The best thing about Council Grounds Wisconsin State Park is the water access! The Wisconsin River runs along the park and a damn forms Alexander Lake where you can boat, fish, kayak, and swim. There are several short hikes along the water and plenty of great views of the lake to enjoy on a nice day. The park is close to Merrill, Wisconsin right in the center of the state. It is also only half an hour drive from another Wisconsin State Park, Rib Mountain. Check out the list of the other state parks I have reviewed here.
The Beach at Council Grounds
For swimmers and sunbathers there is a wonderful lake beach. The beach area is over 200 feet long. It is sandy enough to walk comfortably barefoot and not nearly as rocky as some other Wisconsin State Parks. It is along a river and has a bit of current. There are pit toilets near the beach but no changing rooms.
There is a large hilly grass area overlooking the beach and lake. The playground is at the top of the green area. From the beach you can take a short hike along the water south to see the dam or you can do another short hike north along a path to the boat landing. When I go with my kids I like to park at the beach and take one of the short hikes and then cool off in the water afterwards.
Between the beach and the boat landing is an accessible fishing pier which is easy to push a stroller on. It has several small platforms along it with space for a couple of chairs to enjoy the water or toss in a line. I have never fished there but there is a program where you can check out basic fishing equipment for free from the Council Grounds State Park office. Maybe we will give it a try this summer! The park office recommends you call ahead of time if you plan to use their gear so they can make sure it is ready. You do need a license to fish if you are over 16.
Boating and Paddling
You can also rent kayaks, canoes or paddle boards from the park office. They are $30 a day. The fee includes paddles and life vests which come in all sizes. Pay attention to the current, if you head left out of the boat launch you will be going down stream and it will be harder when you have to paddle home against the current. If you have your own boat there is a large parking lot designed for trucks and trailers and a place to launch your boat. What a beautiful way to enjoy the water!
This park has a nice campsite with wooded sites. You can take a short hike, less than half a mile, to the beach from the family campsite. There are 52 sites, 19 of which have electricity. The campsite has flush toilets and showers available as well as a dump station. There are a variety of pit toilet around the rest of the park including by the beach.
Hiking and Biking
Most of the hikes here at Council Grounds State Park are short and connect different parts of the park such as the beach, the boat landing, and the campsites. The Northwest trail is the longest one and is only 1.5 miles. It loops through both a meadow and forest. It is a beautiful trail without any steep climbs. The park road is a 2.5 mile paved road with great views of the water and the park as a whole. It would be a nice option to take a walk or bike ride. There are no dedicated off-road bike trails but the park road is smooth and not too busy. This park is definitely more focused on enjoying the water and camping than doing any long hikes.
All Season Fun
This is a beautiful and quiet park in the winter. Once the lake freezes over there are always some ice fishers out there. Frozen Alexander Lake is a great place to walk, hike, or cross country ski. I haven’t tried it, but I often see snowmobiles and ATV’s out on the ice as well.
The original land for Council Grounds State Park used to be a city park. It has nearly doubled in size since it first became a state park. The name is said to come from the idea that Native American’s used to have an annual council in that area. The river provided easier transport. That claim has not been substantiated but it sounds like a fun story.
There are several great food options nearby as the park is on the outskirts of Merrill, a town of just under 10,000 people. If you are looking for breakfast or coffee I recommend First Street Coffee. For lunch there is a great drive through only old fashion burger place called Chips Hamburgers. It has been around forever for good reason.
For dinner and drinks there are lots of options. Sawmill is the local brewery which is housed in, you guessed it, an old sawmill. The serve frozen pizzas made from a local farm and they often host food trucks. If you prefer wine, try Sutton’s wine bar, they offer tapas and light plates as well. If you are up to a bar atmosphere with great food and a large selection of drinks, try The Beacon. For Mexican, go to Casa-Amigas Mexican Restaurant. It is also RIGHT NEXT to the entrance to the park.
There is a small town grocery story which is similar to Whole Foods called Golden Harvest. It has a deli, awesome baked goods, and a wide selection of natural and organic food. If you want something more traditional, try County Market.
By far one of my favorite things to do in Merrill is go to Helen’s Hilltop Orchard. They are mostly open only in the fall but they have delicious apples, an onsite bakery, and an AMAZING farm themed playground for the kiddos. They have a beautiful sunflower field in season as well. Another seasonal favorite is Engleberry Farm for strawberries. Store bought strawberries just cannot compare.
There is a fun park with at least 5 pedestrian bridges in downtown Merrill called Stange Park. It also houses a disc golf course, there are a lot of water obstacles but it’s not deep so if you have to rescue a disc you shouldn’t have to get too wet. The website says there is a pool but there isn’t. If you would like a pool, check out the Bierman Family Aquatic Center which is very close to the entrance of Council Grounds State Park. Lots of actives for a variety of ages. Another fun playground to check out is Normal Park which has a large playground and hosts the summer farmer’s market on Saturdays.
If you are looking for mountain biking and/or more ambitious hikes or runs, check out The Underdown Recreation Area. If you are there in the winter, this link is for the same place but gives details on the ski and snowshoe trails.
This is a beautiful park for a little rest and relaxation. There are so many ways to enjoy the water and the natural of beauty of Wisconsin. Grab your suit, your paddle or your pole and hit the water. Or perhaps you prefer to find a bench and crack open a beverage of your choice to enjoy the peaceful surroundings. Either way, you won’t be disappointed with Council Grounds State Park. If you are looking for information about other Wisconsin State Parks, check out my list of parks here.