Sometimes the best destination is at the end of the road. This is no truer than at Crane Lake, Minn., the southernmost lake of Voyageurs National Park, which sits right at the end of the U.S. highway system. A sign towers over the last few feet of Hwy. 24, reminding that this is "The End of the Road." But the end of this road is a good thing. And you don't have to be a hard-core fisherman or camper to enjoy all that this area has to offer.
The first thing you'll notice about Crane Lake is that the highway ends and the waterways begin. Literally. Crane is the closest entry point to Voyageurs for almost all Minnesota visitors. It's connected to Rainy Lake, Kabetogama and Sand Point lakes to the north. To the east, Crane Lake is a gateway to the lakes of Superior National Forest, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and Quetico Provincial Park. From Crane, you can travel by water about 60 miles in several different directions. And if you're up for a few portages, you can go at least 1,000 miles.
WHAT TO DO
Fishing ... fishing ... and more fishing. Crane Lake is home to several fish species, including walleye, northern pike and bass. The bait shops are chock full of locals with advice. If you tune into your marine band radio each morning, you'll hear up-to-date tips on fishing hot spots, as well as the nearest wildlife sightings. There are also local guides who can be worth their weight in panfish to folks coming into the area to fish Crane for the first time. Bring your own boat, or keep it simple and rent a pontoon, fishing boat or houseboat right on Crane. The Visitor Bureau website www.visitcranelake.com offers information on fishing and a list of outfitters and resorts that offer rentals.
Crane is also perfect for other water activities, including swimming, scuba diving, canoeing and kayaking. It's one of the smaller lakes in the park, and one of the most rugged, with hundreds of sheer rock walls and picturesque narrows. Between Crane Lake and Sand Point Lake you'll find narrows that are the most photographed spot in Voyageurs National Park. This early May, the water was already a crisp 62 degrees -- warm enough for kids to launch themselves off the end of the docks, and calm enough to take an evening canoe or kayak trip along the shoreline in search of wildlife. Loons, eagles, deer and otter are seen frequently, while moose, black bear and wolves tend to be more elusive. Folks can bring their own kayaks or canoes, or rentals are available at several locations on Crane Lake.
If you're looking for a hiking excursion, head to Vermilion Gorge on the west end of Crane Lake. The trail is 3 miles long, and after 10 minutes on the trail, hikers will run into Vermilion Falls, where the torrent of water is forced through a 10-foot-wide opening in the granite. Boardwalks around the falls offer breathtaking views. (visitcranelake.com/activities/hiking/index.html)
A visit to the Vince Shute Bear Sanctuary can make for a memorable outing. It's a sanctuary to dozens of bears, operated by the American Bear Association, in the town of Orr, a 35- to 40-minute drive from Crane Lee. A large viewing deck allows visitors to observe the bears in their natural habitat (1-218-757-0172; www.americanbear.org).
Scotts resort offers a charming one-stop shopping excursion for visitors and floatplanes. Owners Darrell and Carole Scott have created a wonderful shop packed with mementos and gifts, as well as products made by artists in the area. Don't forget to say hello to "Norton" the northern pike, a local favorite who looms under the Scotts' dock. (1-218-993-2341; www.scottsoncrane lake.com)
WHERE TO STAY
There's no shortage of places to stay on Crane Lake. Check www.visitcranelake.com for listings.
Voyagaire Lodge and Houseboats has private lake cabins and is the only place that rents houseboats on Crane Lake (7576 Gold Coast Road; 1-218-993-2266; www.voyagaire.com). There's a houseboat to fit any size, including a whopper Voyagaire 550, whose main deck is 990 square feet and includes a hot tub. All new houseboat drivers are trained by Voyagaire's staff.
If pitching a tent is more up your alley, four outfitters offer camping and RV sites right on Crane Lake. For more rustic camping and some solitude, head deeper into Voyageurs Park. The campsites are accessible only by water, and classified as tent, houseboat or day-use sites. All are marked with signs. Permits are required for overnight stays, and can be obtained at any park visitor center or boat ramp. Find camping information at www.nps.gov/voya/planyourvisit/camping.htm.
Where to eat
If you don't want to be hassled with packing staples for a camping or houseboat trip, Voyagaire Lodge offers food provisioning. There are a handful of restaurants on Crane, at Nelson's Resort (7632 Nelson Road), Scotts Seaplane Base (7546 Gold Coast Road) and Trail's End Resort (6310 Crane Lake Road, Buyck, Minn.). Voyagaire also has a restaurant on the main level of the lodge, offering fresh walleye and a superb margherita pizza.
Reminder: While dining in Mother Nature's restaurant, be sure to pack your food away so as not to entice an unwanted guest to your table.
IF YOU GO
Kelly Jo McDonnell is a freelance writer based in Lino Lakes.