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Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park

Posted on Monday, August 10, 2015 at 10:02 am

Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park, Keystone Heights, FL

An Audubon Florida Special Place

By Joyce King

goldhead The cool, clear waters of Gold Head Branch run at the bottom of a steephead ravine, 40 feet below the sandhill surface of Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park in North Central Florida near Keystone Heights. This is a special place in Florida – a place I’ve visited often since my childhood. From the hot, dry upland, the ravine plunges unexpectedly, and the temperature drops as I walk down the stairs.

Steepheads are deep ravines that occur in upland sandhill habitats in north Florida. Underground springs cut into the sandhills causing the hill to collapse as its sand is carried away by water issuing from the springs. Over time, the head springs continually erode the soil and send it downstream, creating the ravine. The head of the ravine has deep, steep walls – a “steep head.” Descending into the cool, shady ravine, tall oaks, hickory, sweetgum, and magnolia trees tower overhead, while shrubs and ferns shade the creek with its pellucid waters rushing toward Lake Johnson, over 1-1/2 miles away.

One of eight original state parks built during the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), most of the original infrastructure remains in excellent condition. Cabins built during that time have been upgraded, though their rustic ambience has remained as a reminder of the past. The cabins are air-conditioned and heated, and offer opportunities for quiet, undisturbed enjoyment of the park. The park also has three full-facility campgrounds, and numerous hiking trails into diverse habitats. The Florida Scenic Trail winds through the park.

Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park is dominated by deep sandhills clad in tall longleaf pines and turkey oak, with a wiregrass and herbaceous groundcover, the principal foods of the resident gopher tortoises. Sherman’s Fox Squirrels may be seen bounding across the ground, while Bobwhite Quail, Wild Turkeys and Eastern Indigo Snake also thrive. A large number of wildflowers are endemic to the sandhill plant community. Growing in the excessively well-drained soil, plants and animals must be well adapted to survive in this very dry environment.

Two of three sinkhole lakes within the park, Sheeler Lake and Deer Lake connect directly with the shallow aquifer, and reach depths of over 60 feet.   Sheeler Lake is one of the most pristine lakes in Florida as well as being one of the oldest; its age is estimated at 23,900 years. Bald Eagles nest in the tall pines surrounding the lake.

Although excessive groundwater pumping and drought have reduced the levels of Big and Little Lake Johnson, large and beautiful open vistas of marsh and colorful grassland have grown in the lakebeds, providing excellent habitat for Sandhill Cranes. As sunset approaches during the winter, the cranes, bugling their arrival, come from every direction to roost in the marshes and lake edges.

The Endangered Florida Scrub-jay once lived in a scrub area in the park, and long-term efforts are underway to rejuvenate their habitat with fire as the predominant management tool. Etoniah Creek State Forest abuts the park on the south, and has a small population of scrub-jays. These scrub habitats are the northern-most Florida Scrub-jay habitats in the state.

The park also is home to the imperiled Southeastern American Kestrel, and projects are planned to enhance breeding success for the species. Recently, an early morning walk on the Florida Trail took me by one of the new kestrel nest boxes. Not a kestrel, but an Eastern Screech Owl basked in the morning sun, claiming this box for its own.

Old-growth longleaf pines up to 350 years old were at one time home to Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in the park, and efforts are being made to restore and preserve these habitats. Camp Blanding, an army training facility adjacent to the park, has a healthy population of these woodpeckers that may eventually move across the road to the longleaf pine habitats in the park.

Joyce King grew up about 25 miles from the park, and is an avid birder and hiker.   She is president of Santa Fe Audubon, a chapter of Audubon Florida, and a member of the Audubon Florida board of directors. For more information about the park visit     For more information about Audubon Florida and its “Special Places” Program visit All rights reserved by Florida Audubon Society, Inc.