For as well as this park is maintained it sure is in the middle of nowhere. Luckily I was hurrying down from Madison Blue Springs (to grab some pictures before the afternoon rains hit) so it was sort of on the way, but it's quite a trek for anyone living east of I-75. I'm pretty sure it's worth it.
The spring is actually a system of karst windows that navigate across the landscape from the south-west of the parking lot toward the Suwannee. The head "spring" emerges from the ground in a dark window (meaning you can't see into the cave very well - the limestone blocks most of the light). The water is visually separated into two pools, the first of which flows under a limestone bridge and into the other. I observed a turtle in the main pool and attempted to swim under the bridge but the low visibility made it too risky.
The second pool gets very shallow as it approaches the Suwannee River, which makes for some pretty nice wading and relaxing. The beach surrounding the mouth of the run is very wide and good for walking. There's also a set of stairs to the south of the beach that leads back into the park.
I almost left the park without finding the rest of the "hidden" karst windows. After rounding back from taking a couple final pictures, I noticed a trail into the woods just south of the bathroom. It's not cut very well and I was only wearing my flip-flops (mistake), but I crashed ahead and found two large karst windows and what looks like a sink (check the pictures below). I doubt it's a good idea to go into these formations but they were much more picturesque than the main spring.
Overall I really enjoyed the park. It had a nice variety of open springs and wooded karst windows, nice bathroom and changing facilities, and a very clean parking lot. Recommended.
Of the first two-day jaunt, this was probably the most stunning all-around. I don't know if words really work to describe how it shined in the morning; the pictures below do it much better justice.
The park is technically a state park but is maintained by the SRWMD, so there's no visible staff or complex facilities; this probably went a long way to preserving some of the fun of the park. The spring has a direct-access jumping platform and a dock; paths are made of mud and roots, not concrete; there are no ropes to be found in the swimming area. The spring run snakes around a small limestone formation and into the Withlacoochee river, crashing over a line of rocks into the tannic water.
This spring has everything: cave diving, free diving, deep swimming, shallow areas, wading areas, relaxing rapids, river wading, and fishing. My only regret is not swimming. We were in a hurry and it was the first spring of the day, but I do very much regret it. Madison Blue Springs State Park is highly recommended, and I cannot wait to go back someday.
This is an interesting and unique spring to say the least. The spring is actually under the main section of the Suwannee. Since the Suwannee is filled with tannic acid, the clear water emanating from the spring isn't immediately visible. In fact, while I'm fairly sure the spring is under the middle of the river, the spring water is forced to the bank on the east side (due to the temperature difference). Check out the pictures below to get a better idea of what I mean. This creates the opportunity to see the strange mixture of crystal clear and tannic water that is constantly changing.
The temperature difference is also fascinating. Just wading from the shore let's you take steps from warm water into icy water and back. I don't think swimming was intended at this spring but it was remote and inviting enough to give it a go.
I took a few movies of the descent to the spring mouth but I was never able to reach it completely; the visibility drops off linearly as the river water becomes more of the mixture. It's actually very creepy; the clear and chilled water is quickly replaced with increasingly darker and warmer water. It's enough to make you turn back simply from the sensation.
The banks are covered in limestone formations and rocks as is typical of the upper-Suwannee springs. It's somewhat difficult to position yourself for good photos as the only way to travel down the beach is over said rocks. Also, as motorized watercraft travels down the river, the waves disturb the visibility and mixture of the spring heavily.
This spring isn't much fun, but it's quite unique, well-marked from the road, and less than five minutes from the interstate, so I would recommend a quick trip to see it.
I expected something rank when I looked at the satellite view; it was dark, heavily wooded, and with a name like "foul mouth", it wasn't looking good. However, I'd be lying if I said this wasn't my favorite memory from the entire trip. We parked at the top of the landing and scaled down the boardwalk to the karst window (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karst_fenster).
This spring is one of those "sum of its parts" locations that just feels so nice regardless of its individual values. The water visibility was pretty bad. I took a few snapshots of the rise but it was nothing but a solid slightly-tannic scene. It's also in a small ravine, so the sun doesn't reach much and the canopy is thick. It's also a fair bit creepy. The spring water emerges from a dark shaded area; I tried to swim into it but I lost my appetite for adventure fairly quickly. About 200ft down the run the water abruptly enters another cave, and given the speed of the water, I didn't want to get anywhere near the hidden sinkhole.
Despite all that, it was very quiet and pristine. The transparent water gurgled down through the rocks and fallen branches in such a way that the normal soothing sound resonated throughout the area. The run was a perfect depth - about 2.5' - to allow wading or swimming. The water as always was icy cold, but the tree cover made it just a little cooler. After I'd been taking pictures from the run for about 10 minutes, the sun slid behind some clouds and the area became very chilled, almost like an AC unit kicked on. Mist/fog started to rise off of the run and within minutes, the sun came back and started lancing through the fog to create some of the most sickening sweet imagery I'd ever seen at a spring. My camera didn't do it justice (especially since the lenses kept fogging up). I ran down the bank to get shots of the sink and the trees in this state.
I wanted to stay and just bask in the privacy and peacefulness of the spring, but I had too many more to see on this trip. I don't know if I could go back with the same expectations, but I do hope I can chill in the run for an hour or so one day.
I have to say the decision between making this a major or minor spring was difficult. The spring itself is very nondescript and is composed of many different vents; I challenge anyone to find the "one vent" to call Gold Head Branch Spring. However, the setting and the park surrounding the outflow of water is so pristine and so starkly different from its home in Putnam County that I recommend the trip to the park heavily, if only for a stop-over.
The spring itself is deep in a ravine. Parking next to the walkway signs, I expected to descend a few feet from the looks of the stairs. In reality, the descent is something like 30-40ft. It's breathtaking actually; I could not believe that I was looking so far down to the spring, especially in Florida. The water was ice-cold as always, and there are more than a few places to remove your shoes and walk up the white-sand tributaries. Even on a Sunday it was very quiet with only a few visitors.
The spring area itself is very overgrown and impassable in most areas, but there's an extensive trail system cut in the surrounding area. The park itself has many other hiking trails and swimming areas (namely a lake) and appears to have decent facilities throughout.
I have to admit I was a little euphoric on this trip as I had just purchased my new Honda Fit Sport (2010) the day before. I don't think this played into the trip much, but I was alone and enjoying the sharp turns and curves of the park roads!
Growing up I'd heard that this park was despondent and not worth visiting, but I highly disagree.