Key Mill Branch Hike – Contributor: Cody Hood

I’ve been in search of several of the waterfalls in the Bankhead area. Several of the falls are not on any marked trails, so for those waterfalls you have to do some research in order to find them. For the Key Mill Branch area I scoured the Internet looking for directions and the locations of the waterfalls.

A short history lesson on the area, a solider that fought in the Civil War by the name of Joseph Francis Marion Key owned land in the area and is where the area gets it’s name from. He ran a grist mill at one of the falls until 1918 even he died due to injuries from the mill. His third wife Mary Jane Key ran the grist mill after his passing until she was 92. Mary Jane Key passed at the age of 101 in 1962.

Now for exploring the area. It was May 3rd and I got off work early this day (work had been a little slow) and went home and changed clothes. I grabbed my bag, packed it with some water and a snack and headed out. I had found on a map where Key Mill Branch was, so I set out to explore the area. I parked at the top of Key Mill Branch and set off into the woods. There’s no trail or markings for the branch or the waterfalls, I just followed alongside of the branch into the woods. I was lucky that the Forest service had recently done a controlled burn in the area to clear of all the under brush that Bankhead is notorious for. I had a pretty easy walk down the branch due to the burn. I was doubtful at first because there was very little water running in the branch for most of the way down, several spots were dried up completely. After hiking for a little while, there started to be more and more water in the branch. The branch started to descend into a Canyon surrounded by bluffs in each side. This is the point where I started seeing a few cascades and then waterfalls. I came to a waterfall that had beautiful turquoise colored water pool at it’s base. This is where I descended into the canyon to get a better look and take some pictures. Even though it had been pretty dry lately, there was a good bit of water flowing and made for a beautiful waterfall. After snapping a few pictures I hiked further down the branch to explore more. After a few twists and turns of the branch, I came to the top of another waterfall. The top of this waterfall was a little bit different than most I’ve ran across because it had 4 squares cut into the rock where the grist mill use to be. I peered off the top of the falls and could see something that I had read about when researching this area. There’s still pieces of gears from the grist mill laying all the ground a few feet from the base of the falls. It’s awesome to see such history right there in front of you. No telling how many years these gears have been laying there or how old they are. I got out my phone and snapped several pictures of the falls and the gears. In one of the pictures of the falls, you can see the rock us a bright orange color. This is iron ore coming out of the rock.

After hanging out in that area for a bit, I headed down the branch looking for another site that I had read about. There is a large bluff that I have heard called “the stage”. You walk through a rock tunnel of sorts to get to the bluff. I read that on one side of the bluff is etched “key 1909”, so I set out to find this area. I walked down the branch a ways searching here and there for the stage bluff. Climbing up and down hills and exploring several bluffs and a few other waterfalls, I was unsuccessful in finding the stage bluff. After hiking around for awhile I decided to head back to my car because it was getting late. I’ll have to get more information on the location of “the stage”bluff for next time. All in all, it was a good hike in a beautiful area. I’ll have to go back after it has rained for a bit because I’m sure there’s several more falls to see when the area is saturated and of course, I have to find that bluff.


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