Wisconsin’s Council Grounds State Park — A River Park with a Dam, Merrill, WI

Now on to another Wisconsin State Park. Half an hour north of Wausau is Council Grounds State Park. The park is just outside the town of Merrill, (like literally right outside the town,) so if you forget something that you need to buy, don’t fret. (When we visited firewood wasn’t being sold inside the park. We went back into town for wood and coffee.) At 509 acres, this park isn’t huge but still seems to be very popular with water sport enthusiasts. With a boat landing, accessible fishing pier, beach area, and a canoe/kayak portage, there’s something for everyone who loves water recreating.

We planned to camp and hike at the park. This trip was in mid-July as part II of a two-part birthday celebration. Is there anyway better to turn 31 than camping with friends?

Links to follow along:

State park website
Trail descriptions
Park map

Let’s hike! Camping in the park, we began our hike from the north side of the campground on the Big Pines Nature Trail.

Big Pines Nature Trail

Length: .75 mile loop
Difficulty: Easy
Description: This gentle trail loops in the woods between the campground and the beach area.

From the campground, the trailhead is well-marked with a sign and is easy to find.

The trail is wide, flat, and surrounded by tall trees.

The trail has several on/off points allowing this trail to be used to access the beach and the dam from the campground without walking on the road. Not all the access points are shown on the park map. Luckily it’s a small loop and it would be hard to get lost.

Obligatory fern photo

A big draw of this park is the beach and the shelter area. Swimming seemed to be a popular pastime with the kiddos in the campground. If you or your family chooses to swim, please be mindful that there is not a lifeguard on duty at the park. Swimming anywhere can be dangerous but swimming in a river is it’s own beast. Multiple people of all ages drown in the Wisconsin River each year. Having spent a lot of time swimming in this river myself, I can say from experience that the currents are no joke. Even when the river surface looks calm and slow, the undercurrents can be moving quicker.

Probably not super surprising, but there were a lot of bugs in the park. (I know, it’s not shocking for a park on a river in summer.) Nobody enjoys being swarmed by bugs, but I draw the line at the puppy being bombarded. It wasn’t bad enough that I would avoid the park (looking at you, Buckhorn State Park in the summer,) but be prepared with lots of bug spray.

I’m not sure if this is always the case but standing water was a common feature all around the park. That explains some of the mosquitoes, I’m sure.

Standing water is the love nest of mosquitoes.

Make sure to check out the dam on the west side of the park. You can get up close and personal (at a safe distance.)

It’s hard to miss but look for the signs if you aren’t sure where to go. The dam can be viewed up close or further down river.

This dam was built in 1925 and is currently owned and operated by Wisconsin Public Service. Make sure to practice dam safety when observing or recreating near any dam.

A view down the Wisconsin River just passed the dam.

This puppo was all wet from sticking her face in her water bowl, not from swimming at the base of the dam. Why not? Because that wouldn’t be practicing proper dam safety. (We’re really talking safety in this post today!) She opted to go in the water a little bit at the canoe portage further downstream.

Gorgeous. Wisconsin’s prettiest river.

After visiting the dam, we walked along the river back towards the campsite. Normally I’m not a big fan of walking on roads, but this walk was worth it with one long scenic view. There’s a few connecting trails from the road back into the campground, if you’re heading there. If you want to continue, you can access additional trails down the road.

Overall this park was pleasant. By no means is it a destination for hiking, but the trails were nice enough that you should check them out if you are already at the park. (To be fair, we minimally explored the trails because of some angry doggos being attacked by bugs.) The campground was pretty standard so I think the real draw of this park is the water activities. If that’s your jam, this park might be for you.

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