Hiking the ravine at Gold Head Branch State Park

Halfway between Gainesville and Jacksonville, there’s a state park with long trails and a really long name.  Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park (a mouthful) also has the distinction of being one of the oldest state parks in Florida.

Originally established in the 1930s as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps program, the park is consistently rated as one of the best in the state’s system.

Florida Trail entrance

The entrance to the Florida Trail, near the ranger station.

The park has more than eight miles of trails, 5.4 of which are part of the Florida Trail.  This scenic stretch is the best hiking in the park and makes for a nice afternoon trek.

The trail begins across from the ranger station at an informational sign with emblazoned with the familiar Florida Trail logo.  From the trail head, a mile’s walk through the sandhill ecosystem takes you to the junction with the ravine trail.

Sand trail Gold Head State Park

The ravine is the most dramatic feature in the park and is a unique formation for this part of Florida.  The naturally occurring ravine is about (best guess here) 50-60 feet down at its deepest.  A staircase, and a number of unofficial side trails, take hikers down to the bottom, where a small creek – Gold Head Branch – flows through the park.  As you hike along the ravine, the creek’s flow increases as new water sources join in.  By the time the creek approaches Big Lake Johnson, it’s moving a substantial amount of water.

Reflecting Pool Mill Site

Gold Head Branch at the site of the old mill.

The ravine trail is shaded, hilly and lush, a stark contrast to the sandy brush at the trail head.  Even when the trail is right on the ravine’s edge, the vegetation is so thick it’s almost impossible to see the creek at the bottom of the ravine.  The pleasant babble makes up for the lack of a view, though.

Continuing down the ravine trail for another mile, you reach a foot bridge over the creek, which marks the site of a mill that once operated near the creek.  I was expecting there to be some remnants of the mill at the mill site, but to my slight disappointment, there’s only an informational sign.  Judging by the photos on the sign, the last vestiges of the mill disappeared not too long ago.  Anyway, a bench in the clearing left by the departed mill made for a nice place to take a break and eat a snack.

The foot brings also signals the first major split in the trail.  Taking a right over the bridge puts you on the Loblolly section of the Florida Trail.  The trail dips down (and the blazes change from orange to blue) and for a long while, pushes through a section of the park that was recently cleared in a controlled burn.

Continuing on, you’ll know you’re approaching the lakes when the soil begins to turn to sand.  You’ll pass some of the camping areas (more on that later) and eventually reach the south gate, where the park’s authority ends.

At this point, you’re likely to have realized that the trail isn’t a loop.  Head back the way you came, making this trail 3.5 miles one way, or 7 miles round trip.  Or, walk toward the camping area and hitch a ride back to the ranger station.

Grist mill Gold Head State Park

All that marks the (maybe) once-proud grist mill.

If you’re not looking for a 7-mile hike, the ravine section is a very popular short hike 1-2 miles, and there’s a parking area nearby.  Check out the trail map (PDF) as you make your plans.

Loblolly Trail

Rooty, hilly trails make for fun hiking along the Loblolly trail.

Of course, this park offers more than just hiking.  The windy, paved roads through the park make for great road cycling, and the lakes are great for fishing, swimming and canoeing (canoe rental is $4 an hour, or $10 for four hours).

Even better, the park offers a variety of options for camping.  There’s traditional tent and RV camping, in a very quiet, secluded campground.  Lots of space between sites.  Beware, though, that the campground roads aren’t paved and are very bumpy (not the type of campground where the kids can bike around).

There’s also a primitive campground, accessible from the ravine trail.  And, most interestingly, there are cabins in the park that can be rented for $100 or less a night.  The fancy, modern cabins are $100 a night, the less-fancy block cabins are $75, and the rustic cabins are $65.

Give me the choice, though, and I’ll take the rustic cabins.  They are holdovers from the original CCC construction in the park, built in the 1930s.  Sure, they’ve added a few amenities – electric heating and cooling, hot water, etc. – but you still get the chance to camp in a piece of history.

Gold Head State Park is open 8 a.m. to sunset for non-campers and is located 6 miles north of Keystone Heights on State Road 21.  Admission is $5 per car, and $4 for those going solo.  Bring water and bug spray, and make sure to grab a trail map from the ranger.

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Comments

  1. Excellent post! One of our favs to go and hike, even camped here last year. I looked up old pictures of Lake Johnson it used to be full and had swimming, which is odd to think when you see it now. I found a couple hidden trails that take you down into the ravine, that is nice and peaceful. The old mill site is great as well, I noticed that picture you posted they must’ve added that illustration to the sign! I’ll tweet you a few videos of our hike there.

    • On the drive up there, it was surprising to see so many almost-empty lakes. We stopped at a few where people’s docks (which I assume at one point were in the water) are now 100, 200, 300 feet from the lake. Yikes.

      When you were there, were you able to find any evidence of the mill other than the clearing?

      • By the mill site if you go down by the bridge near the running water you can see what looks to remains of the old foundation. There is a metal pipe sticking out of it as well. That’s all I could find so far. Going back this year sometime and will be exploring further! I took the Florida Trail up out of the park, you know where it splits off along the Ravine Trail? You can take that out in the high pine forest / scrub areas and take a rest down by Devil’s Wash Basin. It’s big pond of sorts. I also remembering hearing the military base north of there testing out weapons, crazy sounds that day!

      • emailed you a link to some videos I did there. The water table there I found is low, the levels have been decreasing since the 60’s due to development. Did some research on that when I went. I have a blog post I did awhile back on it about the water levels as well: http://fltrailblazer.blogspot.com/2011/12/where-did-water-go.html

  2. Love it – another place to go play!

  3. What a beautiful area….!

  4. I have long been intrigued by the Florida Trail ever since coming across a section in the Big Cypress. Thanks for highlighting this area of it.

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