Several inches of lake effect snow had fallen over the freshly groomed Red Granite Falls Trail on this crisp winter day. The rolling terrain of the forest cast long shadows across the trail and woods on the 5K loop. We picked up the trail from the Loon Lake parking lot near the Copper Falls Park entrance.
The multi-purpose trail can be skied, snowshoed or hiked and is routinely packed by snowmobile. My wife, Karen, and our six-your-old Lab, Woody, were happy to accompany me on this dog friendly trail.
We wandered off the trail near the Bad River to explore the cascades. The river was breaching though the ice, making for breath-taking scenery. Churning up root-beer colored water several feet over the rocks had me wondering if I was too close to the edge.
"Mike, don't let Woody near the river!" yelled Karen. apparently more concerned about the dog than me.
Nestled in the Penokee Mountains near the top of Wisconsin, Copper Falls State Park contains 4,020 rugged acres in which the Bad River and the Tyler Forks flow through gorges, creating several cascades and waterfalls. The local Indians named the Bad River that because of frequent flooding. The river, which flows northward to Lake Superior. tumbles 30 feet over Copper Falls into a scenic and narrow gorge. The coppery hue of the water and a history of copper mining gives the falls its name. No visit to the state park is complete without a trip along or into the gorge.
Whether it is spring, summer or fall, access is easy from the north picnic area. Start by hiking the Nature Trail Loop, crossing over the Bad River on pedestrian bridges. Wonderful views of Devil's Gate, Brownstone Falls and Copper Falls reward you. Huge white cedar and pine trees line the steep gorge.
Winter access is best from the winter parking lot located in the north portion of the park. Most winter visitors know the allure of this remote and spectacular park. Stunning vistas surround you, but you have to work for it. When piles of snow mound up in late February, a trip into the gorge is best via snowshoes.
Copper Falls marks the first drop of the Bad River as it flows through two miles of steep-walled canyons of rugged splendor giving up great views of the gorge, including ancient hemlock, sugar maple, cedar and yellow birch. There are over eight miles of river contained in the park.
Further downstream the Tyler Forks joins the main branch of the Bad River by plunging into the canyon over Brownstone Falls. On either side of the swift flowing water, the walls of the gorge rise up to 120 feet. The falls, the rivers and the rock walls add up to a stunning and outstanding scenic experience.
Winter makes for challenging conditions along the gorge. Some areas have steep relief with man-made steps which can make for dicey descents on snowshoes and aren't recommended for skiing. There aren't significant ice falls for winter ice climbing either.
Part of the grandeur of the gorge is due to the variety of rock formations that have eroded over the years. The Bad River slices through layers of black shale, sandstone and red and black lava. These rock types and coloration make it one of the most scenic state parks. Winter ice and snowmelt can form a variety of colored ice shafts based on mineral content. Mixed into this rugged scenery are top-notch hiking and ski trails allowing incredible vistas.
Copper Falls State Park lies in the Lake Superior snowbelt shadows, often receiving upwards of 130 inches snow per year. Until recently, ski opportunities were limited to classic skiing with intermittent trail grooming. New park management has prioritized cross-country skiing. Grooming has been enhanced with the addition of a tracked Gator ATV and several kilometers of trails have been added for skate skiing, supplementing the excellent classic and snowshoe opportunities, according to Park Manager Ben Bergey.
"We usually have good conditions mid-December through March," Bergey said. "Our consistent snow and trail grooming should bring more skiers to the park."
Copper Falls State Park now offers over 45K of trails, including 30K of cross-country ski trails, 9K of off-road bike trails, a 3K nature trail and a 1K trail accessible to people with disabilities.
Takkison Loop: Great classic skiing on this 7K, two-loop trail that courses above and along the Bad River. Impressive views reward you on this trail of moderate to steep terrain. I was lucky enough to see a fisher cross in front of me near this trail. This rarely seen member of the weasel family is one of the only animals that hunt porcupine. Access to the trail is via the winter parking area.
Vehtera Loop: Two loops of 8K and 2K with narrow and rolling terrain is suitable for beginner to moderate skiers. Access via the winter park area.
Red Granite Falls Loop: 5K for skiing, hiking and snowshoeing. Access via the Loon Lake parking lot at park entrance.
Skate Loop: A 10K, two-loop option with rolling terrain, generally in open fields. Access is via the DNR contact station at the park entrance and winter parking area.
Nature Trail (also called the Copper Falls Loop): A 2K loop with access to the observation tower, this trail follows the Bad River and Tyler Forks into the scenic heart of the park. There are great views of Copper Falls, Brownstone Falls and the cascades. A 1K trail is accessible for people with disabilities. I've seen wolf track several times north of the river. Access via the north picnic shelter
North Country Trail: This ungroomed 10K trail now extends the entire length of the park with a terminus at the northern border. It makes for good back-country skiing or snowshoeing if you don't mind breaking trail. I like taking my fat skies and my dog on this section. Be warned, though. Some descents on this trail are quite steep. Access points include the contact station and North Camp area.
Park Manager Ben Bergey has been very active adding a load of winter and summer opportunities. Besides the development of the 10K skate ski trail, Bergey has put significant energy into creating a kid's recreation program. Last winter was the first for the Copper Falls After School Ski Club, a combined effort of Copper Falls State Park, the Friends of Copper Falls State Park and the Mellen School District. According to Bergey, over 50 kids have taken part in the program. Kids age 5 to 17 meet twice per week for ski outings, coaching and education.
"The primary focus of the program is geared toward introducing youth to cross-country skiing and exercise. It's a great opportunity to get kids connected to the park and winter recreation. It's a lot of fun for everyone," Bergey said. "We couldn't do it without volunteers Jill Crom, Tom Piikkila, Colleen Matula and Park Ranger Greg Behling. The kids are already asking about when the ski club starts."
Greg Behling is the head groomer and an experienced classic skier who looks forward to winter. "We are seeing more local skiers as the kids ski club has grown. Many parents support the program and have started skiing. We try to groom the trail every time it snows to make sure everyone has a positive experience," Behling said.
Outdoor education and snowshoeing are also included in the curriculum.
The program begins in January with participants receiving a handmade wooden medallion at the March break-up party. Outdoor education is incorporated through weekly themes that included tree identification, birding, animal tracks and several others. The Friends of Copper Falls State Park has already raised $2,500 toward purchasing much needed ski, snowshoe and grooming equipment. A candlelight ski event is also planned for this winter, Behling said.
Winter is a great time to explore deep into the park. Last march, park manager Bergey led a several hour tour to explore some of the recent Stewardship and North County Trail land acquisitions. The powerlines made for an easy entrance into the far northern and western sections of the park. Hard-packed, crusted snow under sunny skies allowed the group to gobble up kilometers on back-country skis. Huge rolling hills made for exciting descents and big climbs overlooking recent Copper Falls land purchases.
One remote area had rows of cascading beaver dams too numerous to count. The most recent purchase was a 720-acre parcel allowing access to a previously land-locked section of the park which contains three miles of the Bad River. Now park visitors have good access to this remarkable geography.
"This diverse landscape is very important for the park. We now can protect the upland areas down to the seasonal tributaries that connect to the Bad River," Bergey said.
Two camping areas provide 60 sites in forested settings, separated from the public use areas. Twenty-four sites have electrical hookups. There are four walk-in sites and one site for backpackers. It's not unusual to see hardy winter campers during winter visits to the park.
A new rustic cabin is available for visitors with disabilities. The 13-foot by 13-foot cabin is wheelchair accessible and can accommodate four people. The cabin has electricity and includes a bunkbed combo unit and an adult sized double bed. There is also a walk-in disability campsite.
Copper Falls history
The first trails, buildings and bridges were built in the 1920s by the returning veterans of World War I. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) put thousands of jobless men to work on a variety of public building, park development and conservation projects. Wisconsin Parks has continued to provide further development aimed at allowing public use while preserving the natural beauty of the park. Several historic buildings are maintained throughout the park. An example of this architecture is the large log cabin picnic shelter built in 1937. The setting is exquisite at the shore of the Bad River.
Another notable CCC structure is the 65-foot-hight wood observation tower built in 1937. Rebuilt in 2008 to the original specifications, the tower offers panoramic views of the Penokee Mountains, Bayfield Peninsula and the Apostle Islands.
Mike McFadzen enjoys cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, paddle sports, biking and running when his day job doesn't interfere. He serves on the Wisconsin State Trails Council, Friends of Wisconsin State Parks and the Sheboygan Nonmotorized Pilot Program. He lives in Greenbush with his wife Karen and dog Woody.
Exploring the Copper Falls area
Copper Falls State Park is two miles northeast of Mellen in Ashland County off of State Highway 13 on State Highway 169.
There are limited restaurants and lodging in Mellen. My favorites "eats" are at the Penokee Mountain Deli and Snow Creek Bar and Grill. For local lodging, try the Mellen Motel or Wildwood Haven which features rustic cabins on Long Lake. Visit the The Mellen Chamber of Commerce website, www.mellenwi.com, for additional information. Several B&Bs are located nearby, including the River Rock Inn. More lodging is available in Ashland and Bayfield, including the dog-friendly Apostle Island Rentals (www.apostlerentals.com). The Deep Water Grill is a favorite Ashland restaurant of ours.
Besides Copper Falls, north-central Wisconsin and the nearby Upper Peninsula of Michigan offer a plethora of waterfalls. In March, I chanced upon a unique river phenomenon while visiting the Potatoe River. Our group was hiking in this Iron County Park when the ice went out. Loud creaking and groaning caught our attention as water breached through the frozen falls. Suddenly large car sized chucks of ice tumbled over the falls causing ice damming and the river rising several feet in minutes. We quickly evacuated to higher ground. The Potatoe Rivers Fall are located off Highway 169 12 miles northeast of Mellen.
Morgan Falls and St. Peters Dome are located 15 miles west of Mellen off Highway 187. This National Forest feature is worth a visit any time of the year. Bring your GPS or maps as its remote location make it difficult to find.
Superior Falls drops a spectacular 90 feet into the Montreal River near Lake Superior. The falls is located southeast of Montreal near County Trunk C on power company land with public access permitted.