The steephead ravine that forms Gold Head Branch is a riot of green: deep green needle palms, ferns of every shape and size, water trickling, merging, and flowing downstream, and the canopy of native trees above, from hickory and sweetgum to longleaf pine and live oak. You can follow the trails from the ravine downstream to Little Lake Johnson, note the storm damage to the canopy, but otherwise you’re immersed in a string of natural habitats. The quantity of laurel oak in the uplands points to this landscape having been logged at least once, and indeed there’s a historic tramway near the park entrance that was used by the logging railroad.
While its possible to walk right down a very long staircase to the steephead, a more relaxed and interesting journey is to follow the Ridge Trail from the Mill Site Parking Area. Around 1900, there was a sawmill, cotton gin, and grist mill on the site. Today, as you walk from the parking area downhill under wild plum blossoms, you reach an aluminum bridge across Gold Head Brach. The burble of water makes you think of a mountain stream, the water running crystal clear across a sand bottomed runs like I’ve seen in the Allegheny Mountains. Benches let you survey the scene.
Location: Keystone Heights
Length: 2.1 miles
Lat-Long: 29.831811, -81.946547
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: Yes, in another part of the park
Gold Head Branch State Park is located 6 miles north of Keystone Heights on SR 21. Turn left and follow the park road back to the picnic area at Little Lake Johnson; it sweeps around as a one-way road to reach the Mill Site Parking area. Other trails in the park include the Florida Trail and the Loblolly Trail.
Cross the bridge and turn left to follow the Ridge Trail north. This undulating trail stick to the top of the north side of the ravine. It passes beneath high bush blueberries in an oak hammock where laurel oak predominates. Note the orange blazes: this segment of trail is shared with the statewide Florida Trail. Interpretive markers add to your understanding of the flora along the way.
As you continue, the Ridge Trail rises up to the edge of the flatwoods, where stringers of old mans beard dangle from the live oaks. The ravine on the left becomes increasingly deeper, with lots of southern magnolia inside. A bench looks down over the ravine.
At the trail junction with the prominent FNST sign, the Florida Trail turns right to head towards the Devil’s Washbasin, and the Ravine Trail continues straight, beneath a bower of American holly, hickory, and dogwood. You reach a point where the trail ahead is blocked and your trail turns left to start a steep descent into the gorge.
Walking along a wall of saw palmetto beneath the elms and tall southern magnolia, you can see a briskly flowing clear sand-bottomed stream through the woods, and you cross it on a bridge at 1 mile. The trail turns right and continues through a profusion of needle palms.
A staircase leads up the ravine slope to the left, but you’ll want to continue straight ahead for the gem of this hike, the Fern Loop. This tail of the Ravine Trail takes about 15 minutes to walk and immerses you in a wonderland of ferns, needle palms, and sparkling water trickling out of the steephead slopes to create tiny rivulets that form sand-bottomed streams that come together to create Gold Head Branch. At 1.1 miles, you’re back at the beginning of the loop and can continue back along the Ravine Trail to the Ridge Trail to the Mill Site parking area for a full 2.1 mile hike.
0.0 Mill Site parking area
0.1 bridge across Gold Head Branch
1.0 second bridge across Gold Head Branch
1.1 end of Fern Loop
2.1 return to Mill Site parking area