The road past the ranger station leads to a 2,366-acre park positioned on the Central Florida Ridge, an area filled with rolling pine sandhills. The ridge is all that remains of dunes that were formed over thousands of years by the rise and fall of sea levels. In Mike Roess’ Gold Head Branch State Park that ridge helps form a stunning 1.5-mile ravine that loops through the park. At its bottom is Gold Head Branch, once the site of an old grist-mill. Check out this amazing place after the jump!
Designated as a State Natural Feature Site, the ravine is special because it has an entirely different ecosystem than the rest of the park, which lies just north of Keystone Heights. Nearly 70 feet below the surrounding parkland, the cool, moist ravine is coated by a dense canopy of loblolly pines, hickories and magnolias.
“There are some really rare animals in there and there’s also dragonfly that’s only here and a couple [other] places,” said Dennis Parson, assistant park manager.
The majority of the park is covered in sandhills with conifer trees spaced out all around, which sets the atmosphere of the entire park itself.
As one of Florida’s first state parks, Gold Head Branch State Park was developed back in the 1930s. The property was donated by Mike Roess and developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a group launched in 1933 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt to decrease the unemployment rate during the Depression.
In 1935, after the area became part of the state park system, CCC workers descended on the park to help in development. Together they planted trees, cleared areas for campsites, built roads, and constructed most of the buildings.
Even today the astonishing craftsmanship of the CCC workers stands in stone foundations and hand-hewn beams in the buildings and cabins that are enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year.
Although the ravine and a number of old sinkhole lakes offer eye-catching focal points for the park, much of the land here consists of sandhills. These dry, porous “hills” reflect those that originally covered much of the area, but today are becoming more and more sparse.
“We have a nice piece of sandhill,” Parson said. “It used to be very prevalent in Florida [but] now you don’t see them much often.”
The state park is also composed of scrub communities and basin marshes.
Even on a weekend, Gold Head State Park isn’t as crowded as other state parks. This is a picture of the Sandhill Camping Area.
In addition to the ravine trail, there are a number of different areas here for hikers. One of them, in particular, is called the Florida Trail because it runs through the entire state. It’s a must do for passionate hikers who want to check it off their bucket list.
The park is also home to wildlife such as American kestrels, bald eagles, white-tailed deer, turkeys, gopher tortoises, fox squirrels, pocket gophers, bear, raccoons, ducks, geese and bobcats. The best time to see these animals is either early in the morning or just before dark.
Directly across the main park road from the stairway down to the ravine is crystal-clear Sheeler Lake, filled with small fish. Quartz sand and gravel with sandy clay beds cover the geology of the shore. Currently, some activities are limited due to the restoration of the lake shoreline.
The seepage springs at the bottom of the ravine connect to Gold Head Branch that flows through most of the park and pours into Little Lake Johnson. Fisherman, such as the overly passionate Keystone Heights local Mark Cornellier, can be seen along the shoreline casting their lines.
Through the broken limbs of trees and dead grass is the crystal-clear Sheeler Lake that glistens beautifully. The drop in water level can also be seen.
“Last summer I came out here to fish every day for three months straight,” Cornellier said. Anyone who wants to follow Cornellier’s lead should be aware that a Florida fishing license is required.
Next to Little Lake Johnson sits Turkey Oak Campsite, where the smells of campers grilling mouth-watering steaks wafts through the air. It’s also a perfect picnic and a rentable recreation hall is located nearby.
The Sandhill Camping Area isn’t as populated, which makes it more tranquil. This area is more popular with RV campers, like Gary Efaw. He visits this park, with his wife, once a year from Stuart, Virginia, to escape the cold weather and because he sees this park as one that is different than most.
“This state park is different because it’s spread out, whereas the others are all jammed,” Efaw said. “I’ve been to Paynes Prairie (in Gainesville) and it was all jammed.”
The third camping area is Lakeview, which is located on the opposite side of Little Lake Johnson. Lakeview is the best place to stargaze at night because of the way the stars glisten atop the water in the night sky.
Finally, on the opposite side of Big Lake is the Primitive Camping Area. It’s also where the old mill used to be. The Loblolly Trail loop starts and stops at the mill site.
A buoy line separates Little Lake Johnson between an area for recreational use and an area where alligators lurk.
The campgrounds offer 73 sites that accommodate both tents and RVS and provide water, electricity, picnic tables and ground grills. Primitive camping and a group camping area are also available.
Sixteen furnished cabins – original CCC, block style and modern — overlook Little Lake Johnson. Each sleeps four to six persons and is equipped with a refrigerator, stove, a double bed and hide-a-bed. Some have a wood or gas fireplace. Linens and kitchen utensils are provided.
The last major spot in the concrete road is Big Lake Johnson. Evident by its name, it’s the biggest body of water that the state park has, spanning a little under 110 acres.
To Park Ranger Max Forehand from Clay County, Big Lake Johnson was the spot back in the 1970s.
“If you look at pictures of Big Lake Johnson from back then, you’ll see how it was packed back there,” Forehand said. “It was as popular as Little Lake is today.”
The reason for its loss of popularity was because of how unpredictable the water levels are in the lakes at Gold Head. Recently the lakes have been more full this year than they have been in the past six years but still aren’t at full capacity.
Right on the sandy beach canoes are available to rent for campers that want to paddle through and around Little Lake Johnson.
With a bit of luck, a trip to this historical state park in Keystone Heights could be way more fascinating than other parks in Florida. There may even be a chance of seeing the rare scorpionfly, in the ravine that Parson still hasn’t had the chance to.
“I’ve only seen it in pictures,” Parson said. “It looks like something you would find in Alice in Wonderland.”
While some like Gainesville resident Cornell Whitwood believe Gold Head is a special place to go to clear heads and think, others such as Jacksonville environmentalist Paul Garfinkel said the park reminds him of the “real” Florida and makes him long for a simpler time.
“It provides me with a sense of peace in the creek that runs through the gorge, peace in the lakes where the water rises and falls,” Garfinkel said. “It’s a connection with the sandhill cranes who trumpet their joy at every sunrise.”
Words and images by Andre Roman
published in cooperation with One Tank Media