Although it’s a long drive to the trailhead and a steep climb, the views from Copper Lakes will make you glad you made the effort. Cobalt blue water, scree slopes and isolation are the key words to describe this hike.
The Copper Lakes Trail sits above the virtual end of the Sunlight Basin Road and you’ll wonder if there really is an end as you’re driving along. It will take you at least two hours to even get to the trailhead. The trail itself is steep but you’ll probably have it all to yourself. Bring a fishing pole and a book to while away the afternoon.
What Makes It Great
Although it’s less than three miles to the lakes, it’s pretty much uphill the entire distance. After leaving the parking area you’ll hike along through a stand of high elevation conifers. Look for the raspberry bushes lining the trail, but you won’t see fruit until August, and then you might have to share with the local bruin population. Cross over the drainage and begin hoofing it up some switchbacks which end in a small meadow at 1.0 mile. From here you’ll head across the scree slope to the saddle at 1.3 miles, then down the other side. You’ll discover Fall Creek waterfall at 1.6 miles. Head right, climb again and you when you hit the rise you’ll see Lower Copper Lakes. Cross the scree field and climb to the Upper Copper Lakes at 2.9 miles.
Who is Going to Love It
This is the trail for hikers wanting to make a day of the outdoors. The drive in is one of the most scenic roads in the entire state and you can’t beat the panorama at the trail’s end. This is high elevation country. The lakes sit at the base of 11,597' Stinkingwater Peak and the water is ice cold all summer. Stinkingwater Peak takes it name from the original Indian appellation for the Shoshone River with its many sulphur-laden hot springs.
You’ll get a great cardio workout on this trail, but you probably won’t have to worry about anyone else listening to how badly you’re sucking air. Although the Sunlight Basin Road is thick with ATVs, especially after July 4, there won’t be many folks venturing up the trail. Experience this trail early in summer before the motorized crowd gets out.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
From Cody, drive north on WY-120 until you reach the Chief Joseph turnout at 16.8 miles. Continue on the Chief Joseph for another 33.8 miles then turn left on the Sunlight Basin Road. Drive forever or for 53.7 miles on the Sunlight Basin Road, whichever comes first. Here is where you’ll hit the first water crossing. The first two generally are dry. The third will be at 54.0 miles and then next just .4 mile further. These will probably be shallow, unless there’s been a thunderstorm. The final crossing at 57.7 miles can be problematic for low-slung cars. Consider stopping here if you’re unsure how well your vehicle can handle the ford. The actual trailhead is of course, on the opposite side of the river. There’s good parking if you can make it. Check with the Forest Service office in Cody before heading to determine the condition of the road and trail access. Note that the Spring Creek Bridge on the Sunlight Basin Road is only open from July 16 - September 30. Dogs are welcome if leashed, bring bear spray and know that you might not have cell service.