When European settlers first arrived on the eastern shores of Florida in the 18th century, sandhill ecosystems dominated the coast. Golden wiregrass swayed beneath the green needles of pine trees, a habitat now managed by staff at Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park through regular prescribed burns. The landscape is mesmerizing.
The habitat represents “some of the best examples of sandhill left in the State of Florida,” Park Manager Kevin Patton explained to me as we stood gazing at the ecosystem. “It was burned last May, which has created this beautiful savannah-like scene you see here.”
In addition to learning about the sandhill slopes, I ventured down a steep set of concrete stairs to the bottom of a deep ravine. Unlike the land above, multiple species of ferns dominated the understory, growing right up to the edge of the crystal clear stream that bubbled up from a seepage spring. The contrast between the dark, lush forest of the ravine and the golden grasses of the sandhills was incredible, made even more obvious by the fact that I saw them mere moments apart.
The incredible natural resources in this park are just one of the many reasons to book a visit, particularly in the cooler months of the year. I popped out of the car in a parking area being one of the park’s neatest features: rentable cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. Both quaint and comfortable, the cabins are fully-equipped with a kitchen, heat and air conditioning, hot and cold running water, fireplaces and a view of the Little Lake Johnson. Nestled together on a small hill, they appeared to me like a cozy village, perfect for a serene weekend getaway.
From the porches of the cabins I walked down a small path towards the edge of the lake. The water was low, but that didn’t stop the birds from congregating here. American Coots paddled in slow circles, Pied-billed Grebe dived into the shallows looking for food, while great Blue Herons and Great Egrets stood stoically, towering above the vegetation. Across the way I spotted a sandy beach, ideal for swimming during warm weather. The very stream I had seen in the ravine makes its way here, cooling the swimming waters.
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About Erika: Erika Z. is a writer, birder and photographer living and working along the Emerald Coast of Florida. Her love of the outdoors and sense of adventure leads her to explore Florida’s state parks, state trails and historic sites in her free time.