Located on Florida’s Nature Coast, Crystal River is best known for its palm trees, beaches, manatees, and nuclear power plant. This installment of the “Florida off the beaten path” series explores this hidden gem on the Gulf of Mexico.
Crystal River is tucked away in Citrus County, Florida, approximately 100 miles west of Kissimmee. In many ways, this tiny town of just over 3,000 residents is a throwback to the “Old Florida,” complete with a restaurant aptly named Cracker’s. In Crystal River, nature remains the main attraction, much as it was throughout Florida before 1971, when the grand opening of Walt Disney World transformed the sleepy town of Orlando into a tourist mecca.
Ecotourists will enjoy Citrus County’s many free parks, fishing piers, nature trails, and beaches. Fort Island Gulf Beach is the Nature Coast’s miniature version of the Redneck Riviera. This tiny beach offers free parking, powder white sand, a boat ramp, and a free fishing pier. Dolphins can frequently be seen frolicking in the waves, and the sunset views are exquisite.
Even more stunning than the beach itself is the journey there. To reach the beach, visitors travel along an eight-mile road on the Fort Island Trail, with majestic palm tree vistas and mangrove forests (see the slideshow). On the way to Fort Island Gulf Beach, be sure to stop at Shrimp Landing, which offers shrimp so fresh you can smell it in the air in the parking lot.
Throughout Citrus County, the landscapes are reminiscent of Florida Highwaymen paintings. The Great Florida Birding Trail offers breathtaking views of Florida nature and wildlife on the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, named after the environmentalist who led the movement to stop construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal.
In the midst of all this natural beauty is the Crystal River nuclear power plant, which will soon be closed due to cracks in a concrete containment building. Progress Energy recently sold the nuclear facility to Duke Energy, which announced in February that it will close the plant permanently. Locals lament the loss of one of the area’s biggest employers.
Ecotourism could play a part in boosting the local economy in the wake of the closure of the nuclear power plant. Crystal River is home to an impressive number of parks, springs and nature trails, and the fishing is excellent. Kings Bay Marina is a beautiful freshwater marina within walking distance of local seafood restaurants, shops, and hotels.
Due to its remote location on the Gulf Coast, Crystal River offers dining and accommodations at reasonable rates. Better still, parking and admission are free at many area attractions.
Maps and other travel planning resources are available on the Crystal River Web site.
For more on Marjorie Harris Carr, see her biography, forthcoming from the University Press of Florida.