Complete Guide to Council Grounds State Park

Complete Guide to Council Grounds State Park

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Council Grounds State Park? Located below the dam at Lake Alexander and along the Wisconsin River, this 508-acre park is a delightful haven for outdoor lovers. There are ample camping facilities here, and a wonderful wilderness that is etched in what used to be Native American territory.

The Lake and the River also offer excellent grounds for fishing and other water sports. The sandy beach on Lake Alexander is an amazing place for relaxation. Numerous wooded trails wait patiently for the eager explorer, with beautiful picnic areas and stunning photogenic sceneries wherever you look.

Complete Guide to Council Grounds State Park

This article is a comprehensive guide to exploring the Council Grounds State Park.

History – The Native Americans Connection

Like most parks in the Northern parts of Wisconsin, the Council Grounds State Park grounds were initially occupied by the Native Americans. They used the site as grounds for their annual festivals because of its strategic location along the Wisconsin River.

Some of these festivals and celebrations lasted several nights and days. Leaders of these native tribes also convened on the grounds to formulate strategy when faced with a threat, solve disputes among themselves, or when they wanted to make an important communal decision.

Originally, the grounds were known as Wildwood City Park, under the city of Merrill. There were about 278 acres of land then and when the park was donated to the state in 1938, expansion was allowed and the name was changed to Council Grounds State Forest, in respect to the annual councils that were believed to take place here.

The Native Americans traveled to the grounds via the Wisconsin River using canoes and boats. They are believed to have used the land for fall and spring pilgrimages for a long time. Over the years, more land was acquired and added to the forest grounds. In 1978, the site was officially opened as a state park, occupying 508 acres of land.

Concessions are still being conducted to allow for more expansion of the grounds to about 1,000 acres. The park contains a blend of white and red pines, hemlocks, mixed hardwoods, and other species of deciduous and coniferous trees. 


Lake Alexander

Lake Alexander is formed by a dam on the Wisconsin River. The lake is a hub for water sports lovers. The clear waters attract scuba divers keen on exploring the rich marine life inside the lake. Boating, white water rafting, swimming, and canoeing are also common water sports on this lake. Catch the northern pikes, yellow perch, and smallmouth bass while fishing inside this lake.

Wisconsin River

The Wisconsin River seems to straddle the park in the South, pushing to Lake Alexander. Campers come to the river to check out beautiful sunsets and sunrises. The section of the river that straddles the park is relatively calm, allowing for water sports, such as canoeing and white water kayaking. Fishing (ice fishing and sport fishing) is also a rewarding and engaging activity on the Wisconsin River. 

Things to do in Council Grounds State Park

Because of its large size, there are numerous outdoor activities one can engage in when they visit this park. 

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Camping at Council Grounds State Park

The camping spaces are large (even large rigs will comfortably fit and privacy is guaranteed). Camping close to the Wisconsin River hearing the sound of the river crashing to the rocks is a therapeutic feeling.

The views from the river are also stunning. There are both family and group campgrounds inside the park. You may reserve a campsite online. Other campsites are offered on a first-come, first-served basis.

Family campgrounds

There are 52 family camping sites in the Council Grounds State Park. 19 of these have access to electricity while the rest are designed for wild camping. 

Amenities here include fire rings, shower facilities, dump stations, and garbage bins.

Group Campgrounds

The group campgrounds here are divided into three sections and they can accommodate over 70 people, including facilities for disabled people. The group camping sites are well compacted, with beautiful and tall trees creating a perfect canopy over you as you camp. The bathrooms are clean and easily accessible. There are no water hookups at the campground.

Amenities here include electricity in every campsite, shower facilities, and a dump station.

Complete Guide to Council Grounds State Park

RV camping

Numerous open grounds allow for all types and sizes of rigs to park here comfortably. The sites are located close to the Wisconsin River. They are large and private, with a beautiful common area left free for all users. There is a picnic table and a fire ring here.

Most of the camping spaces are shady, protected by large coniferous trees. There is no dump water station on the campground. The sites are flat, compacted dirt with lots of space between the campsites. 

Phone reception is spotty in almost every campground in the park, due to the heavy foliage and forest cover. Make sure you carry mosquito sprays and bug repellents when coming to camp here. If you will go camping in the winter season, take note that the dump station will be closed. 

Facilities for disabled campers

Most of the trails in the park can be explored in a wheelchair without much strain. However, before you embark on a hiking adventure in a wheelchair, inquire from the park’s office about the condition of the trail you seek to explore. Toilets and shower areas are easily accessible as well.

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You can buy firewood at the park’s site. Campfires are allowed (under certain regulations) and fire rings are provided for this purpose. If you decide to collect firewood from the forest, inquire from the park’s office on how to go about it safely. You are not allowed to cut trees inside the park, and the dry wood you collect should be from the dead branches lying on the ground.

Campground Map 

Click here to download the map for Council Ground States Park Campgrounds.

Council Grounds State Park Water Sports

Council Grounds State Park beach

The Beach at Council Grounds State Park

There are over 200 feet of sandy beach at the park. The shore is shallow, allowing for swimming in the Wisconsin River. Further north, close to the Alexander dam, there is a pier and a boat stand that serves as the ground for launching your kayaks and canoes.

The beach is very popular, especially during the summer season. There are swings and slides erected close to the beach and a playground for your kids. The beach is accessible from different angles and trails.

There is another nice beach on Lake Alexander, just above the dam. This is a great location for boats launching into the Lake. 

Fishing At Council Grounds State Park

There is a fishing pier on the northwestern side of the park. Safety rails and a wide walkway make this pier accessible to visitors. The pier is also connected to the boat landing by a short trail that takes you through breathtaking natural sceneries.

Fishing is a popular activity here and if you are in the right spot at the right time, you can bag a good harvest. Some of the common fish species you can expect to find in this area include the northern pike, the walleye, muskies, yellow perch, smallmouth bass, black crappies, and bluegills.

Walleye and smallmouth bass can be found near the rocky sections or under the water bars. Muskies are the largest fish species in the lake, but they are tough to find and catch.

The Northern pike is the most common sport fish on the lake. They are active all year round, providing campers with excellent fishing opportunities irrespective of the season.

ing and Other Water Sports at Council Grounds State park

You need to have a Wisconsin fishing license if you are below the age of 16. You also need to observe the fishing rules in the state. If you are camping in the park, you can get fishing equipment from the park’s office free of charge.

If you are planning on going for an engaging fishing expedition, you may need to call in advance to find out what equipment they have. The basic equipment available includes bobbers, hooks, lines, sinkers, casting plugs, rods, and reels. The equipment is issued on a first-come, first-served basis and can only be borrowed for a duration of up to one week. 

Boating and Other Water Sports

Boating is a popular activity within the park. You can enjoy canoeing, kayaking, or boating on the Wisconsin River or Lake Alexander. You can rent a canoe at the park’s office or close to the park.

The section of the river flowing through the park is moderate and ideal for beginners. To stay safe while boating or kayaking, follow the advice and instructions from the staff at the park’s office.

Swimming is also common in the park. Visitors can go scuba diving inside Lake Alexander or explore the council grounds shoreline on the Wisconsin River. Lifeguards are not available, so take precautions when swimming.

Hiking and Walking Trails at Council Grounds State Park

There are a lot of beautiful, moderate hiking trails in this park. Most of these trails are well-marked and easy to follow. The main trail is 2.5 miles long. It is a moderate trail with a few inclines.

Most of the hiking trails in this park are well sheltered by large, tall pines, allowing for quiet, calm walks. You will appreciate this shade if you decide to go hiking here in the summer! There are other shorter hiking trails within the park as well;

Grounds State Park

Brown trail- Length: 0.8 miles

This trail runs parallel with the Council Grounds drive. The trail ends at the Merrill Area Recreation Complex Trail system in the North and the picnic area on the Wisconsin River in the South.

Blue Trail – Length: 0.65 miles

This is the trail that takes you through wonderful white pine trees in the Krueger Pines State Natural area. The Krueger Pine area is owned by DNR and was designed as natural habitat in 1953.

The area contains characteristic white pines. Other tree species present here include red pine, paper birch, black oak, white oak, and aspen. Krueger Pines State Area was dedicated to Senator Clifford Krueger for his role as a conservationist and advocate of natural resources programs in the US.

Big Pines Nature trail

This is a trail that can easily be accessed right from your campground. It is a serene walk that takes you through dense woods and thick foliage.

Northwest trail – Length: 1.5 miles

This is one of the longer trails in the park. The trail goes through the vegetation of red pines, hemlocks, spruces, and oaks, past swampy meadows, and grasslands before looping back to the entrance station.

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The Green Trail – Length: 0.6 miles

The green trail will take you close to the Wisconsin River, offering you stunning views of the surrounding forest and shoreline. You will also pass through a marshy, woodland forest.

Fall candlelight walk

Every year, the friends of council grounds state park organize a candlelight walk as an integrated community conservation program. Inquire from the website and at the Park’s office on the dates if you want to be part of the program.

The walk normally ends at the shelter building where snacks are served and people interact for the benefit of the park. All proceeds from this walk go to promote special projects within the park. 

Every year, the friends also organize annual photo content where winners are rewarded with cash or park stickers. You can take as many photos as you wish; plants, wildlife, landscapes, birds, and anything you deem exciting and submit to the contest. The winner is chosen by the public.

picnicing at Council Grounds State Park

Picnicking at Council Grounds State Park

There are several picnic areas within Council Grounds State Park and most of them can be easily accessed from the hiking trails. At the furthest Southeastern end (on the Big Pines Nature Trail), there is a log shelter house that is used to hold gatherings or large parties. The grounds around the shelter house contain tables and seats that can be used for picnics. 

The main purpose of the house is to protect the visitors (and their supplies) from black bears that frequent this region and from harsh weather conditions during the winter season.

There are two fireplaces here and plenty of space to sit or lounge. Inquire from the Park’s office about the availability and the fees because the shelter is given out on a first-come, first-served basis. There is a large picnic area near the beach on Lake Alexander and BBQ grills are provided.

A Beginner's Guide to Bird Watching While Camping or Hiking

Birdwatching at Council Grounds State Park

Bird-watching (especially in Krueger state natural area along the Blue trail) is a popular activity. There are several bird species here including brown creeper, red-eyed vireo, pine warblers, scarlet tanagers, and red-breasted nuthatch. Deer in the park are not shy, so take out your camera and snap a few memorable photos. It is against the Park’s policy to feed any animal inside the park though.

Black bears have also been spotted occasionally inside the park. The park’s staff advises campers to be on the lookout for black bears while camping. Resist the urge to deviate from the marked trails, especially if you are not familiar with the terrain and geographical components of the area.

Keep your food and other valuables safe in bear canisters. If you mistakenly encounter a black bear, here are some tips on how to stay safe when bears attack, and how to keep them away from your campsite.

Hunting and Trapping in Council Grounds State Park

Hunting is allowed in specific seasons and only with a special permit. You are also required to adhere to the state of Wisconsin’s Parks hunting regulations. 

Download the hunting and trapping map in Council grounds state park. The map also comes with Wisconsin State Parks and trails hunting and trapping rules and regulations.

winter in peninsula state park

Council Grounds State Park in Winter

During the winter, backcountry skiing and snowshoeing are available. Inquire from the park’s office about this before booking your campsite for the winter. The park is open all year round. During the winter season, some trails may be closed and others marked for safety purposes. 

Council Grounds State Park and Dogs

Let’s start with the obvious: dogs shouldn’t be left unattended and you should pick up the poop. Waste should be disposed of in dumpsters or trash receptacles.

Dogs are allowed in most campgrounds, trails, roads, and outlying areas of the parks. They must be on a leash no longer than 8 feet at all times, if they are not under control at all times, they can be seized and subject to local laws pertaining to stray animals.

ID tags are a good idea if your dog isn’t micro-chipped. If you do lose your pet you can contact the Lincoln County Humane Society at (715) 536-3459.

Rabies could be a thing as there are wild animals like raccoons your pooch could come in contact with so make sure your pooch has all current vaccinations.

Other animals like deer, chipmunks, squirrels, gray wolves, skunks, fishers, elk, and porcupines can be found there.

Pets are not allowed in the following places:

  • Buildings
  • Picnic areas and picnic shelters
  • Beaches
  • Playgrounds
  • Marked Nature Trails.
  • No Pets are allowed on the ski trails when they are snow-covered.

Of course, if your dog is a service animal, those rules do not apply.

Council Grounds State Park and Dogs

Battleground of Council Grounds State Park

Although there is not much documentation of a battle ever taking place inside this park, there is evidence pointing out that this park was a historically significant venue for deciding wars or resolving conflicts among the Native American people.

The local leaders visited this place once every year to deliberate on what was happening in their tribes. They created strategies on how to respond to provocation from outsiders (mainly the European settlers).

They also used the grounds to celebrate whenever they had a breakthrough in the battleground. Their celebrations were intense, with war cries and dances and they usually lasted several days. 

Directions to Council Grounds State Park

Council grounds state park is located a few miles west of Merrill and a few minutes drive from the Wausau area. Exit onto State Highway 64 from US Highway 51 and proceed for 2 miles before turning right onto state highway 107. Proceed for another 2 miles and then turn left for another half-mile drive to the parks’ entrance.

Nearby Towns to Council Grounds State Park

There are three main towns close to the Council Grounds state park; Merrill, Wausau, and Perkinstown. Merrill is the closest, at only 3 miles away. Wausau is 20 miles away and Perkinstown is 50 miles away.

Campers can get their supplies from Merrill town. Biking and cycling this route is a common activity. If you have a large rig, the journey to the park’s entrance may seem a bit tight, but once you are inside, there is enough room to maneuver. 

Things to do near Council Grounds State Park

When visiting Council Grounds Park, be sure to check out some of the amazing attractions nearby, in Merrill town.

The River Bend Trail

This is a paved trail that offers exceptional experiences whether you are walking, running, or biking. It follows the Wisconsin River. You will come across painted rocks, a sharing library (where you leave a book and pick another), a bike repair station, benches to sit on and enjoy the beautiful river, and many other attractions.

It is not too crowded and you may occasionally come across a deer or two. There are several information boards along the trail, to showcase the significance of the trail to society and give credit to the people who supported and facilitated the existence of this trail. Kids will love biking or walking leisurely along the moderate trail.

Helene's Hilltop Orchard

Helene’s Hilltop Orchard LLC

Location: N1189 Quarter Rd Merrill, WI 54452

More information: http://www.heleneshilltoporchard.com

Helene’s orchard is the highlight of Merill. They have an amazing pumpkin patch and corn maze here. It is a family-owned and family-operated business that has been in operation for over a century, being passed down from one generation to the other.

In the fall season, they run a u-pick pumpkin farm. They also have other attractions inside the farm, including a petting zoo, hayrides, and a playground for your kids. They have a store where they sell farm-fresh apples, freshly-baked food, wine, and other farm produce.

Sawmill Brewing Company, Merrill

Location: 1110 E 10th St Merrill, Wisconsin 54452

More information: https://sawmillbrewing.net/

If you love craft beer and wine, you should include this location in your itinerary for the Council grounds State park visit. The Sawmill brewing company is a small company that offers 16 local craft brews (including the flagship Park City Lager brand).

When you walk into this spot, you will instantly notice the laid-back, homely atmosphere. You will feel immediately at ease. The owners are always eager to let visitors sample their local craft beer. The open spaces and lounge areas are perfect for hanging out. Snacks are also sold in this location.

Other campgrounds near Council Grounds State Park

If you feel like staying in other locations while exploring the state park, here are some of the campgrounds close to the park that are worth checking out.

Camp Escape

This campground is located 5 miles north of Merrill town. It is a 70-acre piece of land that connects directly to another 5000 acres of public land, giving you limitless camping options and possibilities. The hosts provide you with an ATV to explore the vast grounds. During the winter season, they will provide a snowmobile. 

Most of the campsites here are primitive, but the host has provided access to a small table, chairs, and fire rings to make your stay more enjoyable. Pets are allowed here. There is no potable water or other amenities, so plan your trip accordingly.

There are other numerous camping grounds under the same property, and each offers a different experience. Feel free to inquire from the host so that they can direct you to the campsite that will amplify your camping experience.

Hotels near Council Grounds State Park

Hotels Near Council Grounds State Park

If you love exploring the outdoors in luxury, you should check out the hotels close to the park, and near Merrill town. 

AmericInn by Wyndham Merrill

Location: 3300 E Main St, Merrill, WI 54452

Distance from council grounds: 4 miles

This is a luxurious hotel in Merrill town. They offer excellent services and every amenity you can expect from a luxurious hotel brand. Note that they do not accept cash, even when you have a card on the file. The staff is friendly and accommodating.

They will facilitate your movement around to check out the attractions nearby upon request. The rooms vary in size and pricing. Continental breakfast is available. Some of the common features you should expect to find here include free Wi-Fi, fireplaces, whirlpool tubs, complimentary breakfast, indoor pool, gym, and room service.

Cobblestone Inn and Suites

Location: 3209 E Main St, Merrill, WI 54452

Distance from council grounds: 5 miles

The hotel is located just off the US Highway 51, across a river. They are pet-friendly, comfortable, and affordable. The rooms are clean and comfy with hospitable staff to tend to your needs. Amenities include a fitness center, a common lounge area, free Wi-Fi, microwaves, and minifridges. Some of the suites come equipped with whirlpool tubs. 

Econo Lodge

Location: 200 S Pine Ridge Ave, Merrill, WI 54452

Distance from Council grounds: 5 miles

The hotel is a comfortable hotel, with great pricing and excellent customer service. Amenities available include a swimming pool, room service, indoor pool with hot tub, handicap facilities, flat-screen TVs, free Wi-Fi, minifridges, microwaves, and coffeemakers.

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