This northeast Florida state park is on the map but far enough away to be ignored. It’s also far enough away to provide a tranquil camping experience. It’s quiet here.
Although remote on the map, Gold Head Branch State is actually less than 30 miles from Gainesville, making it a great destination for Florida Gators fans who’d rather camp than compete for hotel rooms on game day.
Gold Head Branch State Park is an unsung treasure you should take time to visit and explore, even if it’s not game day.
Effective January 1, 2024, Florida residents will have a 30-day head start to book campsites at Florida State Parks, reducing the reservation window for non-residents to 10 months in advance. This new law does not apply to state forests, national parks, county or municipal campgrounds, which have their own rules.
The main water flow of Gold Head Branch cuts a deep ravine through the park, nurturing a hardwood forest flush with wildlife surrounded by a rolling sand-hill terrain unique to this part of Florida.
Birds are abundant, especially during the spring and fall migrations. Owls are year-round residents whose hoots pierce the stillness of the night for campers. Months after my visit, I still sense the quiet offered by this campground.
Gold Head Branch State Park has multiple hiking and nature trails, including a 5.4-mile section of the Florida National Scenic Trail (below).
The park has three miles of paved roadways that are excellent for bicycling, and at the park entrance, there’s a six-mile connector that leads to the Palatka-to-Lake Butler State Trail.
The 73 campsites in three campground loops accommodate recreational vehicles, trailers and tents. Most sites have water and electric hookups. All sites include a picnic table, fire ring/grill and potable water.
The park also has 16 vacation cabins overlooking Lake Johnson, nine of which date back to the 1930s, when they were built by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.
History of Gold Head Branch State Park
One of Florida’s earliest state parks, Gold Head Branch became a state park in 1935 and was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was created to combat unemployment during the Great Depression.
The CCC planted trees, cleared areas for campsites, built roads and constructed many of the buildings still in use today, including nine of the park’s 16 rental cabins.
The initial property was donated by Martin J. “Mike” Roess, who died in 1952. He is now memorialized with the renaming of the park to Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park.
The cabins at Gold Head Branch State Park
Gold Head Branch State Park has 16 cabins available to rent, nine of which date back to the 1930s when they were used by the Civilian Conservation Corps for housing.
These historic cabins have a combined living room/bedroom, a separate bathroom, a separate fully equipped kitchen and a screened porch. A full-size bed sleeps two people and a futon/couch sleeps two people. The historic cabins are $65 a night.
Another five concrete block cabins built in the 1950s sleep six. These cabins have a separate bedroom, a living room/dining room, a bathroom, a fully equipped kitchen and a screened porch. The bedroom has a full-size bed that sleeps two, and the living room has a bunk bed and one futon/couch that each sleeps two people. The bathroom has a standard-size bathtub and shower. These cabins are $75 a night.
There are two modern cabins that sleep six. These cabins are spacious with a living room/dining room, bathroom, two bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen and a screened porch. There is a full-size bed in the master bedroom, two twin beds in the second bedroom and a pull-out couch in the living room. The modern cabins are $100 per night.
We did not see inside any of the cabins, but their exteriors were clean, freshly painted and well-maintained. I would expect nothing less for the interiors.
The campground at Gold Head Branch State Park
Every campsite is suitable, even desirable, making this one of the easiest parks for selecting a site for your RV or tent. Just grab whatever is available on the days you need.
Most sites are shady and just enough vegetation to afford a modicum of privacy. You can still see your neighbors, but you’re not on top of each other.
The campground is divided into three loops. We stayed in the Lakeview Loop.
Our picnic table was in pretty rough shape and in need of replacement, and the wrought-iron grill on the fire pit has seen better days. Consider bringing your own table and grill.
Kayak and canoes at Gold Head Branch State Park
Despite the presence of three lakes, the water levels were well below recreational use and have been for years, a park employee told me.
The launch area for kayaks on Big Lake Johnson was high and dry, as was the swimming and launch area on Little Lake Johnson, near the day-use area.
Should the lakes ever restore to normal levels, the paddling opportunities would still be limited by the small size of both lakes.
The low levels also limit fishing to small bass, crappy and panfish. A catch of large bass here is highly unlikely.
The picnic areas in the day-use area, however, are superb and include several well-maintained pavilions and room for kids to play.
The trails at Gold Head Branch State Park
The 1.15-mile Ridge Trail descends into the ravine to the Gold Head Branch, which carved out the ravine and meanders to Little Lake Johnson and Big Lake Johnson.
The dense shade provides shelter to wildlife, making it a birding hot spot.
The Ridge Trail intersects with the Loblolly Loop, extending your hike another mile, a somewhat challenging course that connects with the Florida Scenic Trail, which cuts a 5.4-mile swath through the park.
The entrance to the Ridge Trail is off the main park road, before you get to the camping areas. A fourth trail, the Fern Loop, also originates at this point. There is parking at the trailhead, and the trailhead itself is a wooden stairway that descends into the ravine (below).
Gold Head Branch State Park, 6239 State Road 21, Keystone Heights FL 32656. Phone: 352-316-4286. 73 campsites in three campground loops. Each site has a picnic table, fire ring/grill and potable water. 20/30-amp electric at all campsites except sites 57 and 60-67 in the Lakeview campground loop. Sites 16-18, 58 and 59 feature 50-amp service, as well as 20/30-amp. Camping fee: $20/night plus a $7 nightly utility fee for RVs and a one-time $6.70 reservation fee. (Utility fee does not apply to tent camping.) Cabins: $65-$100 per night plus $7 utility fee and a one-time $6.70 booking fee. Reservations up to 11 months in advance online or call 800-326-3521.
Note: Effective January 1, 2024, Florida residents will have a 30-day head start to book campsites at all Florida State Parks, and the reservation window will be reduced to 10 months for non-residents.
Not much, and that’s what adds to the charm of this rural park in my humble opinion.
The small town of Keystone Heights is about six miles south, where you’ll find the usual array of fast-food joints and auto parts stores. But they do have one of the best Ace Hardware stores I’ve ever visited.
Like most campers, we have needs on the road, and Ace Hardware is my go-to destination, especially when there isn’t a Walmart nearby. While Walmart has the basics for campers and RVs, Ace is the place for a better selection of camping gear.
We did not find many restaurants, save a handful of fast-food joints, but we didn’t look very hard. Had we stayed another day or two, I’m sure we would have found something respectable. Every small town has at least one decent eatery.
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 14 years ago.