A place for “Real Florida” fun – Nature Coast, FL

We cut short our stay in Naples, leaving behind that big snowbird city with its commercial developments and traffic noise.  We were eager to re-visit the “Nature Coast” along the inside curve of the state’s panhandle, remembering how much we’d enjoyed this area on our last visit five years ago.  We had reservations at Crystal River and Perry, plus two nights we snagged at Hillsborough River State Park.  This part of Florida is known for being a nature lover’s paradise where folks can experience “the real Florida” in laid-back fashion.  We’re all over that!

This is a part of Florida that we really like!

Hillsborough State Park

I was able to grab the last campsite here at the end of January.  Right after setting up our site we sat outside and heaved a collective sigh of contentment as we took in the wonderful atmosphere:

Ahh, back to nature!

With only one full day to explore the park, we warmed up our legs and got some steps in.  Beginning from our site, we combined the Barnyard and Seminole trails for a 7.2-mile loop, gaining a whopping 95′ of elevation.  This was a foray through old-growth forest, cypress swamps and along river rapids with great views of a classic Florida waterway:

Hillsborough River is known for its rapids and dark tannin-rich waters
Look, I can reach! – A hurricane-surviving hanging bridge built in the 1930s by the CCC boys.  The newer bridge upriver didn’t survive a recent storm 😦
This gnarly old oak tree was amazing!
Mushroom-like conks provide color to their green surroundings

Over halfway around the 3+ mile Seminole trail, we had to decide whether to turn back or try to plod through the shallow, muddy swamp waters.  Looking back, we definitely should have turned around as large sections of the trail had been covered by heavy rains.  But hey, why turn back once your shoes and feet are covered with muddy swamp slime?  The trail got worse and worse, but we were laughing as we just waded through the mess.  If we had entered from the other end of the loop we would have hit this almost right away and given up.  Oh well, at least we didn’t run into any snakes or gators as we squished along!

Oh, that’s not too bad…
At first we thought it might just be a short section under water…
…but then things got a bit un-fun 😦

We loved being the only hikers on the trail.  It was a picturesque hike with many cypress trees, live oaks and cabbage palms to enjoy – Old Florida rocks!

Crystal River

Driving backroads through several small towns, we arrived at our next home base at Rock Crusher Canyon RV Resort in Crystal River.  Yes it was a typically huge Florida park, but they pulled it off by offering large wooded sites that we really liked.  This is where we’ll stay if we ever return to this area.  One of Steve’s favorite birdies (cardinals) were everywhere, so that made it even better!

This spacious resort in a wooded setting had lots of nice folks around and was alright with us!

We had our priorities in order, meeting fun folks Jim and Barb shortly after setting up camp.  Three times was a charm after a couple of attempts to meet up with them in Arizona.  Over beer and excellent seafood at The Freezer Tiki Bar, our conversations included common adventures in Alaska and other places, and news about their new digs in South Dakota.  Jim and Barb are super-cool-down-to-earth people that we’d love to catch up with again down the road.

We think the Crystal River area in Citrus County is the place to be while in the “real Florida”.  It’s where we experienced mother nature’s theme park while enjoying amazing seafood and the company of some really nice folks.  Our first foray here was just as good, and you might enjoy my alone time at Homosassa Springs.  This time I dragged Steve along to celebrate my birthday at this happy place, and he really enjoyed it – what a great and unusual state park this is!

The main springs at Homosassa Springs hold an underwater observation facility
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park as viewed from the “Fish Bowl” underwater observatory
I’m in my happy place when I get this close to my favorite bird – the Spoonbill!
Steve had a nice talk with this Wood Stork
A foraging Spoonbill made my day!

If you like water-based activities, Crystal River can do that.  We paddled our kayak from Homosassa Springs via Halls River to see some manatees and enjoy the crystal clear spring-fed river.  Although our previous paddle at Chassahowitzka River had revealed more excitement and animals, this was another fine way to relax for a half-day on the river:

Several manatees loitered in the water, but only a couple of them got close to us
There were several homes along this stretch of river – we wouldn’t mind having a backyard like this!
This Green Heron barely moved a muscle, even as we invaded his space

On another day when Steve went to the fish market to continue loading up our freezer,  I spent time at Three Sisters Springs, one of the most important wintering sites for manatees in all of Florida:

Crystal-clear system of springs viewed from the boardwalk
It takes patience to wait for a gentle giant to appear, its gray-whiskered nose protruding from the water as it exhales – similar to a whale
A snake appeared along the river


After the water-based activities, we turned our attention back to hiking.  With no mountains or hills to climb, we found two dense forest trails to continue our experience of the old Florida – Inglis Island Trail and Flying Eagle Preserve:

At Inglis Island we viewed natural communities that included cypress swamp, pine flatwoods and mixed hardwood hammocks:

We did an easy 6.4-mile loop at Inglis Island Trail
Armadillos were plentiful

At Flying Eagle Preserve we managed a 5.5-mile trek on an easy and quiet trail, with some wildlife along the way:

A little snake on the trail


After eight days in Crystal River, we continued 123 miles north to Perry.  This city is known as “the Forest Capital of the South.”  It’s situated in the midst of immense pine forests where logging and the timber industry are king, both historically and today.  In fact, I visited the only museum in town – the Forest Capital Museum State Park – where I learned a few things about the trees and forest in this area:

For an hour I browsed exhibits that showed the history of the forestry industry in Florida, a detailed look at native long-leaf pines and forest exology.  One display that caught my attention was a carved wood map of Florida with each of the State’s 67 counties constructed of wood native to that area:

Florida map divided into 67 counties made from their native wood

The giant cypress trees we saw at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples are the last stand of commercial-sized cypress left untouched and set aside as a sanctuary for the endangered Wood Stork and American Stork.

Giant Bald Cypress were logged in the early twentieth century

We hiked only one trail in Perry, at Econfina River State Park nestled in the corner of North Florida.  It was a dreary day, but we completed a 7.1-mile meander through Flatwoods, tidal marshes and varieties of oak and Saw Palmetto.  We were warned that this is home to black bear and bobcat, but we didn’t see them or even another human being during our trek – loved it!

Section of trail lined with Saw Palmetto
Blackwater River offered nice reflection photos
An attempt to cross another muddy trail, but we eventually gave up and turned back home for laundry and showers 😦

Not only did we experienced old Florida scenery, but we also satiated ourselves repeatedly with fresh seafood and fresh squeezed orange juice (we were in Citrus County, after all!) while hanging out with the locals:

The beer at Copp Winery/Brewery was so good that we added a second growler to our collection!
Refreshing juice at Ferris Groves
While waiting for our to-go order, the shucker gave us free oysters to sample.  He was a good salesman – we bought a half dozen more!

We had so much fun at the Nature Coast that we both agreed this is a must-do place to check out when in Florida!




  1. Again, absolutely gorgeous pictures! We stayed the the Crystal River area but no where near as nice of site than yours! We’ve experienced those swampy conditions, too! What fun!
    Had we not decided to settle down in Myrtle Beach, we would have been there in the Panhandle. We would have loved to meet you two!

      • We still dream of getting to SW AZ!!! We’ll continue to follow y’all so hopefully we will meet in person-and take a hike together! That’s the hardest thing to give up-but we’re heading to the Smokies for a trip to see family-we’ll keep our hiking skills up!

  2. That is such a cute photo of the manatee nose with the air bubble!! So glad you two are enjoying the “Real Florida.” That’s the Florida I love, too—the oaks dripping with Spanish moss, the beautiful crystal clear springs, the birds, the seafood. Those swampy trails don’t look like fun, though.
    So glad you got to celebrate your birthday with your favorite pink feathered friends! We’ll do a belated happy birthday toast to you this weekend in Apalachicola! :-))

  3. Love the pictures, especially the reflection picture of the Spoonbill. We are in Florida also, but not quite the open space as you two. We are at Daytona 500 camping with a few 1000 of our closest friends. It has been a kick though.

  4. We have 4 nights reserved at Hillsborough, looking forward to it before we encounter the craziness. At least most of our stays at not at mega resorts. Our friends live in Citrus Springs and if the weather is nice we’ll be doing some of the local stuff there, 4 nights on their pad. We agree, Jim and Barb are good people, hope to catch up with them this week.

  5. Although we have enjoyed our stay at Topsail, we need to check out some of the other wonderful State Parks! But, if you’re not a planner, it can be so hard to get a site. I read that Jim & Barb also got to kayak with the manatees….how fun!
    Looking forward to meeting you next month & discovering new places & hikes you guys have done! We are still relative “newbies”!

  6. How fantastic to get that close to the spoonbills and stork … I’m jealous 😁 I’ve never explored that part of FL and it does look enticing. Hopefully, we’ll be able to visit Jim and Barb at their SD property this June.

  7. You two really do it right. Loved your adventures. I’m with you – I’m all about nature, hiking and history/info of the area not so much the big city stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  8. We also love the nature of that area. So cool that you were able to meet up with Jim and Barb. We met them out in the Q 2 years ago. Great pics as always.

  9. Oh, you all are making Florida look not so bad 😀 Your photos pull me in, and I can positively feel the atmosphere, virtually walking along with you. The way you explore it — hiking, kayaking, wildlife — that’s how I would want to see it, too. Someday…someday…
    So jealous you get to see two of our favorite migrating birds, the raven and chickadee. I cannot wait for the collective bird photos and tales to follow! Have a blast!

    • We did enjoy and like this part of FL, uncrowded, less traffic and folks are less harried. Everyone is just having real fun in real Florida 🙂 And yes we enjoyed our time with Raven and Chickadee, reminiscing our first meet up while dining at the same restaurant where we met five years ago.

  10. This post shows the real Florida (aside from the beaches) and I know it’s what you’ve been looking for. Glad you found some peace and quiet there finally. Loved the shots of those crystal clear waters, the manatee’s whiskery nose and that wooden map of Florida. The Rock Crusher RV Park looks like it’s a good combination of place, atmosphere and services.

  11. These areas of Florida we never explored. You were certainly in deep Florida. Great wildlife!! Glad you got to kayak with the manatee again. Such fun. So very glad you finally got to meet up with Jim and Barb. They are so much fun:) Looks like you are having a wonderful time:)

  12. Your timing could not be more perfect. I am deep in the process of making Florida plans for next year and some of these places are new to me. Thanks for the tips on parks and campgrounds. After a couple less than stellar stays in private campgrounds recently, we can’t wait to get back to the real Florida and the real beauty of these gorgeous state parks! Can’t wait to hear more!! Have fun!

    • If you plan to come to the Crystal River area I would recommend Chassahowitzka River campground where we stayed before. And it is just a walk to the kayak launch and paddle along the Chassahowitzka River if paddling is one of your activities. I also recommend the resort where we stayed recently as a home base for all the things you want to do in the area. Overall we liked the Crystal River area 🙂

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