Most people probably equate the word "beach" with "summer" but for those who love a beautiful beach regardless of the time of year, one of the best in New England - nay, the East Coast! - can be found a scenic 16-1/2 mile drive away from the historic Hawthorne Hotel at Crane Beach on the Crane Estate.
Until 1945, the 4-1/2 miles of sandy beach were part of the 2,100-acre Crane Estate that was the summer home of Chicago plumbing magnate Richard T. Crane, Jr. and his family; an estate which included a 165-acre section of the property containing both formal and natural landscapes surrounding the centerpiece of the whole estate - the 59-room Stuart-style Great House on Castle Hill.
Upon Mr. Crane's death in 1945, his family donated 1,000 acres of estate land comprising most of Crane Beach and the dunes of Castle Neck, to The Trustees of Reservations, a non-profit land conservation and historic preservation organization dedicated to preserving natural and historical places in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and which has the distinction of being the oldest regional land trust in the world (the Trustees' roots can be traced to March 5, 1890) with over 100,000 dues-paying members.
When Richard’s wife Florence died in 1949, her bequest added another 350 acres of land to the property that had been entrusted to the Trustees along with the Great House and most of Castle Hill. Continuing the family tradition and assuring that the property would be preserved for public use and enjoyment for years and years to come, a quarter-century later in 1974, Florence's daughter-in-law, Miné S. Crane, added the 680-acre Crane Wildlife Refuge in memory of her husband, Cornelius Crane. Both Cornelius and Miné are buried at the summit of Choate Island (formerly Hog Island), the largest of the seven islands in the Essex River Estuary which also include Long, Dean, Dilly, Pine, Patterson, and Round. Surrounding the Crane Wildlife Refuge is the Great Marsh, the largest contiguous salt marsh in New England, covering more than 25,000 acres from Hampton Harbor, New Hampshire to Gloucester.
The Crane Wildlife Refuge is accessible by private watercraft only but if you've got the means to get there, it looks like it would be a wonderful place to visit as the circa 1778 Proctor Barn on Long Island and the circa 1725-40 Choate family homestead still stand as reminders of the area's agricultural past as a prosperous farming community. Additionally there are miles of trails where visitors can spot the numerous species of birds and mammals that populate the refuge. Unfortunately neither Nathaniel or I had thought to bring a kayak or canoe when we visited the area so we'll just have to be content to look at photos of the Crane Wildlife Refuge on its website!
As for our visit to Crane Beach itself, mini-Nate and I made the drive over from Salem on Saint Patrick's Day weekend on what was a rather brisk and chilly Saturday but that didn't stop us or a lot of other folks from going out and enjoying the views, fresh air, and beauty of the area. To be honest, if you want to explore the 5-1/2 miles of trails that are part of the Bay Circuit Trail as they traverse dunes and track the beachfront on both the Ipswich Bay and Essex River Estuary sides of the Castle Neck peninsula, the "off-season" is probably the best time to do it as during the summer months, Crane Beach attracts quite the crowds.
You aren't going to get an empty parking lot like the one shown above once beach weather arrives, that's for sure!
Crane Beach is open year-round from 8 a.m. to sunset with admission prices that vary greatly from season-to-season though it should be noted that after 3:00 p.m., all vehicles receive 50% off the admission fee regardless of the time of year. As members of the Trustees, when Nathaniel and I visited we paid a mere $4 to park the car for as long as we wanted while we explored the area and I have to say, the views alone were more than worth the cost of admission! Not to sound like a solicitor but I should mention that if you yourself become a member of The Trustees, you'll find that you'll save not just on admission to Crane Beach but at their other many other Reservations throughout Massachusetts also. If you're a lover of history, you'll also feel good knowing that you're helping to preserve some of it and that's exactly why Nathaniel and I joined!
Rather than add a lot of narrative, in this post Nathaniel and I are going to let the photos speak more or less for themselves as really, what can be said about a beautiful beach other than that there's nothing like walking on one regardless of the time of year!
If you visit Crane Beach in the off-season, you'll find that the dune fencing that is normally in place during the warmer months has come down but it's still very important to stay off of the dunes and not cross any ropes or other types of barriers that may have been set. As one of the world’s most important nesting sites for piping plovers and nationally recognized for its successful shorebird protection program, visitors to Crane Beach are asked to avoid the fenced nesting areas as well as the line of washed-up organic debris called the "wrack" which is where the birds that were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century for its eggs and feathers, feed and hide.
From October 1 to March 31, Crane Beach is also very popular with four-footed visitors who have been welcome to the sandy beaches for over 50 years now. Dog-walking is allowed in the area between the rocks at the base of Castle Hill and the mouth of the Essex River. For more information, check Crane Beach's Dog Walking Regulations as well as taking a look at the Crane Beach Green Dogs Program which provides a "leash-free" zone As a “thank you” for dog walker’s compliance with the Green Dogs program.
In addition to canines, from October 1 to March 31, horses and horseback riding are also allowed at Crane Beach. Should be interested in bringing your horse to this most beautiful of areas, be sure to check out the Trustees' Horseback Riding Fee Schedule beforehand which includes all of the information you'll need on cost as well as the regulations for those riding at the beach.
At the time of our visit, when Nathaniel and I were paying our admission fee, the gentleman at the parking lot gate told us to be sure to check out the damage that had been done to "our beach" from the bout of winter storms that pummeled the East Coast this past year. There were places where the wooden boardwalks had been partially torn away as well as a major amount of erosion to the dunes however, it's things like this that remind you that we as humans are merely borrowing the land from Mother Earth and we need to not only enjoy it but also take care of it as good stewards.
Facilities at Crane Beach during the off-season are limited to portable toilets (located outside bathhouses) while in-season there are lifeguards and rangers, a bike rack, bathhouses with toilets and changing areas, outside showers, picnic tables, the Crane Beach Store where refreshments and other merchandise can be purchased, drinking water fountains, an information kiosk, and transportation for mobility-impaired and challenged visitors.
No matter whether your visit to this wonderful part of Massachusetts which has been beloved by the public for many years is during the off-season when you'll share the gorgeous views and fresh air with four-footed friends, or during the warm summer months when you'll share the beach with hundreds of other two-footed sun-worshippers, I'm sure you'll have no trouble understanding why the Agawam tribe of Native Americans established their agricultural villages in the area long before any Europeans ever set foot on the land and how Richard T. Crane, Jr. fell in love with and decided to make this part of the North Shore his summer home in 1910 as it truly is a special place.
For more photos of Crane Beach and Castle Hill, check out our SmugMug Gallery and for further information on this Reservation or any other, you can visit TheTrustees.org, call them at 978-921-1944, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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