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