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Winter Wanderings Day #36-38, Jacksonville, Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park, Keystone Heights, FL

We arrived at Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park, early morning, so were unable to get into our campsite. We stopped on our way to the picnic area, when we saw signs that said, “Ravine Overlook” and “Ravine Parking”. Just the mention of a ravine in Florida, stopped us in our tracks. We had to see what that was all about. Wow! What an unexpected surprise. We hiked on the stairs, way down into the gorgeous ravine, to the crystal clear, spring creek, Gold Head Branch that cut through the land, over the centuries, to create the ravine. There were live oaks with Spanish moss, mixed in with saw palms, and the first vines of yellow jasmine of the season. At the bottom of the stairs by the creek, were trailhead markers in all directions for several trails. We’d have to come back to hike them over the next couple of days, while we were camping in the park.

We worked in the van in the parking lot, in the picnic area, that first day. At lunchtime, we hiked on a trail from the picnic area through a forest, a meadow, then coming out at the Little Lake Johnson lakefront, which was dotted with cabins. We hiked past the cabins over to Big Lake Johnson, but could not find a trail to continue around or across the land between, so circled back, coming out at the swimming area and canoes. The lakes and wetlands were full of shore birds and lily pads. It was so lovely. This park was beyond any expectations, I had. A friend from college, from Jacksonville had recommended it. I was so glad I listened.

We got into our campsite #12 in the Sandhill Campground Loop, late afternoon. It was a lousy site, right on top of the neighbor with no vegetation between the sites. Every spot can’t be perfect. It would do. We were glad we camped in that loop, not the Lakeside Loop, because we were in the center of the park near the ravine, mill, and all the trails, so it worked out well. The tent camper loop, Turkey Oak is definitely a preferable option for us next time. It was really cool, hidden in the dense, twisty woods with large enough campsites for our van and tons of privacy. It even had electric and water. Added it to our best sites list.

Over the next couple of days, we hiked from the campground on the fabulous Ridge Trail to the Ravine, on the Mill Trail, and on portions of the Florida Trail, all scenic and diverse. Great park for hiking! We did encounter a rather large unidentified snake in the middle of the Ridge Trail, one evening. I had to use a long stick to encourage him off the trail, so we could pass. He zipped up the closest tree. I was thankful he didn’t zip up my stick. Eek! That evening, we returned to the van, closed the door and pulled down the shade. A few moments later, we had the cutest little tree frog on the shade. He even posed for a picture before I caught and released him. I felt like the reptile and amphibian Snow White that night.

For a twist on our normal routine, we have our bikes with us for the first time in a few years. We have front dog baskets for the puppies, we tried for the first time. It was a little challenging to get them to cooperate, chill, and sit in the baskets. Pippa was fine at first, but Nigel was squealing and freaking out, because I was in front and he was worried about me or he smelled the six deer, Pippa and I saw, but Wiley and Nigel were too far behind to see. I let Wiley and Nigel go ahead of me and then he did fine. We rode our bikes to Sheeler Lake, one of several sinkhole lakes in the park. Sheeler Lake is one of Florida’s oldest lakes, we read. We had it all to ourselves. We sat under a live oak on a nice big bench and enjoyed a picnic lunch. It was so serene and beautiful. After we ate, we hiked as far as we were able around the lake in both directions. There was not a trail all the way around. Riding back, Pippa must have seen something. She was trying to wiggle out of the basket, and was squealing and barking. It’s a miracle, we didn’t wreck with me trying to contain her, then the basket began riding the brake mechanism, making it almost impossible for me to peddle. The ride did not end well…Wiley tried when we got back, but could not get my basket to stay up off the brakes. So, we may be using the K-9 backpacks, next time we try the bikes with the puppies. Send good vibes. I really want to be able to bike, in addition to hiking. We have stayed several places this winter that have 25+ miles of bike paths, which is why we brought the bikes for this leg of the Wanderings. Hoping, we can make it work.

The day before we left Mike Roess, the temperatures plummeted. It was a “feels like” 30 when we awoke, never getting above a “feels like” 39. I stayed in the van all day, skipping the short walks Wiley, bundled up and took the puppies on. I read most of Educated by Tara Westover that day. If you have not read this memoir, it is a must. It is a testament to the human spirit’s ability to survive, overcome, and succeed against all odds. It was beautifully, artfully written, and beyond inspirational. Read it!

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