As we headed toward the panhandle, there were 3 stops along Florida's Nature Coast that we really wanted to see. Luckily, they are all pretty close to each other so we planned our route to stop at each one where we got to a experience a slightly different side of Florida.
Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River
First up on our list and what I was most excited about was Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River. While we couldn’t find an open RV site in Crystal River, (a common problem we have experienced in FL in January...I would complain about all the snowbirds but pot calling kettle and all that) we managed to get a spot at B’s Marina and Campground in Yankeetown, about 30 minutes away. B’s is a strange little place. The owners are very nice, the bathrooms are updated, clean, private and what almost brought us to tears (happy tears) was the BLAZING fast WiFi, seriously it's hands down the best internet we have had this trip. The sites are close together, there is absolutely nothing to do in Yankeetown, and our neighbors were kinda rowdy but it was available and we’d sacrifice a lot for good internet.
Anyway, we were very excited to add Manatees to our list of animals we've snorkeled with: Great White Sharks in South Africa ( we were in a cage off a boat and to be honest it was slightly terrifying), Dolpins in the Keys, Stingrays in the Caribbean.
So, after some research on different outfitters in the area, we decided to book a snorkel tour with Riverventures. They offer tours in the mornings starting at dawn through 1015 a.m. and again in the evening. Because of the cold snap we were experiencing, we decided to go with 915 tour, hoping it would be slightly more bearable in the water. The 915 was better than the 6am (when it was in the 30's), but it was still only in the 40’s, which generally does not encourage me to jump in the water. But when in Crystal River and all. The staff also told us that the colder temperatures would make our experience better as manatees are more likely to congregate and be active in the springs when it’s cooler out, there would be less people out braving the chilly weather and better news, the water is always between 72-74. It felt better in the water than it did on the boat.
The winter is the best time of the year to go snorkeling because a large population of manatees all come back to the springs for protection and warmth. During other seasons you might be able to catch one or two, but are much more likely to see more of them in colder temperatures.
After a really quick boat ride, we hopped into the water and saw a couple of manatees snoozing at the bottom of the spring. It was a good first introduction, because they really are quite large and it takes a few minute to get used to. They come up for air every so often and swam past us a couple times looking for a comfier place to nap. We hung out with 4 of them for a bit hoping they would wake up but it seemed they were more interested in sleep so we moved on to a different spot.
The second area had a bunch of Manatees who were much more active, they were eating, swimming around, spinning onto their backs and several came up to us to say hi. These ones were for some reason also MUCH larger than the first group. Manatees average about 1500+ lbs and can be bigger. We saw a female who was super pregnant, she was pretty intimidating because of her size. They are so sweet, friendly and gentle but let me tell you it’s kinda hard not to panic a bit when they swim right at you to you to say hello. They are pretty funny looking but they have what I think is a sweet puppy dog face. Not sure why they are called sea cows, they remind me much more of Elephants.
We really enjoyed our time swimming with these guys and thought Riverventures was great. The staff really friendly and clearly enjoy what they do. The wetsuits, snorkels and masks they provided were clean and in great condition. The tour cost $64 a person. We have already recommended this experience to a few people we know are passing through the area. The only thing I will say is we were told that the tours at dawn have the most active and interactive manatees and there are rarely any other people out in the water so it’s very quiet. So, if the temperature isn’t too chilly, waking up earlier is something I would consider.
Rainbow Springs State Park
This state park was a recommendation and we tried to reserve a campsite there, but it is a very popular camping spot. After exploring it, we can understand why. We spent an afternoon there with our dogs. It’s $2 a person to get in and all the trails are dog friendly (but they aren’t allowed on the docks or in the water). We first took a walk around the gardens, stopping at the waterfalls and then took the Yellow hiking trail which is a short 1.75 mile loop. There are a couple other trails as well but nothing over 2 miles. Kevin was disappointed that we didn’t come across any bears on our walk through the woods but I was relieved. It was a nice walk but nothing special to see.
The beauty and standout in the park is definitely the head spring, which is roped off with a dock and you can jump right in for a swim. The water is always about 72 degrees. You can also rent a kayak/canoe, snorkel or go tubing down the river. We had planned to come back another day so we asked about pricing for the kayaks which are $22 an hour. Unfortunately we weren’t in the area long enough and the weather didn’t cooperate so we couldn’t go back.
If you can get a campsite there, I would definitely jump at the opportunity, it’s quite beautiful and very different from some of the other Fl state parks we have stayed in.
Devil’s Den Prehistoric Spring
Devil’s Den is in Williston Florida. It is essentially a huge sinkhole that is fed by underground springs. It is a private scuba diving training facility but you can also go into the Den to snorkel. We were also happy to find out that they have a small campground area for RVs with full hookups for very reasonable rates.
Devil’s Den is kinda in the middle of nowhere, so besides the Den, there is not much around to do (there is a Botanical Garden next door that we went to, but we were disappointed as the whole lower level was flooded out and there was nothing really to see. We both felt it was a waste of money) Their campground is on the smaller side, so it wasn’t packed with RV’s which was nice and we had a little more room outdoors than we normally do at an RV park. But there was no bathhouse/showers near the RV’s and our internet (their Wifi and our own Verizon JetPack)/cell reception (T-Mobile) was really lousy so it had its pros and cons.
We stayed Thurs-Mon and we decided to snorkel on Friday. It is cheaper M-F than it is on the weekends. It is $15 per person to snorkel and an additional $10 per person if you are renting a snorkel, mask and fins. On Sat & Sun its $20 per person to snorkel and as we saw, the weekends are very crowded.
The experience of snorkeling is very strange (in a good way). There is normal ground that you are walking on in the main park area and then there is just a hole in the ground with a staircase leading down into the cavern, it really looks so out of place. We went down at about 230 p.m. and for a while we were the only ones down there, which was kinda eerie. It is about 50 feet down normally but there was about an extra 7 or so feet of water down there because of all the rain so even the main platform and stairs were all underwater. It’s about 72 degrees which is pretty chilly in a cold dark cavern without a wet suit. You just have to psych yourself up, jump in and let your body adjust.
Once you are in the water, you can see all these cool shapes and formations that the cavern walls and floors have and how it mushrooms out at the bottom. The main opening (not where the staircase is but deeper in) is beautifully draped with ferns and lets some rays of sunshine in which helps as it is pretty dark down there. I wouldn’t say it is a very exciting place to snorkel, besides a couple of fish and one turtle, there wasn’t really any marine life or anything to see and we enjoyed just swimming around exploring with our snorkels off more. Unfortunately we were having some technical issues with our GoPro so we didn’t get great photos. Overall, Devils Den is a unique and in a way other worldly place to take a swim, so it’s worth checking out if you are in the area.
We had a fun and adventure filled few days exploring some unique places on the Nature Coast. All 3 of these places are within an hour of each other and definitely worth a detour if you are passing through.
By Ashley Quiambao