Ridge and Ravine Trails

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.


Hiker's Guide to the Sunshine State


Location: Keystone Heights
Length: 2.1 miles
Lat-Long: 29.831811, -81.946547
Type: round-trip
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: moderate
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

Trail Map


  1. Bridget Baines says

    This park reminded me of a scary movie, or two, or maybe several scary movies all in one, yet I was intrigued. The mill was gone, the water where the mill once was ran blood red (yes, probably the clay soil) and forboding, with trees splayed and fallen violently all around it and even a black crow caa-ing eerily as it flew overhead- giving a “GET OUT NOW” feeling to the site. The cabins were very cute yet my friend lay awake all night seeing “shadows” everywhere and the cabin lights flickered often. The lakes were beyond dried up- like cracked craters in a wasteland, and the trees were motionless. No wind, no leaves even quivering. I think the land was traumatized in many ways and it had me wondering what might have happened here. Some parts of the park felt like the Sahara desert, exuding an unquenchable thirst that vaporises the water from your mouth before you can absorb it. The ravine suffers terrible erosion and a downward trek with warning signs and a “I don’t think we should go down there” feel as well. There was, however, inside one area of the forest, a small circle of large trustworthy looking trees that remain hopeful, holding onto the past promise of fertility the land once had- which we called “the heart of the forest” This was the only place where the trees actually moved/swayed with the breeze, and the only place where we felt welcome. The land definitely needs a great healing. Potentially worth experiencing, but if you get freaked out easily, definately don’t go alone or stay the night 😉

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