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Tips for Visiting Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge With Kids

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Did you know that Florida is known as The Manatee World Capital and that Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge is one of Florida’s top favorite nature spots for viewing them? A quick weekend getaway here will not only benefit both your mind and body but also show you exactly what you’re missing. It’s just one of the many things to do for kids in the Orlando area. Trust me, between the crystal-clear blue water of the springs and the contrasting dense greenery that surrounds it, even the non-manatee seasons have tons to offer adventure crazy families! So, let’s dive in and find out why this should be your next holiday destination! 

Three-Sisters-Springs-Wildlife-Refu
Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge

Where is Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge?

Three Sisters Springs Florida, a 57 acre unique and tranquil haven, is a unit of Crystal River that is located in western Florida. It is only about an hour and a half drive from Orlando, making it convenient to get there by taking FL-408, and then merging with highway FL-44W. While visitors are required to park at the Three Sisters Springs Center, right behind the city hall at 123 NW US Hwy 19, Crystal River, FL, vehicles with handicap stickers are allowed to park at the Springs entrance.  

Visitors first need to purchase a ticket at the Center before entering Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge. From there, a shuttle service that operates every thirty minutes takes visitors to the spring’s entrance. Another way to access the springs is by launching a kayak at Kings Bay or Hunter Springs Park and navigating your way there with the help of the provided Three Sisters Springs map. Just keep in mind that while this option is great for exploring the crystal clear waters, you are not allowed to disembark from your kayak and enter the lands surrounding the springs. 

Three Sisters Springs’ location right at the heart of Crystal River makes it easy to find popular joints nearby that serve everything from American to Thai cuisine. If you plan an overnight stay, there are also several accommodation options within a 2-mile radius. Vacationers swear by hotels near Three Sisters Springs like the Holiday Inn, Comfort Suites, and The Marina. 

What is Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge?

Springs are formed when groundwater in the aquifer overflows onto the earth’s surface through cracks. Three Sisters Springs in Florida is one such oasis of pristine groundwater. About 20 million gallons of water enter the area daily via vents from three main lobes (Pretty Sister, Big Sister, and Little Sister), before eventually flowing into Kings Bay.

The pleasant year-round water temperature of the spring makes it a winter home for hundreds of manatees (AKA sea cows) during the colder months. These adorable, gentle giants make their way from Kings Bay to seek refuge at the springs when the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico drops too low. It was for this reason that the property was designated a Wildlife Refuge in 2010 to better protect these endangered species. 

Besides being a haven for the area’s wildlife and offering up some of Florida’s most picturesque views, Three Sisters Springs’ long list of fun activities also makes it an ideal vacation spot for families. 

What Are The Opening Times For Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge? 

The springs are open to visitors all year round from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. However, ticket sales and shuttles from the Springs Center end an hour before closing time. The parking lot tends to get full quite quickly on weekends and holidays. Arriving early to avoid disappointment is key! 

Swimmers and kayakers find it a good idea to get to King’s Bay or Hunter Springs Park early in the morning to avoid crowds at the launch area. Note that while kayaking Three Sisters Springs during the manatee season is not allowed, guests are still welcome to swim and snorkel all they want.

How Busy Is Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge? 

As a favorite spot among locals and tourists alike, Three Sisters Springs attracts people in nearly the same numbers no matter the season. In summer, people turn up at the springs to take a dip and beat the Florida heat. Wintertime sees tourists from all over the world visiting to admire how the place turns into a manatee haven. Having said that, remember that nothing beats the rush you will encounter on the weekends, whatever the season! 

If we must compare, August and September are usually the months that see the least traffic. And if you’re lucky, you might even get to spot a few manatees during these months as well! 

Pro tip: Remember, the secret to having the best experience with your kids is to get there early! Beat the crowds!

How Much Does It Cost To Visit Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge?

Entry costs at Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge are slightly higher than those of state parks, despite it belonging to the state. Prices also vary seasonally, with the cost of entry rising as high as $20 during the manatee season (between November and March), and dropping as low as $12.50 during the rest of the year. Parents will be glad to know that the ticket cost for entry of kids aged between 6 and 15 years is capped at $7.50, regardless of the month. Children under the age of 6 are allowed to enter free of charge. 

If you’re planning to swim, kayak, canoe, or snorkel, there’s some good news for you. It is absolutely free to enter the springs from the waterfront. Just keep in mind that visitors are disallowed from accessing the lands surrounding the springs, and vice versa, in order to protect the springs and prevent erosion. 

Kayak, canoe, paddleboard, and snorkeling equipment rentals are available at various shops along Kings Bay and Hunter Springs Park. The rental packages are typically divided into categories based on the number of hours of renting. For instance, a kayak can be rented for about $50 for three hours or $70 for the entire day. Clear-bottom kayaks are a particularly wonderful option for exploring the spring bed without getting too wet, as long as budget is not an issue. They cost around $30 higher than the normal kayaks, while canoes cost between $70 and $110 to rent. Although it is recommended to bring your own equipment to save money, don’t worry if you forget your snorkeling gear or wetsuits because they can be rented for less than $15 at these shops. 

When it comes to keeping the family full and fed, the Three Sisters Springs Crystal River area offers a diverse selection of dining options that include everything from fast food to fine dining. This allows visitors to set their own budget while there. If you’re intending on staying the night, the same applies to lodging as well. You will find everything from budget motels and luxury resorts to boat rentals in the spring’s vicinity. 

All in all, a family of four can expect to have an amazing time at the Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge for as little as $60, as long as the plan is to keep it simple!

What is the water temperature at Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge? 

The sparkling turquoise waters of Three Sisters Springs are surrounded by lush flora and fauna and maintain a constant year-round temperature of 72°F. This makes it so that every kind of visitor, human or otherwise, enjoys the warm water and serene surroundings regardless of the time of year. In the summer, families find the water to be perfect for swimming. In the winter, the spring turns into a safe refuge for nearly 500 manatees!

Apart from its pleasant temperatures, the spring is also a great place to introduce your little ones to water and swimming for the first time due to how shallow and gentle it is. Most of the spring is only about four feet deep, although some areas do run as deep as fourteen feet. To err on the safer side, always carry life jackets for toddlers and never leave them unattended. It should also be noted that touching or taking a Three Sisters Springs swim with manatees where you swim over them is considered illegal and is punishable with hefty fines. 

Are There Alligators At Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge?

While the swimming and kayaking areas are clear of alligators, some people have reported spotting gators in more isolated areas around the springs. As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to be cautious and aware of your surroundings when exploring the wilderness. But don’t feel like you need to worry too much either, as you will always find park rangers stationed nearby in case you need any kind of help.

Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge Campground Information

Three Sisters Springs camping is unfortunately not available due to the area’s lack of a designated campground. However, there are plenty of brilliant campsite options around Crystal River that are situated within a reasonable distance from the springs. Indian Island County Park, South Haven Campground, and Crystal Isles RV resort are just a few that are worth checking out. 

Things To Do At Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge With Kids

Swimming

Playing in the pristine waters of a real-life natural spring is a treat for kids of all ages and makes for a great first-time swimming experience. Just note that although the water body is generally considered to be shallow, parents still need to keep an eye on their toddlers and younger kids due to slippery rocks and deeper portions of the spring. Ensure you bring float jackets for those who are too young or inexperienced to swim on their own.

Three Sisters Springs also allows visitors to swim while being surrounded by hundreds of manatees during the winter months, making it the best sanctuary for kids to witness the 20-foot-tall, tranquil beasts up close. You will see these endangered sea cows mostly just hanging out, as well as a few young ones occasionally nursing. It truly makes for the most perfect opportunity to expose toddlers to the ecosystem and encourage in them an interest in animal welfare. 

A quick reminder that there is no land-water interchange, so you’ll have to return to the launch site to use the eateries or restrooms. It’s a good idea to plan your child’s schedule ahead of time.

Three Sisters Springs Snorkeling 

Three Sisters Springs is a popular snorkeling location in Florida. Rent wetsuits and snorkels at the launch area and have a blast exploring the blue oasis filled with manatees, turtles, and a variety of small fish. Ducking under the surface of the shimmery water to catch sight of the aquatic life below is bound to leave both kids and adults feeling mesmerized! Consider bringing along a waterproof camera to snap some stunning shots.

If you prefer to snorkel in a group or if it’s your first time trying it, you will be glad to know that most of the tourist companies found near the launch area offer guided tours. While these tours do tend to cost at least $70, they come inclusive of snorkeling equipment and an experienced guide.

Hiking 

When looking for hiking trails to attempt with the whole family, pick ones that are less than 2 miles long to ensure that the little ones in your troop don’t get too tired.

The Three Sisters Springs boardwalk which encircles the entire region is a perfect example of this. It is built close to the water, affording scenic views of the springs from every angle, while also being wheelchair and stroller accessible. In fact, the “clear as glass water” that is visible from this vantage point makes the boardwalk the most ideal place to see the hundreds of manatees that visit the spring during manatee season.

Plan your visit for the morning if you want the best shot at catching a glimpse of them in larger numbers! 

Those who visit the spring during the rest of the year will find plenty to look forward to, even if the Three Sister Springs manatees aren’t there.

A hike through the lands surrounding the azure-tinted water will reveal magnificent scenery as well as an array of fascinating wildlife. Don’t forget to bring your binoculars along with you because the springs also serve as a mini-bird refuge!

Tickets to the boardwalk can be purchased at the Three Sisters Springs Center along with your entry tickets. The free trolley service makes traveling to and from the center is convenient when visiting with the kids.

Kayaking/ Canoeing/ Paddleboarding 

Teenagers are arguably the most enthusiastic about water activities, and Three Sisters Springs Kayaking is the kind of thrilling experience that does not disappoint! All types of watercrafts, including kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards, are allowed at the springs – as long as they are non-motorized. 

While the price of clear kayaks may be a bit higher than ordinary kayaks, the unhindered view of the springbed and the chance to see manatees swimming below make it a great choice for families who really want to take in their surroundings. Canoes, on the other hand, are ideal for a family of three, as they are slightly larger and hold more people than kayaks.

You can launch your kayaks at King’s Bay and Hunter Springs Park, from where it takes about 30 minutes of paddling to reach the springs. It’s important to know that water vessels are prohibited in the springs during the manatee season. 

Family Tips For Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge 

  • If you’re visiting in the summer, remember to douse both yourself and the kids in sunscreen to avoid tanning and sunburns. Carry sunglasses, an umbrella, insect repellent, and lots of water if you plan to hike. 
  • Families that plan to enter the water should make it a point to feed their kids beforehand and plan their diaper changes, as hopping out for bathroom breaks is not allowed once in the water. Instead, you will need to go back to the launch area to access land. Remember to keep some snacks handy because kids will tire quickly when playing in the springs. 
  • It’s a good idea to call Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge before visiting if you are keen on catching a peek at the manatees. This is because the number of manatees in the spring varies each week according to the water temperature.
  • Don’t forget to carry waterproof dry bags or waterproof mobile pouches. If you forget them, don’t get your trousers in a twist because they are also available at the Three Sister Springs kayak rental stores.
  • Those interested in some Three Sisters Spring swimming and kayaking at the springs can borrow an anchor at the rental store free of charge.

Visiting Springs Near Orlando With Kids

Planning on visiting one or several of the beautiful natural Springs Florida has to offer? Many of the spectacular state parks have fun activities for all the family to enjoy. From watersports; kayaking, canoeing, tubing, snorkelling; to geocaching, pancake making and camping on site. Our guides below detail what is on offer for kids of all ages at the springs closest to Orlando.

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