Hiking Crystal Cove Trail on Florida’s Nature Coast
“The trees closed in, branches crisscrossing above to form an endless natural tunnel. I stepped into the cave-like path, leaving behind the bright greenery and cheery sun.
I almost stumbled over the gnarled roots protruding from the rich, dark soil. They stretched across the trail like a witch’s knobby fingers reaching out to cast a spell from a Grimm’s Brothers fairytale. A natural obstacle course. Limestone boulders lay abandoned among the cypress trees, piled like a foreboding fortress wall, the dark cracks and crevices between them habitats for wild things.
The air shifted, becoming cooler and that’s when I spotted it, fresh in the mud…”
An Accidental Hike on Crystal Cove Trail
I didn’t mean to hike the trail. I planned to swing into the Mullet Hole parking area at the Crystal River Preserve State Park on Florida’s Nature Coast, intending to take a photo of the trailhead and kayak launch. Hiking was the furthest thing from my thoughts. I only had a few hours before school ended. There wasn’t time for a little stroll, let alone a 1.7-mile hike.
As I approached the Crystal Cove Trail kiosk, the glint of something shiny through the trees caught my eyes. Water! The man-made channel that ran from the Mullet Hole fishing area to Crystal River was on the left side of the trailhead. But the body of glittering water in the trees was something else.
Limestone Quarry Lake
I glanced down at my phone. Okay. There was time. So, I let the glistening water draw me like a bass to a shiner, and I followed the path through the trees down to the lake, a former limestone quarry now filled with water. The perfect fishing hole.
A short but well-worn trail led down to the water’s edge. The water looked clear in the limestone shallows but dropped off into murky depths. They estimated a similar limestone pit on Power Line Road to be 14-24 feet in depth. This lake was quiet, and I wondered what gators lurked beneath. Perhaps it wasn’t so wise to be standing like live bait, alone on the water’s edge? (I should have never watched Lake Placid).
I looked at the time again then back to the trail. The path led alongside the limestone quarry lake and towards a line of cypress trees. The blue skies and bright sun encouraged me forward. I hiked between the channel and the lake. On one side, a group of kayakers paddled in the emerald green channel waters, on the other, an inviting picnic table afforded a view of the lake. Ahh… maybe a few more yards. But that was it. There was no way I was doing the whole trail today.
Crossroads and Tidal Marshes
Once past the lake, the scenery changed. A wooded embankment rose to the right, blocking out the view of the canal. I rounded a corner where a wooden bench marked a fork in the trail. I should have stopped there, but both trails looked like fairy-tale lanes leading through a canopy of tall trees. Sunlight filtered through, playing over the yellowing leaves with a golden light. Maybe just a few more steps.
I turned left. The tree-lined trail was wide enough for a car- or horse and buggy. Leaves crunched beneath my feet. The ditch along the left side of the trail, dark and dank with thick mud, held telltale signs of a previous rain. On the right, an endless wetland prairie stretched. Palm trees rose from the wire grasses. Closer to the path, twisted scrub oaks, their crooks and elbows filled with air plants, formed a natural boundary between the marsh and trail.
The tidal marshes of the preserve play an essential role in the ecosystem, providing not only food, water, and shelter to animals and plant life, but also act as a natural filtration system, cleaning the water as it travels through the wetlands.
The perfect location to turn back would have been the second bench, until I spotted the sign. “River Overlook”, the sign read, with an arrow. What were a few more steps for a river view? So, I followed the arrow down a narrower track to the water.
This footpath did not stop at the initial fishing spot- it meandered alongside the canal, past moss-covered limestone rocks, around scrub palms- teasing with scenic water views. Then it rejoined the main trail and a third bench.
Inside the Tree Tunnel
Perhaps it was a good time to end this adventure? The trail ahead led deep into the forest, the canopy bowing over to form a tunnel of trees. Maybe a little longer… one more picture.
I entered the forest, with shady vistas of glistening green water through the cypress trees. There was not another soul around. The canopy grew thicker, blotting out the sun, and the earth became rich, dark, and muddy. Huge tree roots stretched across the path like gnarled wizard’s fingers. I had to watch my step or risk a fall.
Alongside the trail, a wall of huge limestone boulders rose among the trees, abandoned remnants of when developers dug out the channel to Crystal River, hoping to construct a neighborhood of waterfront homes. The project dissolved and the state park took over management of the land in 2004, returning it back to nature.
The temperature dipped, and I felt a chill over me. That’s when I saw it- in the mud between two roots was a huge animal track- a fresh paw print with sharp claws. Bear? Panther? Or a fluffy Labrador on a family hike? I scanned the crevices between the boulders, as if expecting to see a wild animal ready to launch at me. There wasn’t.
Up ahead, I saw the light at the end of the tree tunnel. I picked up my pace. A little grassy meadow at the tip of a peninsula marked the trail’s end. The final bench looked out over a wide-open vista view of the estuary, as the canal met the river in the salt marsh. Wiregrass swayed in the afternoon breeze and hammocks of scrub palms rose in the distance to frame the border to the blue sky.
It was time to turn back. The accidental hike had become a living science lesson of the unique ecological diversity found on the Crystal Cove Trail in Crystal River Preserve State Park on Florida’s Nature Coast.
About Those Animal Tracks
Although bears are on the radar in the region, their paw prints are large with stubby heels. There are only 130-230 panthers left in Florida and they mainly inhabit rural areas of southwest Florida. Also, panthers have retractable claws and don’t leave claw imprints with their paw print. Canines, however, leave claw marks with their paw print. So, the tracks were probably a coyote or pet dog.
About Crystal River Preserve State Park
Crystal River Preserve State Park covers 27,500 acres, including 10 miles of coastline with parcels of land from Yankeetown to Homosassa. Contact number: 352-795-3817.
Crystal Cove Trail is located at 3266 N. Sailboat Avenue in Crystal River, Florida 34428. This is a fee free state park.
The Crystal Cove Trailheads are at the Mullet Hole parking area and also farther up on Sailboat Avenue (limited parking).
The kayak launch at Mullet Hole is currently closed. There is a paddle launch dock by the ranger station at the end of Sailboat Avenue.