Crystal River & Rainbow River, Florida. River Tubing, Boating and Snorkeling in Manatee Country

GUEST ARTICLE: We started our first USA roadtrip by flying into Fort Lauderdale and picking up our rental wheels from there. At the end of our 7-day journey we were going to find ourselves just over 1600kms north in Washington, D.C.

All of our hotels had been pre-booked way in advance since we knew how popular U.S. destinations can get during their summer season. We really lucked out on our car rental and managed to book a full-size car for only US$250! Seemed pretty unreal but I guess they must have been short on cars in D.C., in any case we weren’t about to argue!

Our first destination was to a little town about 7 hours away called Crystal River. On one of our previous trips we had met some people who highly recommended this special spot. It’s known for the magnificent spring fed Kings Bay where hundreds of Manatees like to congregate during the winter months when their summer hang in the Gulf of Mexico cools.

Being the end of June we knew we weren’t going to be swimming amongst many manatees but we were hoping to see at least a few stragglers who might have stayed behind.

Manatee Warning sign

The drive was pretty nice and we passed Disney World on our way. That’s another one on the ‘to do list, ’oh well one of these days! Unfortunately we didn’t have the time and we had to make it to Crystal River before nightfall (thank goodness once again for our car navigator!)

Once in Crystal River we checked ourselves into the Best Western. We picked this hotel because it was situated right next to Kings Bay and the boat rental place was right next door. The rooms were pretty basic but nice enough for the price and convenience.

The next morning we awoke to a spectacular summer’s day. With wetsuits and snorkels in hand we eagerly headed off to pick up our boat rental which just happened to be in the building adjacent to the hotel, another plus! After a short manatee safety briefing we boarded our pontoon and headed out onto Kings Bay. We had seen plenty of advertisements for tour group outings but as you know we like to do our own thing and hiring our own boat was ideal.

The weather was beautifully warm and the sun sparkled off the dark waters as we slowly cruised the bay. Gorgeous homes flanked the shores most sporting the most flamboyant outside screened areas we’ve ever seen. We hadn’t experienced any bugs since we’d arrived and I hoped we wouldn’t have to deal with any that warranted such elaborate structures. Thankfully we didn’t!

The boat rental place had given us a map and heads up on the manatee hot spots so we leisurely made our way around to all of them. Along the way we passed a few tour groups all crammed into boats not too dissimilar to ours.

We were so glad we went against the grain and went out on our own. To have the freedom to do and go wherever we wanted was heaps better and there was hardly any difference in price. Even if you’re not that familiar with boats this one was super easy to navigate, besides there’s not too much that can go wrong with the strict ‘Idle Speed’ only limits.

Unfortunately we didn’t spot any manatees on the massive bay so we headed inland along some quaint canals that wove throughout communities and pretty bushland. Not too far in we had some help from a local onshore.

They pointed us to a spot where some bubbles began to surface, which meant manatee. We anchored our boat and entered the water as quickly and calmly as we could and made our way to the source.

The water was pretty murky but we were able to get our first quick glimpse of a manatee. Unfortunately the big fella who resembled that of a big smooth dark boulder didn’t hang around for too long and with one swift move of his massive broad tail he was out of there.

With no more sightings we swam into one of the nearby springs called Three Sisters Springs. The water there had by far the best visibility we have ever encountered. Giant gnarly trees surrounded the area and their massive roots permeated the water spreading out in different directions covering the pale soft silt floor of the spring.

A few different types of little fish swam about along with some awesome looking turtles with sharp bills and prehistoric looking scaly legs and clawed feet. The Trheee Sisters Spring area was really magical. It was so beautifully calm and we could only imagine just how much more spectacular it must be when it’s filled with manatees.

Kayaking ad Snorkelling in Crystal River

So unfortunately we only had one manatee encounter but we anticipated as much knowing it wasn’t the season for them. But we did have a fantastic boat ride and a wonderful snorkel. We will definitely have to come back again but during the winter months when the manatees come back.

The next day we went to a small town not too far away called Dunnellon. We had heard there was some excellent river tubing to be had down the crystal clear waters of Rainbow River. It was a scorching hot summers day and we couldn’t have picked a better way to spend it.

Initially we tried to book with a private tubing company but they were full. This actually turned out to be a good thing for us because we were pointed in the direction of the Rainbow Springs State Park. It was actually cheaper to rent tubes at this location ($10each) and we were dropped off a lot further up river, which meant more tubing time!

The river is always a constant 23C and after riding in a hot tram to our drop off spot it was pure pleasure once we dipped our toes in. We brought our snorkels for this trip just in case there was anything to see and were glad we did!

We lazily floated down the river amongst other happy day-trippers while soaking up the sun. When it got too hot we put on our snorkels and free-floated down. The water was beautifully clear and it was like being in another world. It felt like we were flying as we swiftly drifted over tall river grasses and submerged dead logs. We even got a chance to see a river otter scooting around.

It took us almost 2 hours to do the float. That was such a fun experience I was sad that it was too late in the day to go a second round. The tubes were good but really we would have been just as content just floating down with a snorkel. (TIP – Next time we do it we will choose a weekday out of school holidays.)

We loved our first roadie stop. There are heaps of other activities to do in the surrounding areas and we only wished we had more time to explore. We’ll most certainly have to return to these beautiful parts – it was definitely worth the visit. Next time I’ll have to bring a backup waterproof camera, unfortunately mine got waterlogged on this trip. Oh well, at least we have the memories!

Machalle Gower’s Crystal River & Rainbow River, Florida Photo Gallery

This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking roads less traveled!

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