The ‘Springs Coast’ is fun fall oasis

The scenic Chassahowitza River near Homosassa.
The scenic Chassahowitza River near Homosassa. Miami Herald Staff

I Bay scallop season is over in Florida’s Big Bend region, and it’s not cold enough yet for the seasonal herds of hundreds of manatees to gather in the warm, spring-fed waters of Crystal River and Homosassa. But there are still plenty of ways to occupy an outdoors person visiting West Central Florida’s “Springs Coast.”

Besides fishing for redfish, trout and snook in nearshore bays and creeks, you have your choice of a multitude of canoe and kayak routes, as well as one of Florida’s longest paved rail trails for bicycling, in-line skating or hiking.

On a visit to the area this month, I explored the Chassahowitzka River near Homosassa by kayak for the first time. The river flows a little over 51/2 miles from a network of first-magnitude springs that pump more than 65 million gallons of water per day out to the salty Gulf of Mexico. On my two-hour paddle, I explored the scenic Seven Sisters Spring just upstream from the Chassahowitzka River Campground (chassahowitzkaflorida.com), then headed downstream through the namesake national wildlife refuge to a secluded upwelling called “The Crack” for its narrow, linear opening.

On the way, I passed a great blue heron, got scolded by a hawk, encountered numerous leaping mullet, and was warned by a couple of paddlers about a supposedly fierce alligator that hangs out at the creek opening leading to The Crack.

I made a left turn off the main river course, paddled into the small creek and kept a sharp eye out for the gator but never encountered it. As I got further inland, the creek became narrower until it dried up in a clearing in the forest. I beached the kayak and walked a few yards overland into a shallow pond fed by the waters spewing from The Crack.

A man had set up camp on the shoreline, zealously guarded by his dachshund Bella. He said he planned to leave later that day if anyone wanted to take over the campsite.

I waded carefully over to The Crack to have a look but didn’t step into its seemingly bottomless abyss. The waters were so cool, you would shiver if you dunked yourself.

I could easily have kept going all the way out to the Gulf without much effort — propelled by the spring flow coupled with an outgoing tide — and made several side trips to other secluded springs. But not knowing when the tide would start flooding in and whether that current would offset the strong spring flow, I decided to head back to the campground. Just glancing at the rudimentary map of the river, with all its side creeks, little springs and tributaries, I could see it is worthy of a multiday exploration.

About a year ago, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (known locally as Swiftmud) conducted a spring restoration project here that turned up artifacts dating back 10,000 years. Dredged up with the algae, muck and sand were a projectile point from 8,000 B.C., along with fish hooks and gigs fashioned of bone, a nearly 2,000-year-old ceramic bowl, and 19th-century soft drink bottles. People have been living and playing around here for a very long time, and even today, it’s easy to see why.

Happy trail

On the following day, I took a half-day bicycle tour of the Withlacoochee State Trail with Don Causey of Miami and his wife, Carmen. At 46 miles long and mostly flat, this 12-foot-wide paved path is a great way to explore the region’s inland environment, both wild and populated.

Once a stretch of railroad track running from Citrus Springs to just north of Dade City, the trail now hosts bicyclists, skateboarders, hikers, dog-walkers and, on a parallel trail, horseback riders. With limited road intersections, it provides miles of nonstop passage. The trail skirts numerous lakes, forests, parks, sand hills, swamps, pubs, antique shops and art galleries, and it’s free to use. Visitors could spot a wide variety of wildlife — marsh rabbits, alligators, wild turkeys, deer and gopher tortoises, among others.

On our ride from Inverness to Floral City and back (a 14-mile round trip), we noticed numerous small birdhouses dotting the right-of-way. A passing volunteer with the nonprofit support group Rails to Trails of the Withlacoochee said they were built for bluebirds. But we didn’t see any of the residents.

Dubbed the “Friendliest Trail in the Country” by its supporters, the Withlacoochee has hosted the Rails to Trails Bike Ride for the past 20 years. This year, the ride is on Oct.5, so if you go, you’ll have plenty of company. (Visit www.railstotrailsonline.com.)

If you only have a day to explore like we did, a great place to start is at the Inverness trail head, 315 N. Apopka Ave., and head south because this is the shadiest section. If you don’t have a bike, you can rent one right on the trail head at Suncoast Bicycles (www.SunCycleCenter.com).

Early fall is a great time for an intramodal, recreation vacation in a place you might never have visited before.

For lodging, food and other information about the Springs Coast region, go to VisitCitrus.com or call 800-587-6667.