crystal river and Homosassa things to do

History Right Beneath Your Feet

Photos by Kelsey and Scott Walters

Crystal River Archaeological State Park 

Given Florida’s rich history, it’s likely that just about everywhere you explore has a bit of a past. Dating back to prehistoric times, much of the land we live, work and play on today was once a site of significance to Native Americans. 

Ancient middens dot the state’s landscape, with the most notable local site being Turtle Mound. A midden is a former dump for domestic waste for native people of long ago. While that may sound like nothing more than a trash heap, it can actually tell researchers quite a bit about life in those times and usually consists of animal bones, shells and other artifacts discarded long ago. 

Ancient History to Explore in Crystal River, Florida

Not all ancient mounds were middens however – some served as sacred ceremonial sites. Crystal River Archaeological State Park is home to a large complex of these mounds and serves as both a protected historical site and an educational experience for visitors. Not only is this park steeped in ancient, pre-Columbian history, it was also believed to be the longest occupied site in Florida’s ancient history, spending about 1,600 years as a sacred ceremonial center for Native Americans. 

Long ago, people from all over Florida and other parts of the southeast (even some from modern-day Ohio and Michigan!) traveled great distances to not only bury their dead, but meet to conduct trade. Based on archaeological findings, it’s estimated that around 7,500 natives visited the important complex each year for these purposes. 

Today, the park is a serene landscape of grassy knolls, with paved pathways weaving throughout an assemblage of earth mounds. Shaded by beautiful oaks along the river, it could be easy to forget the deep historical significance right beneath your feet. Most of the mounds served as burial sites. Because of this, the park asks that you stick to the paved paths, rather than climbing the sacred mounds. 

However, the largest mound, Temple Mound, has a staircase to the top to give you a bird’s-eye-view of the complex. Much like a large stadium in a city, this imposing mound sits along the riverbank and served as a symbol of impressive grandeur as visitors entered the site. Tragically, after standing untouched and intact for over 1,000 years, developers bulldozed nearly two-thirds of the mound and those artifacts – and the information that could have been gleaned from them – were lost forever. 

Although it is not as large as it once was, Temple Mound is still very impressive and offers a beautiful view of the river from the top. At 28 feet tall, the mound was once used as a stage for performances and ceremonies. Researchers and scientists estimate that the original mound was composed of over 300,000 cubic feet of shells from the river, which took around 19 years to collect and build. 

Educational Things to Do in Crystal River and Homosassa Springs, Florida

Whether your kids have returned to school or are learning virtually this year, or you are just looking for a little outdoor adventure, anyone can benefit from the educational experience these grounds have to offer. While 28 feet may not sound overly tall, the 51 steps to the top, plus an hour of roaming the grounds, were more than enough to have Avery napping as soon as we got back in the car. While the mounds themselves are protected, you are free to explore the area, and picnic tables are placed along to river for a lovely lunch or relaxing fishing spot. 

If you are looking to make your trip into a full-day educational excursion, a 20-minute drive to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is sure to cover your biology lesson for the day! Acting as a “native species only” zoo, the wildlife park is built around the natural spring and is home to countless native Florida species (plus a retired movie star hippo and honorary Floridian). Read more about Homosassa Springs here.

Just about three minutes from there, you’ll find Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins Historic State Park. This park is tiny and just off the main road, so I would recommend adding it to your trip rather than traveling just to see it, but it is worth the stop. The ruins were once part of thriving sugar mill and plantation owned by David Levy Yulee. Yulee went on to serve as the state’s first senator after Florida gained statehood, as well as founded the Florida Railroad Company. The remains are pretty intact compared to other sites and offer an interesting glimpse into the past. 

However, Yulee Plantation has a dark past. An investigation of the steam-driven mill, limestone chimney, iron gears and cane press of the once lively site reveal a complex history of slavery and a country in turmoil. The plantation served as a supplier of sugar products to Southern troops during the Civil War and had harsh working conditions for over 1,000 slaves. Ultimately, Union troops burned the plantation and Yulee’s home, but were unable to locate the mill, leaving it untouched and abandoned for years. Today, it serves as a historical reminder of some of Florida’s early economic prosperity, as well as the horrific means by which it was gained. 

Crystal River Archaeological State Park 

3400 N. Museum Point, Crystal River, FL 34428 

(352) 795-3817 

$3/vehicle (cash only honor system, or prepay online) 

Open daily 8 a.m. – sundown 

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park 

4150 S. Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa, FL 34446 

$13/adult; $5/child ages 6 – 12 

Open daily 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. 

Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins 

S.R. 490, Homosassa, FL 34446 

Open daily 8 a.m. – sundown 

Kelsey Walters is the publisher and one of the co-owners of East Coast Current, a professional photojournalist with a BS in Photography from the University of Central Florida. Her work focuses on travel and documentary photography. Scott Walters is Kelsey’s husband of three years and Avery’s proud father. He is originally from Connecticut and has lived in Florida since he was 11 years old. Avery Walters is Kelsey and Scott’s 2-year-old daughter. She loves to tag along on their monthly adventures throughout the state and play with her dog, Kodi.

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