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A good day to be out on the crane pond! Crane Lake Trail, Mark Twain National Forest 3/15/2014

March 16, 2014

2014-03-15 09.55.31Saturday morning was an early one, waking up as the sun started to peek over the mountains and into the valley of the John J. Audubon Trail, where Max and I had spent the night camped out next to Bidwell Creek. The plan was to get there Friday evening, camp out at the trailhead, and then hike one of the two six mile loops that make up the Audubon Trail, with full backpacking gear, and probably set up for the night a mile or so away from the car. Weather was supposed to be moving in Saturday evening, with rain forecasted all night which would eventually be turning into snow. Winter was on its way out, but not without a last, messy gasp. With that in mind and where we were at, five miles in, down a curvy, steep, dirt and gravel forest service road, I felt that it might be a good idea to get out while my station-wagon-that-is-not-jeep could still make it safely to solid roads. It was a moment for change of plans, due to an overactive sense of danger avoidance.

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Gorgeous day!

So I decided that we would drive through Fredericktown, past the turnoff for Lower Rock Creek, around the bend from Marble Creek, and over to the Crane Lake Recreation Area, to hike a trail that I hadn’t done yet but had heard good things about. The sun was already warming the air on this early March morning, and we were gonna take advantage of it before we were reminded that it wasn’t yet spring.

How to get there:

2014-03-15 13.23.26You can approach this one heading south out of St. Louis from either Highway 21 or Interstate 55. I prefer the 55 route because it makes you go through and past some of my favorite scenic areas on the way out of Fredericktown, so that is the one I will describe here.

So you take Interstate 55 south, about 22 miles, to exit 174B which is US-67 south toward Bonne Terre/Farmington (my most-driven outdoor excursion route at this point). Stay on US-67 south, through Bonne Terre, through Farmington, and all the way to MO-E just south of Fredericktown. Turn right (west) on MO-E and take that about 19 miles to County Road 124, on the left side of the road very soon AFTER County Road 134. Make a left (the only option) onto County Road 124, and take that about three miles to County Road 131. Make a left onto County Road 131, and after about two miles it ends in the Crane Lake Recreation Area.

2014-03-15 10.42.37Mapquest and Google Maps and all those will give you great scenic directions to get here as well, but in my opinion the section of MO-E from Fredericktown to County Road 124 is one of the prettiest drives in the area, especially the part along and just after the St. Francis River. Totally worth whatever handful of miles you have to add to your route.

The Crane Lake Trail consists of two loops. The northern loop is about three miles, and goes right around the lake. The south loop is at the southern end of the lake, via the north loop, and adds two miles to your hike if you want to make it a five mile hike. The east side of these loops also shares about two miles its path with the Marble Creek Section of the Ozark Trail, which goes from Crane Lake to the Marble Creek campground.

Why I like this trail:

2014-03-15 11.11.52Who doesn’t like hiking around a lake?!? It really is a pretty area, and with the addition of the lake next to you for most of the trip (especially the north loop), it allows for a lot of scenic hiking.

The dam at the south end of the lake is cool to see, and the lively creek that springs from it is a great water feature. If you’ve got the energy, you need to hike both loops, as the south loop follows the creek here and there.

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Crane Pond Creek

Up on the hills on either side of the dam, there are a couple campsites that would be an awesome place to spend a calm, late spring night. Up over the lake with the sound of falling water below you, with the expanse of sky and horizon out in front of and above you, sitting next to a warm fire, would be a really memorable experience. Definitely on my list of things to do this year, and probably every year from here on out.

With the two loops, giving you the option of a three mile or five mile hike, it really is a great place for a day hike. Just enough to get some good exercise, but not too much to have to spend a night out there if you don’t want to.

What you need to know:

2014-03-15 11.44.54Take a trail map with you. The couple of miles that are also Ozark Trail are clearly marked due to the diligence of the group that maintains that section, but once you get to just the National Forest part of the trail, there are a couple transitions involving local ATV trails that that can be a little confusing and you might find yourself trying to find your way back to the Crane Lake trail. Having a map will help you to stay in the correct direction.

At the southernmost part of the southern loop, you will have to cross the creek. Your shoes might get wet, with a few miles left to hike still. I took the time to find a shallow part, and threw some rocks in to step on. Be mentally prepared, and maybe make a lunch break out of it!

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After four miles with full backpacks, level hiking was very welcome!

The two steepest parts of the trail are just south of the lake, and they are pretty rugged and sustained. Take your time, allowing yourself to take a break and catch your breath, and remember to step carefully. (Max and I did it with full backpacks! Phew!)

We took the trail clockwise, and the last two or so miles on the west side of the lake were pretty flat and relaxing. In my opinion, this would be the best direction to hike it.

2014-03-15 10.31.11I had not been planning on even checking out the Crane Lake Recreation Area on this trip, but I always try to approach an outdoor excursion with the ability to improvise and change plans if conditions dictate, and a willingness to go to unfamiliar places. This just wasn’t the weekend for backpacking on the John J. Audubon Trail. But it turns out it WAS the weekend for hiking the scenic trail around the beautiful Crane Lake. Just goes to show that there are great opportunities to get out in the woods around almost every corner, especially in the Mark Twain National Forest here in Missouri.

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