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.

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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.

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Silver Springs to join the state park system in October

The Florida State Parks system is about to get a big, wet addition.

On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet voted to let the current leasers of Silver Springs, near Ocala, out of their contract with the state.  Their theme park, which has operated on the spring since the 1980s, will be closed on Sept. 30, and the land will be turned over to the state park system and returned to its natural state.

Nearby Silver River State Park is already a wonderful place to camp, bike and kayak, and soon that park will extend to encompass the spring that feeds it as well.

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Algae blooms taking over Silver Springs | Photo from the Audubon of Florida

Surely, this is good news for us.  Recently, concerns have been raised about the impact of the theme parks on the spring’s water quality.  The water flow has slowed, a thick layer of brown algae blankets the spring bottom, and water visibility has diminished dramatically.

Alan Youngblood, a photo editor with the Ocala Star-Banner, wrote in July about the changes he’s witnessed in the years he’s photographed the spring.

Diving in Silver Springs used to be like diving in air. The virtually pure water that shot like a fire hydrant from the main spring was so clear and clean you could lay on the bottom and read the names of the glass-bottom boats that passed over 40 feet above you. You could easily recognize the tourists looking down at you waving.

Now, though, that’s not the case.  It’s hard to make out underwater landmarks.  From the bottom, the surface seems much farther away.

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Algae overtaking the spring floor. | Photo courtesy of Ocala.com and Alan Youngbood/Staff Photography

I don’t mean to imply that the theme parks on the site, Silver Springs Nature Theme Park and Wild Waters, are the sole cause of this – they are not.  Polluted runoff, agricultural chemicals and overuse have  introduced new chemicals into a dangerous ecosystem, and skyrocketing nitrate levels have fostered massive algae blooms.

But there’s hope for the historic, world-famous spring.  The owners of the theme parks have agreed to pack up shop and return the spring to a close-to-natural condition before their departure.

At that point, the state park will expand and conservation will begin.  This likely means that the spring, one of the largest in the world, will be open to minimally invasive recreation as well – diving, snorkeling, canoeing and kayaking.

According to the Gainesville Sun, Palace Entertainment, the theme park operator, is planning to spend $4 million to improve the ecology of the site before turning it over.

Environmental officials from the state have already begun discussing plans to manage the river basin and to reduce the nitrate contamination.

Department of Environmental Protection secretary Herschel T. Vinyard, Jr., said in a statement,

We are pleased that the Governor and Cabinet have decided to approve this agreement so that the Department can return the property closer to its natural state, involve the community in recreation opportunity decisions and continue our efforts of improving water quality in Silver Springs, one of Florida’s most iconic treasures.

Count me in on that sentiment.  When the state park opens the gate to the new Silver Springs State Park on Oct. 1, I’ll be there.

Silver Springs has a fascinating and colorful history, and I’m excited to see how the state park system incorporates those elements into the new park.  For a time, Silver Springs was the biggest tourist attraction in the state and a hub for river travel.

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An 1886 photo from George Baker shows a steamboat heading up Silver River from Silver Spring.

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Silver Springs, circa 1900. The Okeehumkee riverboat docked and waiting for passengers.

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Six Gun Territory, a theme park that operated at Silver Spring until 1984.

There have been numerous theme parks on the property, including the two that are there now.  There have been, and still are, glass bottom boat operators.  There have been movies (James Bond) and TV shows (“Sea Hunt,” “I Spy,” “Six Million Dollar Man”) filmed there.  There’s even a population of wild monkeys at the park, escapees from a failed ploy to attract even more tourists to the area.

Silver Spring really is one of the most interesting and beautiful springs in the country, and I could not be happier that it will now get the commitment to preservation that it so deserves.