Runner's paradise: Washtenaw County's top five running routes

The warmth inching across Michigan in April entices even the least outdoorsy to step outside and do something to celebrate making it through the long, gray winter. "Going for a run" may not be first on the list for many people when they think of outdoor activities, but in Washtenaw County, maybe it should be.


Kathleen Gina, the coach and founder of local running group Run Ann Arbor, has been running in the area for over two decades. She loves the diversity of options available to runners in Washtenaw County, with downtown, subdivisions, and trails all in close proximity to each other.


"A lot of people say that Ann Arbor is kind of like a mini-New York, but it really offers better running than a bigger city would with less traffic," she says. "And, because we have the subdivisions, we have plenty of sidewalks instead of in a rural area where you have to run on the highway with a shoulder. Either way, it's much safer running in Ann Arbor."


With beautiful, safe, and easy-to-navigate routes across the county, pounding the pavement in Ann Arbor and beyond is unexpectedly pleasant for locals and visitors alike. With help from local runners and running organizations, Concentrate has compiled a list of five of the best running routes for all ability levels county-wide.


1. The Classic River Loop (3 miles, with add-on options)


This "mixed media" (trail and pavement) loop through Ann Arbor's Argo and Bandemer parks keeps the river on one side of you the entire way. Cut down to the river from the Broadway Bridge slightly north of downtown Ann Arbor and head toward Argo Park along the wide, paved trail. On the man-made rapids, you'll see whitewater kayakers in the spring and tubers in the summer. You can run the loop in either direction, heading into Argo Park first and running along the river trail, or cutting across the dam to run the paved Bandemer Park portion first. As you cross bridges and cut in and out among the trees, you'll find stunning views of the river and the wildlife that call it home, including swans, herons, and turtles. Run the loop as many times as you like or tack on more distance by cutting into Bird Hills Park across the train tracks from Bandemer. For advanced runners, Patrick Kenney, distance training chair of the University of Michigan's
MRun running club, suggests tacking on even more distance by heading into the Barton Hills neighborhood.


Toasty after running the loop? Starting in late April each year, you can rent a tube, kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddle board at the Argo Livery and cool off with a trip down the river after your run.


2. The Lohr-Textile Greenway Out-and-Back (length of your choice up to 20 miles)


For long runs, Gina and her cohort enjoy the path between Ann Arbor and Saline that connects to the Lohr-Textile Greenway. The first phase of the project, completed in 2012, connects Saline and Ann Arbor via Pittsfield Township. And now, runners can run along the sidewalk that starts along Waters Road and continues when it turns into Lohr. Eventually the sidewalk turns into the greenway. Runners continue on Lohr until it hits Textile, and then turn west on Textile to continue along the greenway, ultimately heading into downtown Saline and beyond. "This is a great route for anyone training for a marathon," says Gina. "You can easily get 20 miles in when you take the path and continue all the way out." It's also a great run for anyone who doesn't like to think about navigation while they're out – it's almost impossible to get lost. Just stay on the path for as long as you want, and then turn around and head home. Or, skip the "back" part of the out-and-back, call a friend to come pick you up, and stop in Saline for a brew or two at Salt Springs Brewery.


3. The Metropark Loop (9-mile loop, or out-and-back of any distance)


For any runner interested in a flat, scenic route with a distance of his or her choice, a good bet is starting in downtown Dexter and heading into Hudson Mills Metropark. After running north through the quaint downtown, you can cut down past the fire station and library to meet up with the paved park trail. Mile markers are staked every quarter mile, so distance measuring is easy and accurate. You can run up to a nine-mile loop, crossing over the Huron River at North Territorial Road to head back through the metropark on the other side, eventually meeting up with Huron River Drive to make it back to Dexter, or you can do an out-and-back of any distance. On nice days, the trail will be crowded with other runners, walkers, and bikers, but the yellow dividing line that spans the entire length of the trail keeps people on the correct side. This route is particularly lovely on early summer mornings, when the sun rises over the fields and forest to your right as you head out the path. And of course, ending your run in downtown Dexter gives you an excuse to celebrate its completion with one of the Dexter Bakery's famous pretzels.


4. Hill Running (6-mile loop)


Both Gina and Kenney emphasize the excellent hill training that's possible in Washtenaw County. "The hills were new to me when I first moved here, compared to where I'm from in Wisconsin," Kenney says. "But it's definitely made me a better runner, having to run up hills every day, even when we're not doing a specific hill workout." In Ann Arbor, some of the best hill training is possible in the Water Hill neighborhood. Gina and her cohorts especially like to run the Sunset Road hill, as well as the hilly connection streets between Sunset and Miller Avenue, for a particularly intense workout. From downtown Ann Arbor, head west on Miller Avenue to Newport Road and turn right. Run Newport to Sunset and turn right again. Then you can run the hills in the Water Hill neighborhood, wending your way back to Miller and eventually back downtown.


5. The Gallup Park-Arboretum route (7 miles, with add-on options)


Two of the most popular outdoor destinations in the county can be combined into a beautiful long run, especially in the fall. Head out Fuller Road from downtown Ann Arbor and cut down to the river on the path that borders Mitchell Field. From there, a wide, paved path follows the river, eventually cutting into Gallup Park. Run a loop or two on the paved or woodchip trails through the park, and then exit out Geddes Avenue. At the top of the big Geddes hill is one of the entrances to Nichols Arboretum; take a breather by cutting in there and running the nice long downhill to the Huron River. Runners can add on distance in the Arboretum, or exit out onto East Medical Center Drive, which eventually reconnects with Fuller Road. This route is a wonderful way to see some of the most beautiful areas in Washtenaw County – and a good way to cover lots of ground. There's a good number of those (in)famous Ann Arbor hills in this run, too.


Washtenaw County runners have the added benefit of multiple social running opportunities. MRun sometimes has nearly 300 registered members during their fall semesters, and Run Ann Arbor's weekly runs on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings often draw 50-60 runners apiece. "If you know that you have people waiting for you somewhere, that will help you get out the door," Gina says. This is especially true for Kenney and his teammates during the cold winter months. "The worst weather is when it's chillier and raining, but most people don't mind the cold too much," he says. "We're always running outside, even in the winter."


For Gina, running is a way of life. "I'm going to be 68 in a couple of months," she says. "I've been doing this for a long time. When I think about stopping or not doing it, I just sort of think to myself, 'Well, what would I do?'"


Elizabeth Pearce is an Ann Arbor resident and lifelong runner. In addition to Concentrate, she frequently contributes to Pulp.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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