Saturday, February 16, 2013

Waterfalls, cascades, gorges abound on trail

Doughboys Nature Trail
at Copper Falls State Park, Wis.
Hikers can tour Wisconsin’s geological history in some of the most breathtaking scenery this side of the Mississippi on Doughboys’ Nature Trail at Copper Falls State Park in Wisconsin. Located in Ashland County, the trail follows the Bad River and Tyler Forks past Copper and Brownstone waterfalls and a series of cascades.

Summer and early fall mark the best time to hike the trail. A portion of it closes during the winter as ice leaves rock stairs slippery and unsafe.

To reach Copper Falls State Park, from Mellen take State Hwy. 169 north. Upon passing Loon Lake, enter the park by turning left onto Copper Falls Road. A vehicle admission sticker or state trail pass – which costs as low as $3 for Wisconsin visitors making a daily visit to $35 for out-of-state visitors seeking an annual pass – is required for entry.

The road leads to a parking lot near the pet area. From there, head northwest to the picnic area. Doughboys’ Nature Trail starts near the concession building. The thick red clays you’ll spot near that building weren’t there a few thousand years ago. At the time, Lake Superior – made larger than it is today by melting glaciers – covered the park. The clay and granite boulders were left here by those glaciers after dragging them down from Canada.

Billion-year-old lava rock
Doughboy Nature Trail actually consists of several sections of other trails that form a nice 1.7-mile loop at the park’s heart. Begin the trail by taking a footbridge over the Bad River. Once across the bridge, you’ll notice an observation tower is to the left. Go right for the view of Copper Falls.

The 29-foot waterfall is the first of many drops the Bad River takes in the park. The river for about 200 million years slowly has slowly carved out the canyon through this 1 billion-year-old lava rock left by ancient volcanoes.

At Bad and Tyler Forks rivers junction, you’ll spot Brownstone Falls. The two rivers join spectacularly with Tyler Forks plunging over a hard red lava edge into the rugged gorge. The black walls rise between 60-100 feet above the swirling water.

White cedar trees line the gorge. A plethora of other hardwoods – aspen, basswood, hemlock, ironwood, paper birch, red oak, red pine, sugar maple, white pine, and yellow birch – cover the park, making for impressive autumn walks.

The trail then veers left, following Bad River as it flows on hard, erosion-resistant red lava. When this basalt was formed, the North American continent literally was splitting in half, resulting in a rift full of volcanoes. Lake Superior in part exists because its basin consists of this lava.

Canyon walls tipped on their sides
This geology changes slightly as the trail passes Devil’s Gate, in which the river flows over conglomerate rocks left by ancient streams. The canyon walls showing these different layers of sediment sit almost on their sides as the ground settled and hard lavas shifted upward.

At the footbridge, go right and cross the Bad River. The trail follows the waterway on the opposite shoreline, offering different perspective of Devil’s Gate. It then briefly joins the North Country Trail; stay to right and keep following the river. Within a few minutes of walking, the trail passes the river fork again, offering hikers a different view of Brownstone Falls.

By this point in the trail, you’ve probably noticed a great amount of wildlife. While the trail usually is too busy for the park’s larger denizens – white-tailed deer, elk, black bears and gray wolves – to come close, chipmunks and red and gray squirrels as well a number of songbirds are abundant. You’ll also likely spot the big northern raven, great pileated woodpecker, and chickadees. Visitors in June and July likely will see banded purple and tiger swallowtail butterflies.

If lucky, you also may sight ruffed grouse, eagles, turkey vultures, raccoons, fishers, skunks, porcupines (well, maybe not so lucky with skunks). Wood turtles and wood frogs also live near the shores, as do five different types of snakes, none of which are poisonous.

Final leg of the trail
The trail briefly follows Tyler Forks River past the Cascades, which is supported by black lava. A footbridge takes hikers across the Tyler Forks, which was named for John Tyler, a ship captain who surveyed the area for the Indian Agency.

You’ll then head back on the opposite shore of Tyler Forks River past the Cascades and Brownstone Falls. Upon passing the river junction, head south along the Bad River shore back to the picnic area/concession stand where you began.

Miscellaneous notes: Pets are not allowed on the trail. The first half mile is accessible for people with disabilities.

Read more about family friendly day hiking trails in my Headin' to the Cabin guidebooks.