Kayaking at Merrill Lake in Cougar, Washington

Kayaking on Merrill Lake

Kayaking at Merrill Lake with our son Matt and his boys made for a peaceful and fun day. Going on a weekday meant we had plenty of room to spread out. This beautiful recreation area checks all the boxes: mountains, forest, and lake. It’s about as close to heaven on earth as you can get.

Kayaking at Merrill Lake

Spend a day in the Pacific Northwest’s magical beauty and you’ll know why people have flocked here for years. The day we spent kayaking at Merrill Lake in Cougar, Washington was one of the best I’ve had in a long time. Just an hour or so north of Portland, Oregon gets you out on the water and into paradise. Go midweek for easy parking and lots of picnic space. You can even camp overnight!

Highlights of Merrill Lake

When Matt first suggested that we kayak, I felt a bit apprehensive. I can swim, but it’s not my strongest suit. However, once we arrived at Merrill Lake, all my nervousness vanished. It’s just so beautiful there.

  • Conservation Area: The lake is part of a 114-acre conservation area. An old-growth forest surrounds the lake at about 1,500 feet in elevation. Birds of prey, like osprey and bald eagles, live here. So maybe you’ll get luck enough to see one!
  • Campground: In addition to day-use, there’s a nine-site campground here. Only a few of the sites are accessible by vehicle. The rest are walk-in or boat-in. All sites are available on a first come, first served basis. And the campground is open during the Spring through the Fall. Each site has a fire ring and picnic table.
  • Bathroom Facilities: There’s a fairly clean outhouse style, vault toilet available for use.
  • Nature Trail: Merrill Lake Campground has a 1-mile nature trail with interpretive signs in an old-growth Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock forest. During our visit, a sign said the trail was currently closed to a bridge being out.
  • Picnic Area: We chose to take a small side trail to a beachy area to set up lawn chairs and pull our kayaks ashore. But there’s also a picnic area with tables up near the parking area.

Boating and Kayaking on Merrill Lake

The lake has a boat launch for small craft. Only non-gasoline powered boats are allowed. We did see one boat with a trolling motor in the parking lot. Matt said he commonly sees them out there, so maybe trolling motors are allowed. Or maybe the area isn’t patrolled? I’m not sure.

Most of the boats were human-powered like us: kayaks, canoes and standup paddle boards. One large group of people brought paddle boards. They had six dogs who kept swimming into the lake, hopping on a paddle board, going for a little ride, then hopping back in the water. It was super fun to watch the dogs, who I thought were having way more fun than the humans.

We spent about six hours picnicking, swimming and kayaking on Merrill Lake. And honestly, I could have stayed for six more hours! It was just that much fun. The five of us took turns sharing Matt’s four kayaks and life jackets, which worked out perfectly.

Our grandsons enjoyed jumping off logs into the lake and trying to catch crawdads too! They swam, paddled around and swam some more.

Related: Mushroom hunting in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Fishing on Merrill Lake

Merrill Lake is a popular catch and release fly fishing spot. Our grandson Hunter took his fly rod along and tried his hand fishing from his kayak. While he didn’t catch anything, our son Matt saw a fish jump just off the front of his own kayak.

Hunter paddled all over the lake trying to find the perfect fishing spot. It was very cool to see him involved in one of his favorite hobbies.

The wind kicked up a couple times during our visit. I think that made fishing more difficult for Hunter. It certainly mean rowing the kayak was a little harder. But it settled back down and the lake was as smooth as glass.

Kayaking at Merrill Lake
Kayaking at Merrill Lake

And just for fun, here are a few more pictures of our son and grands from their recent fishing trip in Alaska!

What To Take

Bringing along a few things will make your visit more pleasant.

  • Definitely take your own drinking water because there is no potable water available. Even at the campground, you’ll need to bring enough drinking water for your entire stay. Or bring a water filtration system. There is a water pump, but it isn’t for drinking.
  • Water shoes: the tall grasses are sharp and some of the beach areas are rocky, so you’ll definitely appreciate water shoes.
  • Binoculars for bird watching. You can kayak to one end of the lake and then pause in the water to watch for osprey or bald eagles.
  • Sunblock: Don’t forget the sunblock! It’d be a shame to spend such a glorious day only to lay awake all night because you’re burnt to a crisp! Pack along the sunblock, sunglasses and baseball cap!
  • Snacks: Bring along snacks because kayaking is hungry work! But head on into Cougar for a meal after your time at the lake. It’s nice to support the local businesses. And you can even take your picture with Big Foot!
Matt & Me taking each other’s picture

How to get to There

  • From Woodland, take Highway 503 east and travel about 27 miles.
  • Turn left onto USFS Road 81 (Watch for sign for Merrill Lake and Kalama Horse camp).
  • Drive north about 3.5 miles on a paved road (some repair would benefit the wash outs).
  • The campground access road is on the left.  

If you get to the town of Cougar, you’ve driven a little too far. But this is a good spot for lunch or picking up last minute supplies. There is even gas available, in case you’re running low.

The town of Woodland is right off Interstate 5, about 20 miles north of the Oregon/Washington border, and has multiple gas stations, restaurants, and grocery stores.

Do you need a Parking Pass?

A Washington State Discover Pass is required for parking at this site. This funding helps DNR manage these important natural areas across the state. Buy an annual pass for $35 or pick up a day pass for $11.50. Both are easy to purchase online and print at home before you head out.

You can also purchase the Discover Pass at some local stores, so check in Woodland at HiSchool Pharmacy or in one of the smaller convenience stores in Cougar.

Wrap UP

Kayaking at Merrill Lake is the best way I can imagine to spend a hot summer day. I’m already looking forward to our next visit! Although we rode along with Matt, I’m pretty sure we can fit up there with Cupcake. So maybe we’ll even try camping next time.

  • Purchase a Discover Pass before you go.
  • Bring kayaks, canoes, or stand up paddle boards. (Don’t forget your life jackets!)
  • Bring lots of snacks and drinking water.
  • Don’t forget the sunblock and binoculars.
  • Enjoy!


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