Merchants Millpond State Park is a great place to visit if you are excited about viewing wildlife of all kinds. It is a quiet blackwater lake/swamp filled with cypress and tupelo gums. It is home to myriad birds, especially during the spring and fall migrations, as well as several varieties of turtles, frogs, and other aquatic life. Although I visited in early June, not prime migration time, I still saw several varieties of warblers, pileated, downey, and red bellied woodpeckers, ospreys, Canada geese, wood ducks, muscovys, as well as the more usual woodland birds such as titmice, cardinals, jays, wrens, chickadees, crows, grackles, etc.
One of the highlights of my trip was about sunset when the beavers came out. One came so close to me that I had to move my paddle or he would have swam directly into it, only after he had passed me by several feet did he seem to realize that I was not native and give a danger slap of his tail and dive. A little earlier I had seen a pair of deer grazing in the woods. Regretfully I missed seeing the resident alligators, although a fisherman told me he had seen it earlier in the day. There are water lilies and other wild flowers in profusion.
The best part of the day for me was at sunset and sunrise, when it felt as if I had the entire lake to myself. Unless you are camping on the lake, you must be off the lake an hour before the gate closes; in the summer the gate closes at 9 pm. The sounds of wildlife were almost deafening at times, especially as dark approached and the frog chorus began. I finally discovered that one of the noisiest of the frogs was a tiny little creature smaller than my thumbnail! The one great disappointment was in the evening when amplified music (at a level comparable to a college dorm row on a weekend), presumably from a club or bar outside the park, detracted from the isolated wild feel of camping out. But surprisingly the wildlife was almost able to drown out even that annoyance.
Paddling on this lake required some improvised paddling techniques because of the profusion of water plants that had a tendency to foul my paddle at times. Also there are many submerged stumps, which can snag the unwary, although I had no trouble extricating myself the times I bumped into them. This is not a place to practice speed strokes, rather a place to just float along and enjoy the day, being close to nature. Even though this is a very popular spot and there may be twenty or thirty boats on the 5 mile lake at times, it still seems very secluded and private because of the closely spaced trees and many small islands. The presence of trees all through the lake also means that there is always someplace shady and cool, even in the warm months it is a pleasant place to paddle all day.
Notes: Bring binoculars, bird guides, sunscreen and insect repellent - all the park literature warns that ticks are a big problem there, although in two days I saw only a single tick. Much to my surprise I had no trouble with insects on the water, but when I woke up I saw that the outside of my tent's netting was covered with mosquitoes so I was glad I had chosen not to sleep out in the open.
There are 7 primitive canoe camping sites -$8/night, first come, first served - as well as three larger group canoe sites which may be reserved by groups. Also there is a tent/trailer campground with full bath facilities in a different section of the park, and a backpacking primitive camping area.
I used my Hurricane Tampico Recreational kayak, although the park has a great supply of rental canoes (Old Town Discovery 158), $10 for all day or overnight if you camp at the canoe camp. The lake is restricted so that no gasoline engines are permitted.
Entrance to the park is free, as is launching private craft. Fees apply for camping and renting canoes.
US 158 east of Gatesville, NC to the park signs. There is a separate gate for the canoe launch area, this is easy to find because the signs are clear and well placed.
The web page for the NC Park system has descriptions of facilities and trails, a map of the park, and other useful information.