Family trips to Orlando tend to be crammed full of amusement parks, Mickey Mouse ears, and Shamu splashes. It’s so exhausting. Physically, you’re tired of the heat and walking (and whining?). Emotionally, it’s so much overstimulation with songs and spinning lights and dashing from place to place – just me?
My solution? Plan a break midweek. Sit in nature. Go at a slow pace. Ground yourself and hear nothing but the sounds of nature. Not to mention, the kids will be so tired that there will be naps in the back of the car on the way back to Orlando!
With a one-and-a-half hour drive toward the west coast town of Homosassa, Florida, your family could soon be coasting through the Crystal River area experiencing a whole different type of adventure. It truly is the ideal day trip.
When people speak of the beauty of Crystal River, they are referring to this whole area which is known for its river adventures, pristine nature, and manatees. Crystal River is a town on the west coast of Florida along the Gulf of Mexico. With only a few boat launches in the area and laws protecting the water, most of the area is only accessible by boat.
The Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, also known as “the Chaz”, is located fifteen miles south of Crystal River with saltwater bays, estuaries, and hardwood swamps. With clear water fed by several springs, the Chassahowitzka River averages only about four feet deep making it an easy paddling experience for even the most novice kayakers.
With minimal research, our family signed up for a kayak trip to “the Crack” with the Crystal River Kayak Company. This excursion had the kayaks available that our family of six needed, and we wanted nature. I didn’t know what to expect other than some time on the water in some kayaks. But that surprise at the end of our trip? The Crack was the highlight we were not expecting!
After about half an hour kayaking down the Chassahowitzka River, the waterway gets narrower and shallower. Along the way, you will be treated to shorebirds and possible otters before you find yourself kayaking through tall grasses. Eventually, you have to park your boats and take a little hike through the water.
The Crack is a 30-foot long spring that bubbles up through a crack in the floor of the “the Chaz”. Be the fun mom and don’t tell your kids what’s coming. Just tell them there will be a short walk. Let the cannonballs from the rope swing and the swimming area to explore add fun-mom points to your record.
When selecting a tour option, I’m always going to look for one specifically labeled “ecotour”. This trip was our third ecotour in the last several years, and though they have all been different, the similarities have me ever looking for more.
For animal lovers (and homeschoolers!), ecotour means that it is this is guaranteed to be an amazing learning opportunity as well. This is not just a guide leading you through the water on your kayak. This is an excursion led by a fellow nature-lover who will share their knowledge and passion for the area with your family. These are people who know the area well, know where the otters like to play, know how many manatees were recently seen, and know how to pass their love of nature on to your kids.
It’s after these trips when I once again change my hope for my kids from “good education” to “being like these awesome adults who passionately love what they do.”
How to raise awesome adults? Show them adults who are loving their life. The guide we had on this Crystal River Ecotour showed us his favorite place where he kayaks even on his days off and passed his passion on to my kids.
This area is nature as it can only be seen from the water. As the world’s manatee capital, it is a protected habitat and natural reserve. Attracted to the constant temperature of the warmer 72 degree springs, these West Indian manatees move into this river as the water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico drops.
Do yourself a favor and go in earlier spring – maybe you’ll be able to even swim with these gentle animals depending on the trip you book. When we were there in early May, it was the end of manatee season, and we only managed to see a few. If your kids have never had the pleasure of encountering a manatee, read over this information to learn about manatees and to know how to interact.
Expect also plenty of opportunities for birdwatching and a possible otter or wild hog. There have occasionally been a few sharks or alligator sightings, but these are rare occurrences.
- When reserving a kayak on these type of trips, you will usually have a one or two person kayak option. Some have requirements for kid age, but it really depends on your kid. How strong a kayaker is your child? How long do you think they will stick with it? If you have a smaller kid or a kid with low stamina, put them in the kayak with you. Not to mention, sharing a kayak is often the cheaper route if you compare the prices on their website.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. On this trip specifically, we needed to be prepared for hiking through the stream so watershoes or sandals were required. My crazy, nature kids just went barefoot without difficulty.
- Learn proper technique. It is inevitable that I give myself a blister every time we kayak because I naturally hold the paddle weirdly. Prevent this and help yourself out by having the guide show you the best way to hold it. Not to mention, how best to show the kids that it’s okay to ask for help from an expert! This is not a pride issue but an amazing learning opportunity.
- No matter how you determine to not get wet, it is inevitable. Your legs will get dribbles with each paddle and maybe even your seat. While you don’t have to wear your swimsuit, this is a time with a sunshirt and fast dry pants sure will come in handy. If you’re heading to the Crack, a swimsuit might be a good idea because you will all be soaked. I still wouldn’t mess with bringing a towel though – leave those in the car. —-
- Don’t forget to grab your sunscreen, mosquito repellent, water bottles, sunhat, and maybe a few snacks. No matter how careful you are, one can never be too cautious with your electronics, and you know you’ll have your phone to take pictures. If you’ve never tried one of these waterproof bags, they kept my phone dry even while snorkeling with sharks at SeaWorld. At least, put it in a ziploc bag. Or just play it safe and don’t take anything you might not want to fall in the water!
- Go ahead and pack an extra outfit in the car for each person. You will all be much happier putting on dry clothes in the bathhouse at the parking lot than sitting through possible traffic on the way back into Orlando. If the air container in the car is blowing the humidity out, they will be cold – and whiny.
- Make sure you leave a picnic, extra food, and extra water in the car. Kayaking is tiring.
The real answer? Why not? Crystal River Kayak Co. has several different kayak and diving trips available through this tour company. Check them out.
“It’s so expensive.” It’s not cheap. But it’s worth it. Disney isn’t cheap either.
You could always rent boats from the Chassahowitzka River Campground or bring your own kayak to the area, but I know that some of our family’s best excursions have been those with a guide. They know the area. Let them show it to you fully. Not to mention, they’ll take the kayaks there, unload them in the water, and help you get going. That’s worth it to me.
- It is possible that some of these trips will not be available year-round for manatee safety. Contact the company and plan accordingly. I have confidence that whichever trip you take, they will all be an amazing day to remember.
- Remind your children of the safety required, but do so in a way that doesn’t freak them out. As a person who doesn’t enjoy being out on the water a ton, the last thing I want to do is pass that hesitation on to my children. Learn how to discuss the need for listening and life jacket wearing without becoming a doomsday predictor. The key? Listen to the guide and remember you are not the boss – not matter how old you are.
- I would definitely plan this trip during the week and when school is in session if possible. The end of our kayak trip took us briefly to Three Sisters Spring which is the partying zone of the area. There were many party boats pulled in with partiers consuming alcohol and blasting loud music. We couldn’t really experience these springs because of the crowds. This would have been a great area to explore if it weren’t for all the people.