I live in South Florida, and I forget how diverse this narrow peninsula really is. Just a few hundred miles North (300 to be exact), near the border with Georgia, we found the Gold Head Branch State Park and fell in love.
The scenery is nothing like what you get in Miami. Forget ocean and mangroves and welcome oak, Spanish moss, and lakes. In fact, one town we passed was called Interlacken since there are so many smaller lakes around there. Though I must say, it is a far cry from it’s Swiss namesake. We drove all through the South last summer, and this area had more of a feeling of Dixie than anything I am used to towards the south of the state. I guess, the further North you go in Florida, the further into the South you are!
From Florida State Parks:
One of Florida´s first state parks, Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park was developed on a 2,000-acre site by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s. The extraordinary craftsmanship of the CCC is still evident today. Located on rolling sandhills in an area known as the central ridge of Florida, a deep ravine with springs issuing from its sides bisects the area and forms Gold Head Branch. Marshes, lakes and scrub provide a habitat for a wide variety of wildlife.
Visitors to the park can enjoy hiking and wildlife viewing along the park´s nature trails and a 5.44-mile stretch of the Florida National Scenic Trail. For aquatic recreation, visitors can swim or fish in the lake, or spend a lazy afternoon canoeing. A large picnic area, with tables and grills,pavilions, and a playground are available for visitors to enjoy. Nestled under the trees are 3 full-facility campgrounds. Primitive campsites for small or large groups are available as are fully equipped lakefront vacation cabins, some of which were built by the CCC.
Here’s our take on Gold Head
There are 74 campsites in 3 loops. The sites are large. Very large. Ample space for all our stuff and then some. Ours, site 28, also had water and an electricity hook-up. The floor is mostly sand, not the soft type like a beach, but sand none the less. I am not a sand person. In fact, I love the ocean but I hate the beach because I’m a sand magnet. Though impossible to keep some sand out of the tent, there was plenty of dirt and leaves to make the sand somewhat compact and not annoying. We did see many ant hills though, so if you are not careful and plop your tent on top of one … well, you will be one unhappy camper. But in general, we had no problems putting up the tent and ended our three night stay with no ant bites.
We went in mid march during the boys’ Spring Break expecting a crowd. We didn’t find any. In fact, the second night there were only about three tents in the loop and felt a bit desolate – a little spooky for a city girl like myself. The other nights were busier though but since the sites are so large, no one was a bother. The campsite in front of ours was never occupied and the boys claimed it as “Camp Joy.” They went there to play catch, dodgeball, football or hang out while Joe and I chilled by the fire.
The bathrooms were clean with hot water. A definite plus for me.
Unlike Anastasia State Park, there are no major cities next to Gold Head. The town of Keystone Heights is about six miles away and has a supermarket as well as a few restaurants. Twenty two(ish) miles away is Gainesville, and the University of Florida. We went to UF on a day trip and took advantage of their free Museum of Natural History learning more about the trees and marshes we were seeing at Gold Head.
But there is plenty to do within the park. Two of our highlights were:
Hiking the Ravine Trail
This is a short but awesome two mile trail that starts at the bottom of a ridge, next to a crystal clear ravine and takes you up to the top of the ridge so you can observe the differences in vegetation while enjoying a great walk. It’s Florida, it’s not a climb by any stretch of the imagination, but the difference is enough for a great biology lesson.
We were there when the park had recently done a controlled burn. That is, they purposefully set part of the forest on fire. This helps kill invasive species of trees and preserve the original forest. While hiking the Ravine Trail we walked to where there was a recent burn, with smoke still coming out of the soil and all. I thought it was dangerous and had a mild panic attack, but was overruled by Joe and the boys so we continued on hiking.
There are other trails in the park, and you could be walking all day long. There is a seven mile equestrian trail as well as shorter walking trails. All are well maintained and marked.
Apparently Little Lake Johnson, the main swimming area, went dry a couple of years ago. It’s not dry now, as of March 2016. In fact, it’s pretty darn beautiful. There is a beach and a marked shallow area for swimming. You can also rent canoes and spend the day paddling. The water was crystal clear, though definitely cold for this Miami girl. The area around the lake was also gorgeous and reminiscent of the deep south with large oak trees, Spanish moss, and a slight hill that takes you to the lake. There were plenty of picnic tables, restrooms, and a playground meaning that if you are from this area … you must know it’s a great place to spend the day.
My boys loved running up and down the hill, over and over again, until the completely foreseeable fall. That was the only thing that would’ve gotten us out of that area.
We used, as usual, ReserveAmerica to make campground reservations. Although I usually use Siri from my Iphone to get everywhere DO NOT FOLLOW GPS TO GET HERE. Instead, type in this address: 6239 State Road 21, Keystone Heights, Florida 32656. Just trust me on this one. We lost about forty minutes trying to find the entrance to the park. You can also be smarter than we were and call directly at (352) 473-4701.
Of all the places we have been to in Florida, Gold Head definitely ranks up there on the list and definitely worth the drive from Miami for a long weekend.
If you go there, or have been there, let me know!