crown jewel. Savor a slow and gentle paddle but keep your eyes peeled for the area’s gentle giants, the Florida manatee. When you arrive to Three Sisters, park your paddleboard and swim through the enchanting entrance shaded by overhanging trees reflecting the white sandy bottom below. This sacred spring glitters with a mosaic of emerald colors as manatees lounge quietly below the surface.
Another favorite paddle ride is on the Homosassa River. Launch at the Old Homosassa public ramp and paddle upriver towards the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, an easy one-hour ride. Old Florida scenery and charming homes line the river as boaters cruise by. Blue Water is your destination where manatees congregate before they travel into the park. During the winter, this is a prime location for manatee observation and a favorite with paddlers.
Situated in southern Citrus County, the five-mile, Chassahowitzka River (Chass-a-how-itz-ka) will remind you of a time long ago. Referred to as the “Chaz” by locals, this stunning river is fed by several tributaries and springs. Accessible off S.R. 480 (Miss Maggie Drive), head to the Chassahowitzka boat ramp, where a breathtaking Florida wilderness awaits. The combination of salt marshes and crystal-clear springs make this a memorable one where you are likely to encounter dolphins, manatees, unique birds, otters, and animals foraging on the riverbank. From the boat ramp, make your way to the Seven Sisters Spring and then paddle to Maggie’s “Crack,” a legendary spring beloved by locals.
To experience more of Florida’s Gulf ecosystem, the Crystal River Preserve State Park is home to St. Martin’s Marsh Aquatic Preserve, a pristine estuary with grass flats, mangrove islands and oyster bars. Go with a guide and launch your craft at Mullet Hole for a wildlife experience you are unlikely to forget.
Next, head to Inverness in western Citrus County where you’ll find a chain of freshwater lakes known as Lake Tsala Apopka. Begin with a morning paddle by launching at Liberty Park (next to the Withlacoochee State Trail). There you will be mesmerized as you paddle through unspoiled wilderness areas of hardwood forests, cypress swamps and hammocks. If you like to fish, cast your line for Bass, Gar and Blue Gil.
And finally, on the county line, the Withlacoochee River is where nature gets wild. This black water river flows from the Green Swamp in the Withlachoochee State Forest northward to the Gulf of Mexico. Launch at the Turner Camp Road boat ramp and paddle through an amazing array of “Old Florida” scenery and quiet paddling.
And now you know. Citrus County is one of Florida’s most dazzling and unique water playgrounds and perfect for your next authentic getaway.
Florida native Robin Draper is a columnist and owner of the award-winning “Blog of the Year” and “Best Travel Blog” and website, AuthenticFlorida.com. To receive more her weekly enews, featuring travel and lifestyle topics, visit her website AuthenticFlorida.com.