Located just one hour away from Jacksonville, in Keystone Heights, is Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park, one of Florida’s oldest state parks. Not only is it one of the oldest state parks, it is also home to a 5.4 mile stretch of the Florida National Scenic Trail. There are rolling sand hills, and a deep ravine with crystal clear streams that feed into Little Lake Johnson. With so much to explore within this park, and with the close proximity to Jacksonville it can easily be a day trip or an overnight adventure.
There are Cabins & Camping at Gold Head Branch State Park
Developed and built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park has so much to offer. There are 16 cabins available to rent on site with nine of those being historic cabins built in the 1930s. Another five were built in the 1950s. The last two are more modern cabins. All cabins overlook the scenic Little Lake Johnson. The cabins are surrounded by mature trees and lush greenery. If you prefer to camp there are 73 campsites for your tent, or camper.
Earn a Florida State Park Junior Park Ranger Badge
The rangers at Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park are wonderful. They eagerly answered my daughters hundreds of questions, and taught my family so much. Make sure to check in at the ranger station when you arrive. There you pick up the Junior Ranger booklets to work on while exploring the park. Rangers often lead hikes and other activities within the park. We were able to learn how to use an atlatl, a spear throwing device on our visit.
Enjoy Wildlife Viewing & Star Gazing
Little effort is needed to see wildlife at this state park. White tailed deer tend to walk/graze through camping sites or on the side of the road. It’s always exciting to spot deer! Throughout our stay we spotted turtles, cottontail rabbits, wild turkeys and so many birds. Mike Roess Gold Head Branch is located away from city lights making it a great place to view the sky. Make sure to pack your telescope. The playground and picnic area make great spots to view the sky.
Gold Head Branch has Swimming & Canoeing
Little Lake Johnson is the perfect place to cool off after exploring the park.This fresh water lake has a small beach that fills up quickly on warm days. My daughters loved swimming in a lake, such a change of pace from the ocean. Surrounding the beach area are plenty of picnic spots and places to sunbathe. The park offers canoe rentals for a small fee. Call ahead to confirm that swimming is open as lake levels can vary and if canoe rentals are operating.
Explore the Ravine & Trails at Gold Head Branch State Park
Mike Roess Gold Head Branch has a handful of short trails to hike along with a 5.4 mile portion of the Florida National Scenic Trail. A highlight of the park is the ravine, to get to it one can hike the Ridge Trail (1.1 miles) to the Fern Loop (.8 miles) for a more scenic hike that passes through a native Florida tree canopy along with remnants of an old saw mill, cotton gin and grist mill from around 1900. Another option is a walk down 81 stairs that descend steeply to the ravine. The kids loved the stairs and viewing the change of scenery. Once you reach the bottom follow the Fern Loop nature trail to pass by the headsprings of the Gold Head Branch. The brisk .1 mile trail that leads to one of the oldest lakes in Florida, Sheeler Lake, is also a must.
Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park has plenty of activities and nature to explore and it’s so close to Jacksonville. I highly recommend packing up the car and spending the night in one of the cabins. Star gazing with my daughters is one of our most favorite activities; getting away from the city lights is such a treat at nigh. The park is close enough to make a day trip too, hiking, swimming, and a picnic make for the perfect day.
Looking to explore more Florida State Parks? Check out a few of our favorites that make great day trips from Jacksonville.
Jillian Gishler is a New Englander at heart. Born in Jacksonville Beach, she grew up in Massachusetts but was beckoned back to Florida by Mickey Mouse for a Disney World Internship. She returned to the beach in 2005 after graduating from Florida State. Ten years ago she opened her handmade & vintage collective shop, Sew Vicious, in Neptune Beach. Jillian raises chickens, is a passionate gardener, a DIYer, a thrift store junkie, and a deal loving mama who runs Sunny Savings. She leads her daughters Girl Scout Troop, teaches sewing at a local Montessori School, and is a Parents Who Lead Alumni. She loves surprising her husband and daughters with mini-vacations around the Sunshine State.