Superior National Forest — LaCroix District
Superior National Forest’s most overlooked district runs along the Canadian border in the forest’s remote northwest corner.
Two trails near the Crane Lake resort area, one of the gateways to Voyageurs National Park, lead to wonderful spots on the Vermilion River. The namesake destination of the Vermilion Gorge Trail, a three-mile round-trip starting behind Voyagaire Houseboats, features sheer granite cliffs with white-water rapids hitting Class V during high water.
The fairly easy path is surfaced with gravel most of the way, and interpretive panels discuss the area’s human history. Further up the river is a small picnic area and accessible overlook of Vermilion Falls, where the river shoots through a ten-foot crack in the rock.
From the parking lot, a half-mile trail hugs the river past some wild rice beds and “the chute,” a stretch of white water—this walk is as scenic, if not more so, than the view of the falls.
The six-mile Astrid Lake Trail starting at the Lake Jeanette Campground skirts five lakes, crosses a black spruce bog filled with carnivorous pitcher plants, passes some huge boulders dropped here during the last Ice Age, and features half a dozen lakeside campsites.
Besides the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness there is fantastic paddling on the Vermilion River, which flows 39 miles along the western edge of the forest from Lake Vermilion up to Crane Lake. There are many rapids, including some unrunnable waterfalls (well-worn portages take you around), along this wild, cliff-lined waterway, though these lie between long stretches with a barely perceptible current. The campsites and scenery make it a great choice for overnight trips.
For some easier paddling, put in to the Johnson Lake canoe route, 23 miles northeast of Orr at the end of Forest Road 203. The only access is a half-mile portage, but after that streams connect the trio of narrow, winding lakes, with seven campsites on their islands and shorelines. There are two more campsites a few miles down the road on little Franklin Lake, reached by a mile-long portage. You can also portage along the Astrid Lake hiking trail to connect those lakes with the namesake river of the Hunting Shack canoe route.
If you prefer seeing nature from behind a windshield, stop by the ranger stations in Cook or Ely and pick up the Discovery Tour booklet. It will guide you on a pair of auto tours—one focusing on the Crane Lake area and the other following the Vermilion River and County Highway 116 (the Echo Trail) down to Ely—pointing out historic and natural sites along the way.
The LaCroix District’s two campgrounds lie along County Highway 116 (the Echo Trail) in the vicinity of Crane Lake. Both are very good and accept reservations. Because most of its 12 campsites (including the two walk-ins) overlook the lake and most are right next to the shore, Lake Jeanette has the highest occupancy rate in the forest. The Echo Lake (Echo Trl., www.recreation.gov, $10) camp has 24 sites plus a beach, dock, and playground and rarely fills up.
The LaCroix Ranger Station (320 U.S. 53 N., 218/666-0020, 7 a.m.–5 p.m. daily summer, hours vary rest of year) is located in Cook.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition