Key Mill Branch, Bankhead National Forest, AL 3/10/19

Trails: no trails

Length: 6 miles
View Photo Gallery

It had been some nine years since I first (and last) visited Key Mill Branch in Bankhead National Forest, and it was among the earliest of my adventures with Wild South. This return trip would be a bit truncated, following an small drainage straight down to where the first large falls starts and then going downstream. While waiting for Ryan and Shelly to arrive, I scouted out the path a little. Wet, slick, but not too overgrown. Severe weather risk was another factor at play this day, and while it’s not something I usually chance or challenge, the early morning rain seemed to maybe put damper on individual storms firing before the main line arrived, well after when we’d hoped to be out of the canyon.

We dropped one car down the road a piece where the orange horse trail crosses, parking the other just outside of the Owl Creek Horse Camp. Walking down the road to the north, we cut out down a narrow stream filled with ferns and mosses, and also plenty of brier. We were in an area of the forest that seemed thinned, as large old pines stood spread out with younger deciduous trees trying to fill the voids. Water bubbled up from holes in numerous spots and flowed downhill, a good sign this high up. As several other feeder streams joined in, the land flattened out, and the forest opened up. Now all deciduous trees, we passed small hollies along the stream barely knee high, and the tall pines retreated to the highest spots on the ridges around. There was evidence of fire, trees burned down to hollow pits, some full of leaves (future ankle breaker), others with the remnants of trunks reaching upward like black spires. The stream widened into a bit of a rock glade before spilling over a small falls just a foot high or so before a second drop into a surprisingly deep pool.

It joined the main channel of Key Mill Branch here, and we stepped upstream a bit to check out a dry cascade on the far side, and other fast flowing cascades beneath a canopy of holly trees and tall mountain laurel. Ryan had his grandfather’s camera that was passed down to him out for a test run, and this would be a great day for it. Just downstream we could hear Upper Key Mill Falls, and we crossed to north side of the branch to find an easy way down. This falls is only about 6ft tall, but the two tiered nature of it, and wide rock lip at the bottom makes it a beauty. The plunge pool ahead is extremely large, and that’s the case for the middle falls downstream too. I found spotted wintergreen, and explained what it was and was used for. After chewing a leaf, they agreed. While Ryan tinkered with camera settings, I indulged myself with photos of partridgeberry and other small vines hanging from the rock shelter beside the falls. Much of the rock and land here was covered in moss, and being wet, everything glistening.
Heading downstream, we kept on the same side briefly past a small rock shelter before backtracking to find a less wet way across the creek. Staying high on the tall bank to the right about 15ft off the ground we passed numerous small cascades, including one that was a long rock slide. I loved the way it looked, and found a way down and across the creek to get back upstream to see it. This area had a number of downed trees, a few of which had British soldier lichen growing on them, one of my favorites. Passing the last tree, I stepped out into some flat rocks, as close as I could get to the cascade without getting wet. Both sides of the creek had drawn up tight, and a deep pool extends for about 20ft downstream of the cascade itself, deep enough for swimming. Beside us, several small falls just a few feet high dotted the rock wall to our left. It was around here that I noticed the water hitting my hat wasn’t from that; it was raining. These were light showers, and that was actually good news, as it could inhibit more destructive storms later by robbing the atmosphere of instability.

Fifty yards downstream, the middle of the three main Key Mill Branch Falls was roaring. The box canyon forces you high and up to the left, but we took a moment to take pictures right at the edge of the falls on a flat rock. The mountain laurel are especially numerous through here, but that goes away once you duck the large fallen tree and get back into the hemlock grove downstream. The rain was falling harder now, and lots of fog was beginning to form around the falls. It made for a really nice effect both at the plunge pool and downstream as well. One could almost call this a stair stepped falls, the upper part striking another portion of the shelter that hasn’t eroded away before falling into the large and seemly very deep plunge pool. The rain was enough I let Ryan use my hat as a shield for the camera, as my hoodie kept me dry. Adjacent to the larger falls was a lightly flowing cascade about 100ft in length that was near impossible to photograph from all the fallen trees. The lower Key Mill Falls, and the one that was the site of the old grist mill is just a few hundred yards downstream. There’s a spot between the two falls that offers a little high ground, and a stellar view upstream through the hemlocks with the falls visible in the distance. Crossing right at the top of the 15ft falls, in high water today, we found the grooves cut to hold the log dam, and found several large metal rods jutting out of the ground. To get down below, you it’s a little bit of a climb up away from the falls, which offers a view of the tallest bluffs creek side we’d find all day. Rising about 40ft, the lower portion looked painted, with lots of iron seeps striping the rock face.

I wish we’d searched the semi-flat ground above for more evidence of the former mill, but below and close to the falls are pieces of the old gears, and what looked like old timbers from the mill in the creek bed itself. The rain began to fall much harder, and there was enough of a shelf close to the falls to offer protection from it until the worst of it subsided. Had I known the rain would have picked up as much as it did, we could have sheltered in a spot that overlooks the falls, sat on rocks, and waited. Crouched in the shelter we were in, though, I took time to photograph the early leaves of alum root, and the stalactite-like iron formations. Downstream, Shell found a large crayfish, but we were unable to get a good photo of him. I did manage a photo of a toad hanging, but that would be almost the extent of our creature finds that day.

Key Mill meanders in a beautiful pattern downstream, but it’s not one hundred yards to the next delight, something people have taken to calling “twisted falls”. It gets that name not for any corkscrew pattern of water, but because the main falls sits at a sharp 90 degree turn from the lower cascades. It’s near impossible to reach directly from the creek, as it was this day, with the water so high. I’ve rock climbed the 9ft lower cascade before on a much drier day, but impatience here can reward you with injury. The lure to this falls is that you can hear that upper falls, but it’s near impossible to see it from this angle. We hiked downstream and then uphill on a game trail/social trail before turning north and dropping down the slick leaves into the bowl of rock. To the right is a favorite little spot of mine, a place where one can get back into two small hole like shelters that sit side by side and rest. This day a spring seeped just enough sitting wasn’t an option. A slip off the ledge here is a 15-20ft fall to rock, though. I ventured down to the bottom for more photos and get behind the falls itself just to take in that viewpoint. Shell had wandered off, and we figured downstream. We decided to follow the social trail a bit uphill, finding a larger falls I’d never seen before. There was no easy way down to this falls, unless we crossed above and ventured to the other side. Most striking to me was the deep plunge pool in front of it, a beautiful deep blue-green. I’d have to explore it more some other time.

We caught up with Shell, who hadn’t gone downstream, but back to the cascade at the bottom of “twisted falls”. She’d found one of the biggest crayfish I’d ever seen! Attempts at coaxing it out failed, so we continued downstream, partially walking an old road before I ventured off to cross at the next falls. The feeder stream joins at a hard bend in the creek, so we were forced to rock hop the small cascades above the blue hole. This unnamed falls is the tallest of all I’ve seen on Key Mill, but there remains some across the creek I’ve yet to venture too. There’s some suggestion from the rock features of an upper falls, but we didn’t look for a way up this time. I think what I like most about this falls is the wide rock at the bottom, which scatters the water backward so it flows under the boulder instead of under. As a result, the plunge pool, halved by a fallen log, remains shallow, and full of larger stones. I didn’t venture behind this falls, because the mud was so thick, but loved the coloration of the shelter wall, which looked like mahogany obsidian.

We crossed back over downstream on a large pile of rocks just below the creek junction, and a blue hole. It almost looked man-made, but a larger flat rock creates a bit of a choke point here. It’s interesting that the blue hole looks already completely devoid of rocks, but it’s also thick with silt. As we kept on downstream, small falls dotted the bluffs on the far side, nothing worth crossing to see. We picked up an old road bed, and fog began to drift out of the woods on our left. Was this the shelter we were looking for? It’d been many years since I’ve been here. Crossing a large fallen hemlock, I found wild ginger, turkeytail mushrooms, partridgeberry, and more fog. We could hear the falls, but it wasn’t until we got much closer to the bluff that we could see it. It was somewhere close to being as tall as the last falls, and the rock face and shelter behind it was flatter, and the shelter much deeper and longer. While tempting, we needed to keep pushing downstream. If we were to trying venture across creek or get all the way to the horse trail, we still had a long ways to venture. The thick hemlock canopy continued, as did portions of an old road we could make out. A small dry stream with a short wide rock lip high up the hillside looked enticing, but being dry we didn’t walk up it. Somewhere through here we found a carving of a person, smiling, though time is beginning to wear most of the evidence of it away.

Key Mill Branch began to narrow a bit, and the small curves in the creek and increase in boulders made it a wonderful view, even if the hiking a little tougher with the thick wet leaves and steep slopes. Soon we found another old road bed, and used it to navigate away from the creek edge a bit, crossing a well flowing side stream I’d never ventured up before. The large jumble of weather worn boulders in the creek itself were quite nice. We marveled at the roots holding a tall hemlock atop a mushroom shaped boulder in the middle of the stream. They fill the gap between the two boulders and wrapped the one closest to shore to reach more substantial soil. There was a lot of open canopy upstream from here, or seemed to be. The hemlocks were younger, thicker, and hard to see through. The rain was picking up a little again as we found a way through a small boulder garden and to a lower pool of water. Ryan could hear the falls, but we still couldn’t see it. Pushing through mountain laurel to get out onto a bit of a rock land bridge the falls finally came into view, a long cascade plunging through multiple little pools closer to 100ft before reaching the one we were standing at. Both sides of the stream were encased in mountain laurel, with only the edges of boulders and the blue green waters tumbling down visible through it all.

I made my way over to the south side of the stream, fighting my way uphill to the next pool for a more open view of the upper falls, which fells only a few feet before beginning the long cascade. I was determined to get as close to the upper falls as possible, and did so, finding another small pool we couldn’t see from below, as well as the winter leaves of cranefly orchid and hepatica well past bloom season. Catching up with Ryan and Shell back down below, a stillness came over the forest. I know what that means all too well, and they confirmed my hearing thunder in the distance. This means the cap had broken, and we needed to find shelter, and fast. There wasn’t time to hike out of the canyon, so I knew we had to make a break for it and reach the “stage shelter” before it hit. Moving faster than I should have through an open area, my foot found a hole next to the game trail and twisted. I waited for the others to catch up, and being able to put weight on it, kept going. As with most of my injuries, it wouldn’t really show itself until a day later when the adrenaline from the hike wore off. I kept us up high away from the creek, and turned up the next branch where almost no water was flowing, but recognizing the tell tale sign of the tall flat rock face on the far side of the shelter.

The rain really began to cut loose, and it was a welcome sight to see the entrance to the “cave” down and to the right. Of all the places one could be stuck in during severe weather in Bankhead, this ranks right at the top of the list. The shelter goes back about 30ft or so, and makes a 180 degree turn up on sloped boulders that lead up to the stage. The two halves are blocked by a large rock wall coming down from the top of the shelter, so you’re almost in a completely separate room. Additionally, one could follow against the far back wall down into the crevice which is a good 15-20ft below the “stage” area above. We stopped to look at the Carvings that read “1909 Key Mill”, with the last 9 being backwards, before climbing on up to the stage, which is just a long arm of rock barely head high in a lot of places and quite flat. We managed to find a pile of rocks back away from the edge, and well out of the rain to watch the storm out, which ended up being three separate storms that raged for an hour or more. This was one of the few times I’ve been stuck out in the wilderness during severe weather, and of them all, this was by far the most pleasant. The falls began to flow really well in front of the shelter, and this was the first time I’ve ever seen them flowing, which was pretty awesome.

Once the lightning had subsided and most of the rain had, we planned an exit, but deciding to continue just one more little side branch downstream instead of backtracking.
We could hear the creek raging from the rains, as well as waterfalls across the creek we could no longer reach. There was a spot or two that was possibly passable, but I ford flood waters, and these were rising. Downstream in a hard bend I found the “H” tree (Rayford Hyatt, former Bankhead Conservation Officer) at a spot where I usually do cross, now several feet deep. We made the hard climb up to the left on the outside of the bend instead, eyeballing an old road that looked to lead up atop. The next drainage had a lot of canopy loss, but hemlocks are filling the canyon once again. On the far ridge I could see the stands of pine trees that follow along a road that was built for the helicopter crash, something we were looking to find. Our focus for the moment turned to getting to the head of this little side canyon and waterfall #9. Unfortunately for Ryan, his camera batteries had completely died, and with all the rain, this falls was a raging beauty. Approximately 12fft tall, it fell in a 5ft wide swatch on a pile of rocks in front of a very shallow shelter we didn’t explore. Instead, Ryan and I hopped down to a small sand bar where I took a number of photos, and he attempted to use other batteries that had previously died since sometimes they’ll get a little charge back. (Later he would find that he got one photo off, and it was a keeper!). This whole little side canyon was full of cascades much like the previous canyon, where they’d end intermittently into small pools of water.

Shell was already up top, and with no way of knowing if additional storms were coming, we decided not to hang around much longer. Atop the falls, we quickly found an old road bed, possibly the one leading downhill earlier before entering the canyon. We followed the road and the redundant flagging alongside the creek, which quickly leveled out. The forest changed from hemlocks to a small band of deciduous trees along the stream flanked by tall pines on either side. To our right we knew the helicopter crash was somewhere, but there wasn’t much chatter among us about it. On the hillside I could see chest high grass, and even if the threat of ticks was pretty much non-existent, we would have been soaked walking through it. After about half a mile, the road became bermed against the creek, forcing every single spring and seek to flow directly down the old road bed. This forced us up into the brush for a bit, until intersecting an old road I mistook as the horse trail. Up to our right, we could see a sign, so we ventured up to it, finding it was marked “Helicopter” with a giant arrow.

This bit of excitement changed our minds about getting out, and we set out down the wide road bed in hopes of finding it. I barely had service, and could see a line of storms in Mississippi headed toward us, but we had some time before they’d reach us. The old road was obviously used by horses, and as such, kept trampled down. Most of the trees were burned well up the trunks, and we’d later learn the area was burned well after the crash, and what had remained of the crash site here was destroyed. We stopped at several spots, crossed a dirt berm and continued downhill until I noticed it likely was just a connector trail now that would intersect the horse trail well back into the canyon. We turned back after walking almost the entire length of it, more interested in getting back with daylight left. Back at the road we ventured out of the canyon on, I missed the spot where the horse trail continues north toward the road (and our vehicle), and set out down the old road headed north and then northwest before discovering we were getting well off track of my gps. With batteries dying, I used the paper map to sort of triangulate where we needed to be, and set off cross country, Ryan and Shell in tow. I’ve learned to just pick the direction you need and hike as the crow flies, and don’t deviate for anything. Eventually we’d find the horse trail well uphill, and so narrow I can see why it was missed earlier. From there it was a short walk back to the car, the trail leaving the high hill and careening in a wide arc over a dry drainage before hooking left back to the road. After hike grub consisted of a stop in Moulton at Bobby Rai’s, which was a bit too loud with the band and the headache I had. The burger wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but at that point food was food, and I was happy to have some. It didn’t dampen the day any, but the thunderstorms that rolled back in as we were leaving soaked everything, and it was good to be out of the woods when this next line hit. Good to be on our way home.

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