Wonders of the Nature Coast

Florida’s Adventure Coast

North of Tampa Bay lies a largely untamed coast, where grassy marshes and crystal-clear water are more common than sandy beaches. Known as the Nature Coast, this section of Florida extends from Pasco County up to Wakulla County in the Panhandle. Along the Nature Coast, wildlife is abundant, and the adventures are endless. Through my internship with the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation, I have had the privilege to explore and photograph many of the ecological wonders along the coast’s southern half.

Weeki Wachee

The Nature Coast corridor starts at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, home to the deepest freshwater cave in the US. They are known for their mermaid shows and spring-fed waterpark, which draws large crowds during the hot summers. But the real beauty can be found on the ranger-led riverboat ride or self-guided kayak trip down the Weeki Wachee River. Manatees flock to the river in the winter to munch on the eelgrass and dolphins can be found here year-round. Exotic peacocks roam the park and there are opportunities for encounters with captive animals in an educational setting. It may not be the wildest location on the list but is one of the best places to bring the family to give them a taste of what the Nature Coast is all about.

Chassahowitzka River

Traveling north along the Nature Coast corridor is my favorite spot, the “Chaz” as it’s called locally. At the head of the Chaz is the Seven Sisters Springs, a small, interconnected cave system where freshwater can be seen bubbling up to the surface. Along the Chaz, there are also many offshoots you can kayak down to see wildlife roaming in the untamed wilderness. My most memorable encounter on the Chaz was watching a muddy raccoon search for a shellfish snack along the riverbank.

Homosassa River

North of the Chaz lies the Homosassa River and its tributaries, which give visitors a genuine old Florida feel. Since it is so wild, it’s a great place to fish, boat, or kayak. If you want to see Manatees during the winter, the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is one of your best options. While here you can view captive animals that can no longer survive in the wild, which act as ambassadors for our native wildlife. It is also one of the only places you’re guaranteed to see our state animal and mascot of the corridor, the endangered Florida Panther.

Crystal River Preserve

Further up the Nature Coast is the 27,000-acre Crystal River Preserve. From atop the ancient Indian mounds at Crystal River Archaeological State Park, you can get a stunning view of the Crystal River Estuary. At the head of the river is Three Sisters Springs, another manatee hotspot and one of the only places where you can swim alongside these gentle giants. If you’re up for a challenge, try hiking the 7-mile loop which takes you alongside the estuary and through various coastal habitats.

Rainbow River Springs

My last stop along the Nature Coast corridor is more inland at the enchanting Rainbow River Springs. Here you can witness the full beauty of one of the state’s largest first-magnitude springs, which outputs 500 million gallons of freshwater a day. If paddling is not your thing, you can float downstream on a relaxing tube ride or swim in the serene headsprings. My most magical encounter here was seeing a family of otters dive into the lush underwater forest and return to the surface with food. To see more of the Rainbow River corridor our 2021 documentary “Home Waters” features an expedition from the headsprings down the river to its eventual connection to the Gulf of Mexico.

Critical Connections

Aside from being a picturesque destination, Rainbow River is also home to one of the corridor’s most critical connections. The land north of the state park houses a bottleneck, an area only a 1/2 mile wide in Dunnellon that connects the Ocala National Forest to the rest of the Nature Coast. If we lose these critical connections to development, then wildlife loses the ability to move freely. In some of my upcoming photo essays, I will further explore these critical connections and bottlenecks to show why they are so important, and the challenges animals may face if they disappear.

Get Out and Paddle

Each location within this section of the Florida Wildlife Corridor is worth spending several days or even weeks exploring. Much of it is permanently protected thanks to our Florida State Parks and the Florida Forever Program, but there are still gaps that can further divide our already fragmented land. Our springs and estuaries also face danger from encroaching development, overuse of fertilizers, and waste pollution. I urge you to get out and experience the magic of the Nature Coast while treating it with the respect it deserves. You might just fall in love with it like I did!

Collage by Ethan Coyle and Anne Gibson

Ethan Coyle Photography Intern
Ethan is a senior at the University of South Florida studying Advertising and Environmental Science. Born and raised in Lakeland, Florida, he has spent most of his time outdoors leading him to develop a passion for nature photography. Most recently, he spent his spring break exploring the Everglades after being inspired by the “Path of the Panther” documentary. He is a true lover of old Florida and hopes to use his visual creativity to spark interest in preserving our state’s beautiful landscapes.