All about Captivating Crystal River

By Diane Bedard Posted on July 21, 2021

Crystal River is situated around Kings Bay, which is fed by a cluster of more than 30 springs and is designated as a first-magnitude spring system discharging more than 64.6 million gallons of water per day! This water stays a constant 72 degrees, making it a popular area for West Indian manatees to winter.

Hundreds of manatees come to Kings Bay for the “warm” water in the winter. Image courtesy of Citrus County Visitors Bureau.

Incorporated in 1923, about 3,138 people live within the city limits of Crystal River as of the 2016 census. US 19 separates Crystal River in a north-south direction, with Kings Bay on the west side and most public works on the east side of the road.

There is a traditional shopping mall north of the city that houses several shops, restaurants, services such as a hair salon and gym, a family entertainment center featuring ax throwing, and a movie theater. It is called the Crystal River Mall, and there is a Rural King store adjacent to the mall.

Crystal River’s State Parks

The northwest edge of Crystal River is home to a National Historic Landmark consisting of the Crystal River Archaeological State Park. This Pre-Columbian Native American site contains burial mounds, temple mounds, a plaza area and a sizeable shell midden is worth a visit from anywhere.

The site was first explored in 1903 and became a State Park in the 1960s. Two large stele are part of the artifacts that can be viewed while visiting. I also love to climb Midden A, imagining scenarios of that time and place as I ascend the many steps to the top.

The Crystal River Archaeological State Park houses the remains of prehistoric Native American lives. The view from above Temple Mound A gives visitors a glimpse into the magnificent environment that supported these early peoples.

This 61-acre Native American complex was occupied long before Columbus came to America; in fact, evidence has been found that puts Native peoples living at this site from the Deptford period (800 BC), the Swift Creek-Santa Rosa culture, and up to 1000 AD, making it one of the longest continuously occupied sites in Florida.

Native peoples who lived at, and visited, the site that houses the Crystal River Archaeological Park were able to hunt and gather food from the sea (oysters, saltwater fish), land (deer, bear, beaver), and marsh (turtles, freshwater fish) in this area.

Notice the oyster shells under the steps as we ascend Midden A? Image by Diane Bedard

They built six large middens, mostly consisting of oyster shells and bones from fish and animals that provided their food, layered with sand and plant debris. Some of these mounds were used to bury the human remains also, and it is believed that over 7,500 Natives lived here or visited here.

Evidence of trading with other tribes has been found.

The Crystal River Archaeological State Park is a peaceful place to visit, with explanatory displays, demonstrations, and trails to roam. There are several archaeological finds, and activities to help history come alive.

Crystal River Preserve State Park

A view of shell island, taken from one of the historic and nature-viewing tours previously available at the Crystal River Preserve State Park by Friends of Crystal River State Parks. Currently unavailable, but planned to start again, the tour offers another view into ancient civilizations, the opportunity to see native wildlife, and a relaxing boat ride that supports the park and its activities. Image by Diane Bedard

Next to the Archaeological Park is the Crystal River Preserve State Park. The Visitor Center is closed to the public and serves solely as the administrative office for the Crystal River State Parks and the Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserves, both operated through Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Visitors are directed to the Crystal River Archaeological State Park’s museum for park information.

The City of Crystal River has Historic Roots

After the Second Seminole War and the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, twenty-two men filed for land in Crystal River. Several families moved to the area after the Civil War. The turpentine industry brought more people to the area, with William Turner being a noted early resident.

If you’ve ever written with a Dixon pencil, you are using a piece of Crystal River’s history. The cedar mill that made the planks those pencils were made from was located next to Kings Bay in 1882. Those boards were shipped to New Jersey to make Dixon pencils.

Coastal Heritage Museum

You can find out quite a bit about the history of Crystal River at the Coastal Heritage Museum, located at 532 N Citrus Avenue, in Crystal River. There are several displays, a historic jail cell and a magnificent magnolia wood ceiling in this small but worthwhile museum. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Admission is free. A full feature story about the museum is here.

1888 brought the railroad to Crystal River, providing a way for wealthy northerners to come to Crystal River to sport fish and starting the area’s thriving tourism business.

The first railroad depot in Crystal River was constructed soon after the first line was completed to Dunnellon in 1887. In 1900, it burned down and this one was constructed to replace it around 1901-1902. The Crystal River Lions Club leased the building in 1991 and maintains it.

During excavations for the Florida Nuclear Power Plant in 1969, scientists discovered rhinoceros and mastodon bones, as well as the shells of an extremely large armadillo and a huge land tortoise.

The power plant was completed and licensed to operate in December 1976, and operated safely for 33 years until shutdown in September 2009. It was the third plant built as part of the 4,700-acre River Energy Complex (CREC) that includes four fossil fuel power plants.

In 2009, the Crystal River nuclear plant was shut down for “routine maintenance.” During the maintenance, the reactor was cracked and determined to be inoperable. In 2014, the plant was closed.

The Plantation on Crystal River

The Plantation Inn was originally built in 1962 and is a magnificent place to get away to with onsite golf courses, restaurant, bar, pool, fishing, scalloping and manatee tours, meeting rooms, and more. Image courtesy of The Plantation on Crystal River.

The Plantation Inn and Golf Resort was built in 1962 along the banks of the pristine Crystal River. In 1975, W.W. Caruth Jr. purchased the property, impressed with its beautiful natural setting and Old South charm. Today, this beautiful resort offers fine dining, manatee and scalloping tours, fishing charters, a riverside pool area, three golf courses and on-site spa. It has plenty of history in the area and is a premier place for getting away on the Nature Coast.

Shopping and Dining in Crystal River’s Historic District

In 2015, Crystal River became a Main Street community. The downtown area has many repurposed historic homes that now house shops, restaurants, galleries, and service businesses. The area near Citrus Avenue and US 19 is home to Heritage Village, which encompasses the Eubanks Edwards House (c.1900) and several early rental cottages.

The historic shopping district in Crystal River is a fun way to spend the afternoon, with everything from art galleries to tea houses available. The small businesses are housed in historic homes and cottages.

650 Tea Bar offers a wonderful respite where one can “belly up to the bar” and try any one of 65 loose leaf teas, as well as an accompaniment of pastry or meal in the same shopping district. Next door, Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters offers freshly roasted coffee and coffee drinks, as well as salads, sandwiches, and pastries created by national award-winning chef, James Cook.

Within these historic structures are art galleries, outdoor recreation tour operators, kitschy, nature, clothing and beauty shops – and more. Feel the history and enjoy the service that these committed retailers offer their guests with a visit to downtown Crystal River’s historic shopping district.

Be sure to Schedule your Manatee Tour

The manatees are curious, gentle leviathans that came over to check out my daughter soon after she went into the water. Image by Diane Bedard.

Over the years, Crystal River has become most well-known for its manatee tours. Citrus County is the only place one can swim in the water with manatees legally. There is a myriad of tour operators that provide complete packages for this amazing encounter. Some of our favorites can be found here.

Crystal River is known for its manatee tours. Citrus County is the only place you can get in the water with a manatee legally. Three Sisters Springs is surrounded by a boardwalk area where visitors can passively observe these magnificent creatures.

Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River is one of the most beautiful places to see manatees and it was saved from development in 2010 and became part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Boardwalks have been built around the Springs and now you can visit daily 8:30-4:30 for a fee. Trolley tours take visitors from the boardwalk area to downtown Crystal River.

Save Crystal River, Citizens, Businesses and Sea & Shoreline Work to Clean Up Kings Bay for all

In 2012, a concerned group of local citizens banded together to save Crystal River’s aquatic environment, restoring it to its former beauty.

The system had to reverse the effects of excess nutrient buildup, remove blue-green algae known as Lyngbya, and replant native sea grass beds. They formed a 501c3 nonprofit organization called Save Crystal River.

In 2012, Save Crystal River appealed to their Florida legislators for financial backing. Local residents and businesses contributed. Schoolchildren wrote over 7,000 letters, explaining the importance of saving Crystal River. The children’s letters were brought to Tallahassee, along with Lygbya samples.

In 2015, the first 3.5 acres of area canals were cleaned, eelgrass was planted and maintained through Sea & Shoreline, an aquatic environmental company whose system was chosen for the project.

In 5th grade, Crystal River students plant the eelgrass they’ve grown in King’s Bay as part of the community’s efforts to restore and maintain their beautiful aquatic environment. Image courtesy of Sea and Shoreline.

The Manatee and Eco Tour Operators Association (META) took a while to warm up to the idea, but soon joined the community’s mission to clean King’s Bay and its area canals. You can read more about this project in our feature story here.

Today, the organization has been instrumental in having over 52 acres of Crystal River’s aquatic habitat cleaned and replanted with healthy eelgrass. The goal is to get 92.4 acres restored by 2023, which is the City of Crystal River’s 100th anniversary and you can help by donating here.



CYNDIA12 says

I just purchase a house near Crystal River and it is a wonderful place to live. Thanks

Rmermaid says

Curious as to what the source is for claiming this is the only place you can legally swim with/get in the water with manatees? It’s a commonly repeated untrue statement to promote tourism, but simply untrue.

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