Ancient lava flows, deep gorges, and spectacular waterfalls make Copper Falls one of Wisconsin's most scenic parks. Log buildings built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s add to the park's charm.
There are many things to do—hiking, picnicking, fishing, and swimming. The park is one of the highlights of the North Country National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin.
For overnight stays, there are 54 regular campsites, a group camping area big enough for 40 people, a backpack campsite, and, for people with disabilities, a rustic cabin. Average season snowfall of more than 100 inches enables the park to maintain 12 kilometers (8 miles) of cross-country ski trails.
Copper Falls State Park's History
During the last several thousand years, many different Indian tribes lived in this region. The earliest Indians followed the retreating glaciers edge as nomadic hunters, and killed giant mastodons for food. Other ancient Indians, primarily hunters, followed the earliest tribes. Old Copper Culture Indians lived here for many centuries mining pure copper veins for the metal from which to make hunting weapons and tools.
The most recent Indians in this region were the Sioux and Chippewa. They were here when the French first came to Lake Superior country.
In the early 1860s and before, exploratory mining for copper ore occurred in the canyon of the Bad River between Copper Falls and Brownstone Falls. Not much is known of this activity other than the shafts shown on early maps, but it is assumed that this search for copper was due to the North's armament needs during the Civil War.
Edward Dolan of Mellen was son of Mrs. Ellen Bacon Dolan, cook for the Ruggles mining crew. They lived at Copper Falls for several years in the early 1900s. On January 16, 1975, at age 76, he gave the following information to Park Manager Kent Goeckermann:
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Wells M. Ruggles ran a four- or five-man mining crew in what is now Copper Falls State Park. Mr. Ruggles was an attorney by profession who somehow ended up running a mining camp. The camp consisted of several houses and farm buildings on the Bad River just southwest of the present picnic grounds. John Blix was mine captain and crew boss of the Ruggles men in their search for copper ore.
The Ruggles crew sank a vertical shaft at the site of the present footbridge across the Bad River. They also dug a nearly horizontal shaft into the hillside at the southeast corner of the present picnic grounds. This shaft was known as "the cave."
While working on this shaft, the mining crew became irritated at the rises of the Bad River causing flooding in their diggings. To solve this problem, the Ruggles crew proceeded to divert the Bad River to the north of the hill that you can see at the east end of the present picnic ground. The river formerly curved to the south in the area of the present concession footbridge, then swept east, and then north in a quarter-mile loop back to Copper Falls.
The Ruggles mining venture found little copper, and investors were disappointed.
Names Preserve Memories
Tyler Forks River is named for John Tyler, a Great Lakes ship captain and surveyor for the Indian Agency at Ashland, Wisconsin.
Murphy Lake is named after Jack Murphy, who in the late 1800s and early 1900s lived in what is now Copper Falls State Park. He had a log cabin near the present ballfield pine plantation.
The State Park Era
Copper Falls State Park was created in 1929 and much of the development work was done by two Depression-era government agencies, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Nature lovers will find this park loaded with interesting living things. Spanning the boundary of Wisconsin's North Central Forest and Superior Coastal Plain ecological landscapes, the park is home to a rich variety of species.
Children age 3 and up and their parents can participate in the Wisconsin Explorer program at Copper Falls.
A 500-acre area around the falls has been designated as a state natural area.
Trees and other plants
Beautiful hemlock, sugar maple, white pine, and yellow birch forests may be seen. Second-growth forests with red oak, ironwood, paper birch, aspen, basswood, red pine, and other trees blanket many parts of the park. The gorges are bordered by white cedar trees. Hundreds of species of plants are available for study, observation, and photography.
Animals most commonly seen in the park area include deer, fishers black bears, raccoons, chipmunks, skunks, and red squirrels. Gray squirrels, gray wolves, and porcupines also live in the park and may be seen. Fishers have reduced the number of porcupine. Elk were recently reintroduced west of the park.
Birdlife is abundant, with perhaps as many as 200 species living in or passing through the park in a given year. You will often hear the coarse caw of the big northern raven, you may often see a great pileated woodpecker, and you will some times be scolded by sassy chickadees. There are ruffed grouse, eagles, turkey vultures and loons in the park.
Reptiles, Amphibians, and Insects
There are a five species of snakes, none of them poisonous, wood turtles, many wood frogs, and a few other amphibians. Pretty banded purple and tiger swallowtail butterflies are common in June and July.
River and Rock Create a Scenic Wonderland
The Bad River originates in Caroline Lake in east central Ashland County and runs a meandering course northward to empty into Lake Superior.
About four miles north of Mellen, the river plunges across an outcropping of resistant rock through which it has been cutting a path for millions of years. The result is a spectacular piece of scenery that today is surrounded by Copper Falls State Park.
The 29-foot Copper Falls marks the first drop of the Bad River as it flows through about two miles of steep-walled canyons of awesome and rugged splendor. Downstream, Tylers Forks of the Bad River joins the main branch of the river by plunging into the canyon over Brownstone Falls. On either side of the swift-flowing water, the walls of the gorge rise 60 to 100 feet. The falls, the rivers, and the rock walls add up to a breathtaking and exceptional scenic experience.
There are 8.5 miles of river in the park. One-half mile of river is closed to public access due to its high erosion potential and its value as a unique scenic resource for future generations. This scenic area is easily seen by using established park trails. We appreciate your cooperation in protecting this resource by not hiking or climbing in this one-quarter mile closed area.
Bridges and Vistas
Starting at the log footbridge which spans the river at the falls is a self-guided nature trail that leads to observation points overlooking splendid vistas.
The first trails and bridges were built in 1920 and 1921 by the returning veterans of World War I. In the late 1930s, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) work programs put thousands of otherwise jobless men to work at a wide variety of public building, park development, and conservation projects. Building on that initial contribution, the Department of Natural Resources has continued to provide further development aimed at allowing public use while preserving the matchless natural beauty of the park.
How the Falls Were Made
Eons ago, greenstone and granite mountains stood in northern Wisconsin. They were then worn down to a rolling, rock plain. The plain in the Lake Superior region downwarped and was covered by an ancient sea. Streams on the surrounding dry land carried sand, gravel, and mud to the sea where they became thick sea bottom sediments. Iron-rich waters from deep in the earth were forced into the sediments forming this region's valuable iron ores.
Next, thousands of cubic miles of lava oozed from deep fissures where Lake Superior now lies. The lavas spread in all directions, building layer upon horizontal layer, and reaching thicknesses up to 60,000 feet! (You can see these lavas here in the park. So much lava was ejected that the earth's crust sagged, forming the Lake Superior basin.
As the basin settled, streams carried into it sand, bouldery sand and mud. These sediments hardened into sandstones, conglomerates and shales, respectively. Look at Devil's Gate for the peanut brittle-like conglomerate rock.) As the Lake Superior basin slowly settled downward, the hardened lavas and rock layers angled steeply downward to the north and northwest. Some layers fractured, other layers slid over their neighbors and, in general, great changes took place, leaving these layers standing almost on edge in what's now the park!.
The Bad River and Tyler's Fork of the Bad River, not to be denied access to Lake Superior, cut down through the rock layers and carved their present course over the last 200 million years.
Then, during the last one million years, giant glaciers invaded Wisconsin, coming from Canada. As the last glacier melted, it dropped granite boulders and other glacial debris over the entire park, veneering it with sand, mud, and rock from Canada. It deposited the thick red clays seen in the high banks near the concession stand. Just a few thousand years ago, Lake Superior held so much water that it was high enough to leave old beach lines in Copper Falls State Park.
From the concession stand downstream, the Bad River flows on black lava and plunges over beautiful Copper Falls. It continues on black lava to its junction with Tyler's Fork. This river also flows on black lava, which supports the Tyler's Fork Cascades, and plunges over a red lava ledge to join the Bad River at Brownstone Falls.
From here, the Bad River flows in a deep gorge it cut into red lava, then cuts through the conglomerate rocks at Devil's Gate and then through a narrow band of black shale. The river then meets deep layers of sandstone and shale, makes a 180 degree arc in thick red clays, and cuts back into the sandstone and shale layers.
Because of all the rock types involved and their varying hardness and coloration, the gorges and falls make this park one of the most beautiful of Wisconsin's State Parks.
Copper Falls is in the heart of prime fishing area, with scores of lakes offering all kinds of sport fishing within easy traveling distance. In the park, the Bad and Tyler Forks rivers both offer fishing for rainbow, brown, and brook trout. You can catch largemouth bass , northern pike , and panfish in Loon Lake. Small car-top boats and canoes can be launched at Loon Lake. Only electric motors are allowed.
here are public golf courses at Mellen, Ashland, Park Falls, and Hurley, Wisconsin, and Ironwood, Michigan, all within an hour of Copper Falls State Park
Copper Falls has 21 acres of picnic area, with 55 picnic tables, 27 grills, a spacious log shelter, a concession stand, and a generous play area.
There's a 300-foot sand beach for swimming at Loon Lake. A beach wheelchair is available for people with disabilities. No lifeguard is on duty.
Doughboys' Nature Trail
This 1.7-mile trail starts near the concession building and follows the Bad River and Tyler Forks around the scenic heart of the park, Copper and Brownstone Falls and the cascades. A half mile is accessible for people with disabilities.
Red Granite Falls Trail
This 2.5-mile trail is in the southern part of the park, beginning at the Loon Lake Beach parking lot. Two loops mean very little retracing of your steps as you hike or snowshoe to the Red Granite Falls area and back.
North Country National Scenic Trail
The North Country National Scenic Trail, part of a hiking trail that eventually will stretch from New York to North Dakota, extends nearly the entire length of Copper Falls State Park, a total of more than 4 miles. You can pick it up near the entrance station, the group camp, the North Camp area, or the picnic area near the concession building.
The North Country Trail coincides with the east part of the Doughboys' Trail and continues northward across Little Creek and past the backpack campsite.
The part of the Doughboys' Trail west of the Bad River also is part of a loop trail that takes you to an observation tower, where you can get a panoramic view of the area.
The bridge takes you from the area near the parking lot, picnic area, and concession stand to the trail that goes to the tower.
Snowshoeing and Hiking
There are two multi-use trails at Copper Falls State Park, the Red Granite Falls Trail near the park office and the Water Falls Winter Trail at the north end of the park access road.
Mountain Bike and Ski Trails
Copper Falls has networks of one-way mountain bike trails (used for skiing in winter) heading out east, northeast, and west from the North Camp area.
Off the Trails
If you hike, ski, or snowshoe off the trails, you are doing so at your own risk. Make sure you know where you're going and that you'll be able to get back. It's easy to get lost in a heavily wooded area. Use care and good judgment.
Bicycling is allowed only on the designated bike trails.
Copper Falls is about 2 miles northeast of Mellen in Ashland County. Take State Highway 13 to the north side of Mellen and turn (northeast) on State Highway 169. Go about 1.8 miles. The park entrance will be on your left.
Copper Falls State Park, 36764 Copper Falls Road, Mellen, WI 54546. -- (715) 274-5123