by Lisa Meyers McClintick
With teal-colored alpine trim on dark brown buildings, Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake stirs up nostalgia as one of the Brainerd area’s most venerable resorts. Owned by Dutch Cragun and his family since 1940, Dutch may even personally welcome guests at Friday night receptions.
Welcoming and family-oriented, the resort makes the most of its location on a bay of Gull Lake. Cabins and many lodge rooms face the water, the indoor pool splashes with kids year round, and families dot the lake with water toys in the summer and ice skates and hockey sticks in the winter.
Guests can do just about anything here including fishing, ice-fishing, water-skiing, paddling, paddleboarding, paddleboating, biking, snowmobiling, skating, golfing and swimming without needing anything but a swimsuit or warm jackets. Equipment (even fishing poles, skates, snowmobiles and boats) can be borrowed or rented.
More than 260 units line this section of Gull Lake, from seasonal cabins to hotel-style rooms. Some feature lakeside balconies and wood-burning fireplaces. Arriving guests can catch welcoming whiffs of smoke from summer or winter bonfires. Marshmallows and cocoa are available year-round.
Cragun’s offers the area’s largest indoor pool, a huge outdoor pool overlooking the lake, and almost every outdoor activity you can dream up, from water-skiing lessons and pontoon cruises to biking and catching prized walleyes. Camp Cragun’s runs half-day programs for kids ages 5 to 12, while teens can join a pontoon flotilla to cruise the lake and find places to swim.
Most of the resort’s 263 units are connected to the main lodge, so resort activities stay centralized whether they’re at the beach, marina or indoors. The resort also offers discounted day passes for the Holiday Inn Express Three Bears Waterpark, which is along Highway 371 in Brainerd.
Our Editor Loves
- Two outdoor pools and a large indoor pool
- Waterski and tubing lessons
- Brainerd's widest selection of winter activities
- Water Parks
- Water Sports
- Children Programs
- Family Room 5+
- Game Room
- Onsite Dining
Rooms & Rates
The resort has invested about 1.5 million in the past few years to upgrade to pillow-top beds, add family suites with bunk beds and refresh outdated guestrooms on the south end of the resort. Each lodge room includes a coffeemaker, mini-fridge and microwave. If you want to watch movies, you can bring your own DVD player and hook it up to the room's television.
Designed like a typical hotel room with a king bed, two queen beds or two double beds, Poolside Rooms overlook the indoor pool or the outdoor sundeck. Fireplace Rooms have wood-burning or gas fireplaces with balconies and views of Steamboat Bay on Gull Lake. There are some connecting rooms for larger families.
Another choice for families: fireplace rooms (wood-burning) with a second bedroom that has a bunk (two beds), two bean-bag chairs and a separate TV.
These rooms have lakeside sitting areas with a sofa sleeper, dining room table and chairs, whirlpool tub in the bathroom, master bedroom with a king-size bed and a full kitchen.
The decor may be dated but Cragun's timeless cabins need to be reserved at least six months in advance due to their popularity -- especially the beachside cabins. Other cabins are located on the hill above Gull Lake. The cabins are open from April through October, and include one to five bedrooms along with full kitchens and dining areas. There's also a reunion house for 23 guests, but it's so popular it books years in advance.
Stayed there for my companies Christmas party and couldn't be more impressed. The rooms are very nice and spacious. The food was excellent for both supper and breakfast, and the drinks weren't watered down at all.
Wow! What a fantastic resort and the perfect place to spend our New Years holiday. Our kids are 11, 10 and 4 and in the winter there was plenty to do for all of them. We stayed in the hotel so we could walk indoors to the lobby, pool, game room, sports center and dining hall. No need to bundle up and go outside until it was time for activities. We took part in the New Years Vacation Package which was well
Worth the cost for all of us. It included fun Free activities bingo, Pictionary, scavenger hunt PLUS an incredible breakfast buffet every morning. Our son’s favorite place to be was the giant sports center. The girls loved the outdoor activities at the marina. We took advantage of ice skating, snow mobiling, sledding, cross country skiing, dog sledding, and just playing in the snow. Our room had a fireplace in it (so fun). Kids loved the HUGE pool house with the video games and hot tub. The little cafe at the pool is where we are most of the time because Erma’s wasn’t open during the winter season. Pizza is good, also kids liked the burgers. Not many healthy options but we were able to drive into town (only 20 minutes) to get more options. Excellent resort during the winter! Can’t wait to return.
Kids 5 to 12 enjoy organized games, crafts and activities at Camp Cragun's. Parents can sign kids up for a half-day Monday, Wednesday and Saturday early June through Sept. 1.
Kids who've outgrown Camp Cragun's can check out the teen program that meets in the Sports Centre. Activities may include tubing, water-skiing, pontoon rides and a twist on the reality show "Fear Factor." Kids ages 7 to 19 can also sign up for daily lessons in tubing or water-skiing.
Winter and Summer Sleigh Rides
The Christmas-y clang of bells can be heard on family fun weekends throughout the winter, but also in the summer when the resort's sturdy Clydesdale horses pull 20-passenger wagons around the property. Look for 30-minute narrated tours during the summer, followed by marshmallow roasts on the beach twice a week.
Beach or Poolside Fun
Activities change by day and season and can include magic shows, family "Survivor" contests, limbo and hula hoop contests, carnivals and bring-your-own-blanket movies on the south beach. Outdoor activities also include beach volleyball and horseshoes.
Guests can enjoy kayaks, canoes, pedal-boats, paddleboarding and other water sports, but no personal watercrafts are allowed due to the noise.
Cragun's has earned its share of golf accolades, especially with the Legacy Courses designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and featuring 55 holes of golf. It's considered an Audubon International Signature Sanctuary with woods, wetlands and water all part of each hole.
The courses include the 18-hole Dutch Legacy, the 19-hole Bobby's Legacy and a par-3 reversible 18-hole course. Bobby's ranks as the most challenging with par 73, dramatic elevation changes and the 19th hole ("The Gambler's Hole") for settling playoffs or wagers.
Families can play their first round at the Legacy Reversible Course for free. Summer visitors can also sign up for the SNAG (Starting New at Golf) program geared toward both kids and adults. This hybrid of mini-golf and regular golf helps with basic skills and standard shots.
A 22,000-square-foot indoor gym lets guests play tennis and basketball indoors or use the upper level running track and fitness center. During the off-season the Sports Centre may occasionally close for private functions and conferences.
Bicyclists can rent bikes for pedaling around Cragun's property or along the East Gull Lake Trail to Gull Lake Dam Recreation Area. Bikers wanting a longer trek can head to Nisswa or Brainerd to access the 75-mile Paul Bunyan State Trail that's dotted with small towns. It's also a popular trail with snowmobilers in the winter.
Onsite Winter Activities
In winter, sign up early to try dogsledding, rent an ice house to try ice fishing, rent Polaris snowmobiles for a half-day or try the Kitty-Cat track for kids, challenge each other in broomball or hockey, practice your figure 8's, try Nordic skiing or snowshoeing, then warm up by the beach bonfire with hot cocoa and marshmallows. All equipment can be rented onsite, so it doesn't matter if no one has skates or outgrew them. Anyone sick of winter can stick to the pool and indoor games.
Downhill skiers and snowboarders can head to nearby Ski Gull, Brainerd's ski hill. Cross-Country skiers and snowshoers can use trails at The Legacy or other area trails. Get maps and updates on trail conditions at check-in.
Gull Lake Spa
Make weekend appointments at least one month in advance at this popular spa offering massages, facials, manicures and pedicures. For 'tweens and teens ages 10 to 17 can enjoy massages and skin treatments, as well. Build in time to relax on the spa's lake-view deck or ask about an outdoor massage.
While it's within a golf-course clubhouse that includes a pro shop, non-golfers also like eating at this casual restaurant overlooking the golf course with plenty of TVs for watching sports. Popular sandwiches include the grilled Reuben and ale-battered walleye. All come with seasoned, homemade potato chips. Salads include a black-and-bleu (Cajun tenderloin, bleu cheese, tomatoes and crispy onions) and chicken with Bleu cheese, pecans, apples and poppy-seed dressing. For dinner dates, look for barbecue spareribs, pan-fried walleye, beef tenderloin or a build-your-own pasta bowl. Prime rib is served on Friday and Saturday nights at 5 p.m.
Hungry Gull Restaurant and Bar
This seasonal log dinner restaurant dates back to 1926 when it was part of the Island View Resort. The Hungry Gull serves kids meals and adult entrees such as apricot-apple chutney pork chops, grilled barbecue ribs, crab cakes with mango salsa, chicken piccata and walleye with Beurre sauce. Meals include family-style salad and rolls. Open 5:30 to 9 p.m.
Lodge Dining Room
Guests can fill up on pastries, potatoes, eggs, breakfast meats, cereal and yogurt at this buffet from 7 to 10 a.m. daily. Windows overlook the lake.
Bear Trap Lounge
Anyone whose kids daydream about becoming singing celebrities can join Friday and Saturday night karaoke sessions from 9 to 10 p.m., when it reverts to adults only. Diners can order pizza, salad or appetizers such as pita wedges with artichoke or hummus dips.
Poolside Snack Bars
Located at the lodge's indoor pool, Sun Deck snack bar serves pizza, bratwurst, walleye or steak sandwiches, Mediterranean salad, bar drinks and appetizers. The Sun Deck is open noon until 8 p.m. daily except Sunday when it closes at 4 p.m. There's also a snack bar serving up sloppy Joes, pulled pork and ice cream treats near the Hungry Gull and the smaller outdoor pool.
If you want more choices, there are several casual eateries in Nisswa, plus chain and local restaurants throughout Brainerd. For some of the area's most creative upscale food without a fine-dining budget, try breakfast or lunch at Prairie Bay Grill. If a lake view is a priority, you can boat, snowmobile or drive to Ernie's on Gull Lake.
Planning & Tips
Guests who arrive on a Sunday in the summer or a Friday in the winter can enjoy free food and drinks along with games at the welcoming reception. It's an ideal time to sign up for upcoming activities such as trolley rides, winter dogsled rides, fishing clinics, beach parties and more.
Discounts & Deals
Look for specials throughout the year, including spring or fall golf packages, romance packages, and family fun weekends in the winter during school holidays and breaks. You can score last-minute discounts, especially if you are flexible enough to travel mid-week. Military veterans qualify for a veterans appreciation package with lodging or golf discounts Memorial Day through Veterans Day.
Cragun's offers packages and special meals during major holidays, from Easter and the Fourth of July to Christmas and New Year's. During January, there's a free shuttle to one of the world's largest ice-fishing contests, usually held on Gull Lake's Hole in the Day Bay.
Cribs and Rollaways
Cribs and rollaway beds can be rented for $15 per night.
The Art of Smart Timing
Summer reigns as the most popular time to visit -- especially with its nationally lauded Legacy Golf Course -- but don't write-off winter getaways when real deals can be garnered. Rooms rates can be a steal on long holiday weekends in January and February, making it an ideal time for a memorable getaway that lets kids and parents sample almost every winter sport.
If you want a summer vacation at the lake, look for packages online and last-minute deals. Super Saver rates are valid during June and in mid- to late-August.
A word of warning: lodging rates skyrocket throughout the Brainerd area during Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway, usually the third weekend in August.
It takes 2.5 hours to drive from Minneapolis to Brainerd. Follow Interstate 94 to Clearwater, exit at Minnesota Highway 24 and follow it to U.S. Highway 10. Follow Highway 10 toward Little Falls, staying right when it branches off to Highway 371. Follow north of Brainerd. Turn left on County Road 77, which winds around Gull Lake to the resort at 11,000 Craguns Drive, Brainerd, Minnesota.
There also are connecting flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. It's $35-$40 for a taxi ride from the Brainerd airport to the resort. Lakes Express shuttle service transports passengers back and forth from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and Brainerd.
For Mom and Dad
Rent a boat, grab a tandem kayak or head to the Legacy golf course for some time alone together. During the winter, hit the trails on snowmobiles or try ice-fishing in one of the cozy fish houses for rent.
For a nearby romantic meal with drinks, check out Iven's on the Bay for martinis or wine, pan-seared fish with heirloom tomatoes, duck breast with cherry barbecue sauce, lobster with orange basil butter, and reasonable prix fixe specials along the Gull Lake shore; Grand View Resort's historic log lodge which is known for its walleye with sweet corn risotto and offers creative small plates in it's new Cru wine cellar; or Lost Lake Lodge for creative four- to six-course meals with entrees such as duck breast with peach sake jus or posole pork chops and seasonal tarts. The property tucked away near the Gull Lake Causeway also has delicious homemade breads with grains from an onsite grist mill.