Last July, torrential rain in northern Wisconsin flooded and washed out roads and destroyed trees and homes on its way to causing more than $30 million in damages. The storms led to road and park closings in several northern counties, including at Copper Falls State Park near Mellen in Ashland County.
But as cleanups began and Copper Falls reopened a couple of days later, visitors were rewarded with a roaring performance by the park’s river and two major waterfalls.
“The Bad River is known for its flashiness — when they say flash flood, they really mean it,” said Todd Hintz, superintendent for Copper Falls. “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid — I grew up in the area — and it was as high as I’ve ever seen. It was absolutely spectacular.”
Within a few days, however, the park’s two most impressive falls — Copper and Brownstone — had returned to their usual tame late-summer trickle.
Hintz said visitors who want to see the cascades at their mightiest should watch the forecast.
“We always tell folks, if you really want to see neat water, watch for rain up here,” he said, noting that 1 to 2 inches of rain means the waterfalls will put on a nice display for a day or two.
Falls face each other
Even at a trickle, however, the waterfalls are a sight to behold. Both are officially listed at 30 feet, although Copper Falls is smaller now as the river has worn away at the black-red rock that makes up the Bad River gorge.
That gorge, whose walls can tower up to 100 feet above the riverbed, makes the waterfalls that much more impressive.
The dramatic, craggy walls are made up of ancient lava flows that hardened into black and red basalt, sandstone, shale and conglomerate. White cedar trees line the gorge, surrounded by hemlock, white pine, sugar maple and yellow birch.
Below, the Bad River’s high iron content gives the water a reddish hue, which when set against the black and red rocks and brilliant green trees creates a stunning vista.
Both Copper and Brownstone Falls are in the northern part of the park, a short walk down the 1.7-mile Doughboys Trail, which can be accessed near the concession building.
From the building, cross the footbridge over the Bad River and follow the trail north along the river. Copper Falls appears first, sometimes in two cascades split by a massive rock.
Farther down the trail, Brownstone Falls comes into view. The mightier of the two waterfalls, this one is actually on the Tyler Forks, which flows into the Bad River just upstream. Because the two waterfalls are on different rivers — one flowing northeast, the other southwest — they essentially face each other. It’s an odd thing to wrap your head around when standing in a central viewing spot on the west side of the Bad River.
Past the falls, the trail continues following the Bad River past Devil’s Gate, where giant conglomerate walls frame the shallow stream. The trail crosses the river via a bridge before looping back east and past Brownstone and a series of cascades. After crossing the Tyler Forks, the trail follows the east bank of the Bad River before finishing back at the concession building.
The trail along the east bank of the river is wheelchair-accessible, allowing for views of the falls from that side.
Trails and a tower
But the waterfalls are not all there is to see in this big park.
“Copper Falls State Park is 4,000 acres, so what folks see, this basic couple hundred acres encompassing the entrance, the beach, the Doughboys Trail, is just a small taste,” Hintz said.
He suggests exploring a segment of the North Country Trail that runs through the park. In 2015, volunteers from the Heritage Chapter of the North Country Trail Association completed a new portion of trail here, bringing the trail’s total mileage through Copper Falls to 9 miles, stretching the length of the park.
While the July storms damaged some parts of the trail and the backpacking site toward its northern end in the park, Hintz said they were able to temporarily fix the damage and reopen the trails.
Another favorite of Hintz’s is the park’s 65-foot observation tower, accessible via a one-mile spur off the Doughboys Trail. He said it’s possible to see Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay — about 25 miles to the northwest — from the top on a clear day.
The southern part of the park is worth exploring, too. The 2.5-mile Red Granite Falls trail there leads to another series of small cascades along the Red River.
The trail begins at Loon Lake, which features a 300-foot sand beach. The lake is open to electric motors only and features a small canoe/kayak launch.
And while summer is a popular time to visit the park, Hintz said it’s worth seeing in all seasons.
“Copper Falls is great year-round, and it has different types of beauty,” he said. Fall brings the beauty of changing leaves, while winter is a favorite for cross-country skiing on the park’s more than 20 miles of groomed trails.
In addition to the backpack campsite, the park has 24 campsites and one group site, plus a rustic accessible cabin that sleeps four.
A concession stand, open Memorial Day to Labor Day, offers food, drinks, ice cream, ice and firewood.
Copper Falls State Park is at 36764 Copper Falls Rd., Mellen, Wis., about 200 miles northeast of the Twin Cities and 90 miles east of Duluth.
Vehicles need a Wisconsin State Parks admission sticker to enter Copper Falls ($11/day, $38/year for out-of-state vehicles).
For a second year, the North Country Trail is promoting a Hike 100 challenge. Anyone who hikes 100 miles of the trail in 2017 is eligible to receive a special patch and certificate.
For more on the park, call 1-715-274-5123 or see dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/copperfalls.