Yesterday I needed some time to play in the woods, so off we went to Ravine Gardens State Park and Gold Head Branch State Park. To visit both in one day highlights how human intervention changes the natural landscape. Ravine Gardens was a WPA project in the 1930s to keep people employed, and became one of Florida’s earliest state parks (this one called a “state garden” until recent years). Within the steephead ravine, workers built picturesque suspension bridges, stone staircases, and trails, and planted hundreds and hundreds of azaleas. Formal gardens were constructed on several levels, but much of the ravine seemed left to its own devices – except where exotic-to-a-steephead plants were introduced, like coconut palms, banana trees, bamboo, and more.Today, the result is an odd mixture. You’ll find natural grottos filled with five varieties of native ferns and a bubbling stream, air potatoes gone wild (a roundup is on today, hooray!), bamboo and palms in places they ought not be, and azaleas everywhere: right now, they’re in bloom.
In stark contrast, 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 Jackson, 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. But there’s nothing alien about this steephead.
Two parks, two steephead ravines, two different experiences. For botanicals in bloom, Ravine State Gardens is your best bet. For an immersion into a lush landscape, Gold Head Branch. I’ll post more specific details about both parks hiking trails soon.