The so-called Nature Coast keeps its secret: the river-riddled, marsh-mellow coastline of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco Counties is tailor-made for fishing, boating and kayaking among manatees, otters, bald eagles, swallowtail kites and more than 200 other species of birds that have been spotted there.
Western Citrus County alone holds four of Florida's designated Outstanding Waterways – The Withlacoochee, Homosassa, Crystal and Chassahowitzka Rivers. These fresh-water rivers empty into The Gulf of Mexico waters and create a shoreline that is mottled with verdant, gnarly mangrove islands. Each year, October through March, the warm waters of the spring-fed Crystal and Homosassa rivers host the largest herd of manatees in the U.S. as they come seeking warmth for survival.
The homey town of Crystal River has become synonymous with the gentle sea giants, in fact. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was created specifically to protect the endangered species. There are many tour operators that offer snorkeling, boat and kayak tours designed for spotting them in their habitat. Those who want to get closer take to the waters with snorkels or scuba gear to swim among them. This is the only place in the U.S. where this is allowed!
From land, look for manatees at Crystal River State Archaeological Site, whose vantage atop a 28-foot native American mound overlooking the river is a worthy climb. More mounds and artifacts illuminate ancient Florida cultures dating back to 500 B.C. Modern history unfolds in downtown Crystal River at the Coastal Heritage Museum. Contemporary shops and cafés live in vintage buildings in the same neighborhood. Beach-buffs head to Fort Island Gulf Beach, the trailhead for hikers and bicyclists, too.
For a close-up and personal view of manatees without getting wet, you can climb down into the underwater floating observatory or catch an educational presentation at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. Neighborly, oak-canopied, small-town Homosassa concentrates on fishing with charters galore, fish camps and fresh seafood on every menu. Historic attractions such as a sugar mill ruins and an unusual printing museum explore the past. With its blend of salt and fresh water, the region attracts a rich selection of wildlife. Green sea turtles, white-tailed deer, black bears, bald eagles, wood storks and manatees all call Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge home.
Inland one finds nearly as much water as along the coast. Lovely, moody Tsala Apopka Lake lures the casting crowd to Inverness, which accommodates them in campgrounds, fish camps, cottages and B&Bs. The 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail paves the way for bikers and hikers through the historic town, Fort Cooper State Park, pretty little Floral City, and beyond. The state park, with its lakeside beach, was named for a Seminole War fortification and hosts a reenactment each March.
Part of the five-tract Withlacoochee State Forest takes up outside of Inverness, named for the 70-mile river that flows through it. Its vast acreage serves a wide scope of recreational purposes, from fishing and paddling to camping, horseback riding and off-road motorcycling.
The Forest spreads down to the outskirts of Brooksville, a gracious, historic city whose tales are told at the Victorian-style (and some say haunted) building housing the Hernando Historical Museum. Lakes, parks and a new biking trail appeal to the active crowd. Fields around the town scent the air with orange blossoms and the old-fashioned Citrus Attraction at Boyett's Grove is the place to learn about processing, visit a small zoo, and buy Florida souvenirs for the family.
Rural in flavor and old-Florida in style, the Crystal River and Brooksville region holds secret corners and undiscovered back roads with surprise parks and funky seafood restaurants. Here's the place to get off the beaten path and meet the locals, especially around the tourist attraction town of Weeki Wachee. One of Florida's most vintage parks, it began as an underwater theater where live mermaids performed.
Today an animal and water park have cropped up around it, but the mermaids keep the fantasy alive. Along its back roads, small towns such as Bayport, Hernando Beach and Spring Hill still host adventure-seeking visitors with community parks, a hiking preserve, fish camps and old-fashioned fish houses.