Many of our closest experiences with a Florida spring are drinking from a bottle of water, but Florida’s crystal-clear spring system, in the middle of our state, offers much more. Historic Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Park is located inland from the Gulf at 4150 S. Suncoast Blvd. in Homosassa, just south of Crystal River and north of Spring Hill. Given its name by the Seminole tribe, meaning ‘pepper is there,’ Homosassa Park is home to a beautiful 1-mile, largely shaded walking trail through a uniquely Florida-centric wildlife preserve.

Open since the early 1900s, Homosassa Springs State Park is a delightfully pristine, uncrowded alternative to the overcrowded attractions in nearby Orlando and Tampa. Along the elevated boardwalk and walking trail (perfect for strollers), you will meet Lu, a 6,000-pound, 63-year-old hippopotamus who was granted honorary Florida citizenship by former Governor Lawton Chiles. You will also meet Jester and Rose, endangered red wolves who are part of the park’s successful species survival plan. Our favorite was the regal and magnificent Florida panther, elusive and rare in the wild. Impressive native raptors, like owls, hawks and bald eagles, are additional stops on your stroll. There is even a reptile house for the snake lover in your family.

All the wildlife you will enjoy at Homosassa Springs State Park are unable to live in the wild for a variety of reasons and so live their lives well cared for as Florida wildlife ambassadors. Check out the Manatee Care Center, a hospital for the gentle giants of Florida’s waterways that arrive sick and injured and are lovingly nursed back to health by experts. Watch the manatees face-to-face at their aqua salad bar from the unique and before-its-time underwater observatory. Splurge an extra $3 ($2 for kids) on a boat tour down Pepper Creek with knowledgeable boat captains who will educate you and your party on the history of the springs and the park. End your stay at the air-conditioned cafe with sandwiches, popcorn and snacks — and try the frozen fruit smoothies and freshly popped popcorn, perfect on a hot Florida day.

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