The otter family quietly slipped out of the water and onto the riverbank with barely a sound. On the opposite side of the river, a raccoon was scouting the shoreline for breakfast within yards of her home--an uprooted Sabal palm. Close by, I heard the loud grunts of a wild hog foraging for food behind the tall grasses. And if that’s not enough, a young alligator, in stealth mode, began crossing the river nearby.
Minutes earlier, we'd spotted a manatee and passed a family of dolphins. Nature was clearly abundant as we paddled one of Florida’s hidden gems: the Chassahowitzka River.
Chaz-a-who? It’s a good thing you don’t have to be able to pronounce the name of this river to love it. Northwest of Tampa, in southern Citrus County, the five-mile, shallow Chassahowitzka (Chass-a-how-itz-ka) will remind you of a “time before time” in Florida. Referred to as the “Chaz” by locals, the river is fed by several tributaries and springs and appropriately designated as an Outstanding Florida Waterway. The combination of salt marshes, hardwood swamps and crystal-clear springs make it one of the most memorable experiences in the state.
Because we wanted to make the most of our initial visit, it was recommended we enlist a local for a personalized eco-tour. To help us with our adventure we went with a knowledgeable expert and guide, Tracy Colson, sole owner of Nature Coast Kayak Tours. Tracy met us at the Chaz boat ramp, which is at the end of State Road 480, off U.S. Highway 19.
Equipped with kayaks and paddles, and loaded with in-depth knowledge and expertise, Tracy pointed out the elusive, darting Kingfisher bird and an abundance of wildlife, including native plants, while leading us through tributaries we wouldn’t have been able to reach on our own.
Our favorite paddle ride was the trip up Baird Creek, a beautiful canopied ribbon of clear water flowing into the Chaz. At the end of the scenic trip was the “Crack,” a legendary, quaint small spring known and loved by locals. It was small, intimate and to this day, it's one of my all-time favorite Authentic Florida experiences. (I promise, you don’t want to miss this one.)
We also traveled back into the Salt Creek area, another Chaz tributary loaded with birds, alligators and lush Florida vegetation. If you don’t have a guide, consider downloading a map and getting some good advice from the Chaz locals before leaving the boat ramp, so you'll know how to navigate this area and enjoy the quiet yet spectacular paddle ride.
You’ll notice immediately that this river is atypical of most Florida waterways, where crowds often joy ride and party. Surrounded by the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, comprising over 31,000 acres, those who visit the Chaz are often a serious lot of anglers, crabbers, and eco-tourists ready to experience a true “wilderness.” While you don’t have to be serious, you’ll be in awe of this very special slice of “real” Florida.
To get to the area, take Interstate 75 to Hwy. 98, through Brooksville to U.S. 19 to State Road 480. Proceed west on State Road 480 (also called Miss Maggie Drive); the Chassahowitzka Boat Ramp is located at the end of this road. The refuge is located approximately three miles down river from the boat ramp.
We stayed at the Chassahowitzka Hotel, which is within walking distance to the Chaz boat launch, near the Chassahowitzka Campground. Fourth-generation Floridians David and Kim Strickland own and operate the hotel, which dates back to the Spanish American War and was begun by David’s great-grand parents. Later refurbished and restored to its original two-story pine and cypress glory, it’s a quiet retreat and a great “Florida heritage stay” for enjoying the area.
We love local and authentic Florida food. Our favorite restaurant in the area is Peck’s Old Port Cove in Ozello. It’s a bit of a drive north, near Crystal River, but if you want a true Florida seafood restaurant and expect the best, try Peck's. They also will cook fresh seafood you may have caught during your trip.
Whether you go for a day, or plan an extended stay, you will enjoy old Florida on the Chaz. It doesn’t get much better for the authentic Florida traveler.