Hidden away within the rolling, piney sandhills is an extensive ravine system created by the Gold Head Branch stream. Clear, cold stream water flows from a headspring near the 72-stair descent and meanders through the seepage slope ecosystem, eventually reaching Big Lake Johnson. Within this gulch, temperatures are much lower, offering a reprieve to flora and fauna in the sometimes harsh Florida climate.
Several hiking trails pass through and above the ravine system, providing an intimate view of this unique Florida feature. The 1.1-mile Ridge Trail traverses the upper ridge of the ravine, passing at times only feet from the slope, making one feel as if they are on a mountain trail.
The ravine stairway is found not far from Sheelar Lake, with parking provided for those wishing to begin their hike in the lowest part of the park.
Within the ravine, an entirely different ecosystem seems to exist, one characterized by shade-tolerant plants and animals hiding from the heat of the sun apparent atop the ridge. The cold-hardy needle palm is found within a fern-carpeted understory of shade loving oaks. This lush hardwood forest attracts lizards, snakes and deer but most noticeably is a haven for many birds, including migrating warblers, thrushes and bright cardinals that flit about in the brush.
Back above the ridge, the one mile Loblolly Loop begins and ends at the mill site, the location of a historic gristmill and dam, both in operation around the turn of the century. Here a small bridge spans a portion of the Gold Head Branch, named for its clear run over yellow sand.
A historic church and farmhouse also stood near this spot, evidence that people have been attracted to the cool coverage of the ravine for centuries.
Located on the high central ridge of Florida, Gold Head Branch is a prime example of the state’s native sandhill habitats with an exceptional stand of old-growth longleaf pines. Add in the deep ravines, fueled by natural springs and bisected by the Gold Head Branch, and you have a rare ecosystem waiting to be explored.
Visit Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park to see it for yourself. Come to the Real Florida.