Is kissing a manatee on your bucket list? Have you ever wanted to try scuba diving? Do you like chasing waterfalls? You can do all of this and more during a weekend in Crystal River, Florida. In this travel guide, I’ll be sharing my itinerary for three action packed days full of snorkeling, scuba diving, and swimming with manatees!! If you take part in any of these activities, I promise that your vacation will bee anything but boring!
Getting to Crystal River
Before I get into all the fun things there are to do during your weekend in Crystal River, I want to make sure you know how to get there! Crystal River is located on the gulf side of Florida approximately 75 miles from the Tampa International Airport (TPA) and 97 miles from the main Orlando airports (MCO & SFB). After flying into either one of these airports, pick up a rental car and head northwest.
Where to Stay
A quick google search will yield quite a few hotels in the area. You can also go the rental home route and book an Airbnb like we did. It was a great home away from home right on the river, and much more affordable than booking four separate hotel rooms for our group of 7, aka our Manateam as we called ourselves! I highly recommend trying out Airbnb if you’ve never used it before. First time users even get $30 off your booking if you book through this link.
When to Visit
If swimming with manatees is a must do for you (which it should be!), then the best time to visit is December through mid-March. During these winter months, the manatees migrate from the gulf to the springs in Crystal River where the water temperature is a constant 74 degrees year-round. I will warn you though, that the air temperature during this time varies. You may get lucky and have an 80-degree day in February, OR you may get a 40-degree day like we did. Don’t let that stop you from getting in the water though, that’s what double wet suits are for! Scuba diving, snorkeling, canoeing, kayaking, and paddle boarding are available year round. The only activity that is seasonal is river tubing, which happens April through September.
What to Do During Your Weekend in Crystal River
Kayak the Rainbow River – Day 1
When I think river, I think brown and dirty, but Rainbow River couldn’t be farther than that. I kid you not this is the clearest, cleanest, crystal bluest (if that’s even a word haha) river you’ll ever see. Our group spent two days enjoying the Rainbow River, one day from on top of the water and one day from below the water. There are two popular State Parks right on the river, Rainbow Springs State Park and KP Hole State Park.
Our first day on the river we were at Rainbow Springs State Park, which for reference has a $3 entrance fee. They rent out boats by the day or by the hour and have canoes, single kayaks, tandem kayaks, and even glass bottom kayaks available. If you are into nature, get ready to have a field day because there’s over 200 species of birds, many many turtles, ducks, snakes, and lizards to see (notice that I didn’t say alligators, too cold for them thank goodness!) We had so fun much paddling our way down the river and saw lots of other people doing the same.
Once you’re all kayaked out, I recommend checking out the park’s hiking trail, which surprisingly is full of beautiful waterfalls at every turn!
Scuba Dive the Rainbow River – Day 2
If you’ve ever been curious about scuba diving, the Rainbow River is a great place to try it during your weekend in Crystal River! There are several dive shops in the area, and the one we went through was American Pro Diving Center. They offer the PADI recognized DSD, Discover Scuba Diving, experience for non-certified divers or newbies. This course includes a brief classroom training, shallow water skills practice, and the chance to do a river drift dive afterwards. If you thought the river was beautiful from above, wait until you see it from below.
We started the morning at the American Pro Diving Center where we did a quick classroom training session, complete with a retro 70’s video, and got fitted with our gear. They then loaded everything up in their pontoon boat and we followed them in our car to KP Hole State Park (which is less than a 5-minute drive from Rainbow Springs State Park where we kayaked the day prior). Note, admission to this park is $15 for divers and $5 for everyone else. If you have a diverse group of snorkelers, experienced divers, or spectators in your party like we did, you can still all enjoy the river together. Everyone starts off on the pontoon boat, but the Discover Scuba Diving class will jump in the water at a shallow spot in the river for the skills training, before meeting back up with the rest of the group underwater during the drift dive.
The DSD class by regulation is 4 divers to 1 instructor ratio, which makes it nice and intimate. In the shallow water you’ll first practice a few skills like breathing underwater through your regulator, inflating and deflating your vest, clearing your mask and regulator, and equalizing your ears. Once you’ve demonstrated that you’ are comfortable with the basics, it’s time for the fun part! The open water dive! We were able to spend about 30 minutes underwater exploring the river grass, chasing tons of fish, and letting the river drift us along beneath it.
If diving isn’t your thing and you’d prefer to snorkel, you can absolutely do that instead. We had a few people in our group free dive, aka hold your breath and swim down with a snorkel. Whether you dive or snorkel, you’ll be able to see all the cool things, like 2 foot long gar fish and diving birds! Be on the lookout for lost sunglasses while you’re underwater. If you find a pair, you can stick them on the infamous lost and found palm tree in KP Hole State Park. Lastly, if the idea of getting in the water when it’s 40 degrees out is a deal breaker, you can be what they call a bubble watcher and just hang out on the pontoon boat with the captain and enjoy the river that way.
Speaking of 40-degree temps, the worst part about the dive was when it ended. Getting out of the warm water and climbing back on the boat, was hella cold! If you’re blessed with less than ideal temperatures too, be sure to pack a hoodie, a towel/blanket, and some warm clothes to put on afterwards, because BRR! There’s nothing quite like taking off two wet wetsuits.
One thing to note if you do scuba dive, PADI requires that you wait to fly until after 24 hours after your dive due to the imbalance of ear pressure and potential ear damages that could occur. With that being said, make sure that you don’t schedule your scuba dive the same day as your flight home and you won’t have anything to worry about.
Your day of diving will wrap up just in time to watch the sunset over dinner. There are quite a few restaurants located right on the river that offer great sunset views and food,.Our Manateam enjoyed eating at Margarita Breeze & Cracker’s Bar & Grill… I think the pelicans enjoy them too!
Swim with Manatees!!! – Day 3
There are many places that you can see manatees during your weekend in Crystal River. Homosassa Springs and Three Sisters Springs are two beautiful admission-based parks with manatee viewing areas. If you’re lucky like I was, you may even see manatees chilling in the water while you’re eating dinner. But I’ll argue that the absolute best place to see the manatees, is right in the water next to them!
Crystal River is the only place in Florida where swimming with the manatees is allowed. As mentioned above, February is the peak time for the largest number of manatees to be in the springs. I also recommend booking a morning tour as that is when they are most playful and active (unlike me hehe!) There are TONs of companies that offer manatee sighting boat tours and swim tours, but we stuck with American Pro Diving since we had a great experience with them the day before. There are quite a few spots in the springs where manatees our known to hang out, and your boat captain should know just where to find them. Our captain did not disappoint as the area we went to had upwards of 10 of these 2000lb potatoes just chilling!
There are lots of do’s and don’ts when it comes to interacting with the manatees, as they are a protected species. Manatees are social and curious by nature and they can feel your heartbeat from 6 feet away! If you’re respectful, minimize noise, and limit splashing you may just come face to face with your new best friend. When I say face to face, I mean literally! Manatees communicate with other manatees by rubbing noses, and this big guy swam right up to my mask and planted an eskimo kiss on me. Have long hair? You may find another manatee come up to chew on it. Have a go-pro? They love attention and may happily pose, do somersaults, and model for you! They LOVE having their belly scratched.
I was on such a high after swimming with these guys, and I hardly noticed the 40 degree temps after getting out of the water this time. Pro tip- when you get back in the boat, warm up with a hot cocoa or the local’s favorite, a mad manatee IPA.
I hope you and your family and friends enjoy your weekend in Crystal River as much as we did. Be sure to give the manatees a kiss for me!
(Fun fact, I took this picture when we first arrived in Crystal River, and little did I know that I’d be leaving with a real manatee kiss!)