Gold Head Branch
Main Entrance to Gold Head Branch State Park
Perhaps the most well noted feature here at Gold Head Branch State Park is the ravine. As far as I can tell, this gouge into the sandy earth is about 5 or 6 stories deep. In the same way the Colorado River runs through the Arizona desert, cool and clear Gold Head Branch snakes its way along the bottom of this sand ridge ravine, forming what I think of as Florida's answer to the Grand Canyon.
The water flow which makes up the branch comes from raindrops which have percolated through the sands until they hit a non-porous stratum. From there a collection of water oozes into the ravine from where it flows into Little Lake Johnson.
During the warmer months, you can actually feel the temperature drop as you descend into the ravine. The cooler, more moist environment at the ravine's bottom favors a lush environment of tall hardwoods over the dry upland scrub predominant at the top of the ravine.
This area here in North Central Florida is known as the "central ridge," a collection of ancient dunes formed by the rise of fall of the seas thousands of years ago. Today, the central ridge supports an upland scrub habitat, the predominant plant life of which consists of turkey oak, long leaf pine, and wiregrass. Prickly pear cactus is found here and there. Notice the beautiful cactus flower below. Animals of the upland scrub include, among others, the diamondback and pigmy rattlesnakes, pine snake, gopher tortoise, turkey, white-tail deer, fox squirrel, and the pocket gopher.
Four Trails through the Park
Gold Head Branch State Park is my "home park." Only a few miles from my house, it's the place I often go for a bit of trail solitude. The staff are friendly and helpful, and it's just a good place to be. A cold, rainy winter's day will often find me, poncho and all, traipsing along one of the four hiking paths at Gold Head Branch State Park. On days like this I'm usually the only one there (go figure). It's not hard to have the woods all to yourself if you head out on a day when most others would prefer to stay home and close to a fireplace. The way I see it, a bit of "weather" only makes an adventure even more adventurous.
The longest trail through the park is a 3.2-mile (one way) section of the Florida Trail, which runs from the north entrance (the only public entrance) to the park's south border. You can pick up the Trail right at the park's entrance, across the park road from the gatehouse. Leave your vehicle at the gatehouse if you like.
The Florida Trail takes you through the heart of the scrub country and then along the ravine's edge where it runs concurrently with part of the park's Ravine Ridge Trail. At its south end, the Ravine Ridge Trail intersects with the Loblolly Loop, a large loop which takes you back to the Ravine Ridge Trail. From there, you can head north to the intersection of the Ravine Ridge Trail and the Florida Trail. Follow the Florida Trail back to the north entrance and your vehicle.
A very short trail (about 15 minutes of slow walking) is the Fern Loop, at the base of the ravine by the ravine stairway located on the east side of the main park road about a mile or so from the gatehouse.
Lakes within the park boundaries are Little Lake Johnson, Big Lake Johnson, Sheelar Lake, and Deer Lake, the latter being known on the USGS Topo map as the "Devil's Wash Basin," so named because it's an eerie deep sinkhole, the kind some refer to as "bottomless." When hiking the Florida Trail, Deer Lake is a great place to break for lunch or just to give your feet a rest.
Staying Overnight at the Park
Regarding camping, the park has three campgrounds (Sandhill, Turkey Oak, and Lakeview) which each has restrooms and showers. Turkey Oak is my favorite. In addition, the park has a group camping site and a primitive camping site.
For a bit of rustic luxury, you can rent a charming lakeside cabin at Gold Head Branch State Park, complete with a stone fireplace. It's best to reserve these in advance. Some of these date were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and date back to the 1930s. In fact, the gate house is a good example of CCC handiwork. You can't help but admire the simple durability of CCC construction. They just don't make things like that anymore.
Description: Spend a day or a few days relaxing, swimming, and exploring the upland scrub and deep ravine of this state park. Camp at one of the park's three campgrounds if you wish, or rent one of the rustic cabins on Little Lake Johnson.
Starting Point: The entrance to Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park is located on the east side of State Road 21, about 5.75 north of the intersection of State Road 21 and State Road 100 in Keystone Heights in Clay County. Or take State Road 21 south out of Orange Park and Middleburg, also in Clay County. Find the park entrance on the east side of the road about 10.4 miles south of the intersection of State Road 21 and State Road 16.
N29° 50' 52", W81° 57'42"
Finishing Point: Same place
Maps: Pick up a park map at the entrance station.
Also, USGS 7.5' series topographic map is Gold Head Branch, FLA quadrangle.
Contact Information: Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park 6239 State Road 21, Keystone Heights, FL 32656. Telephone 352-473-4701. Web:
Camping and Cabin Reservations -- Reserve America 1-800-326-3521
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