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Five Classic Running Trails for Exploring Detroit

The Detroit Marathon annually broadcasts to the world that the city is a premiere racing destination, but the marathon is just the tip of the iceberg for Detroit’s running opportunities. Here are the five essential running trails for year-round exploration of Detroit - a true runner’s city.

It’s been roughly a week since the Detroit Free Press Marathon - the crown jewel of our region’s annual outdoor events - electrified the streets of Detroit and Windsor. Now that the medals have been distributed and the crowds have resided, some runners may be tempted to hibernate through the winter or forgo running through the city until next year’s race.

That, my dear friends, would be a tremendous mistake. In fact, we at Expedition Detroit respectfully argue that now is the single best time of the year to #RUNDET.

Why, you may ask? Well, with the crowds gone, Detroit’s streets will be largely available for unhindered exploration. Any runners that flew in for the marathon will obviously be running their far-flung routes again, but a significant portion of local runners are also still resting their legs from the effort exerted during the race. Add in peak fall colors and cooler temperatures, the end result is truly a runner’s paradise.

Now that you’re convinced and ready to lace up your shoes, are you unsure about recommended routes? Congratulations - you’ve landed on the right article.

Here are the five essential, iconic, can’t-miss running trails within the City of Detroit:

1. Belle Isle Park Loop

Distance: 5.6 miles

Completion Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Running Trail Highlights: James Scott Memorial Fountain, Sunset Point, Nancy Brown Peace Carillon Tower, Belle Isle Nature Center, and Belle Isle Boat House

If Detroit represents a treasure chest filled with spectacular running opportunities, then Belle Isle Park undoubtedly shines as its crown jewel. Located amidst of the vibrant blue waves of the Detroit River, Belle Isle's 982 acres capture not only the best aspects of the City of Detroit, but the entirety of the southeast region of the Great Lakes. Art deco architecture? Check. Pristine inland lakes and streams? Check. Wetlands? Woodlands? Zoos and Museums? Check, check, and check. Stated differently, you don't need to conduct much research to discover why Belle Isle has been a recreational paradise since its inauguration in 1879.

While Belle Isle contains several natural trails that are fantastic for hiking, the predominant running trail on the island sticks to the main paved roads that intersect throughout the park. The counterclockwise route starts at the main entrance to the park, right at the end of the MacArthur Bridge. The initial mile will lead you directly towards Sunset Point - possibly the best view of Downtown Detroit from within the city limits - and towards the beautiful James Scott Memorial Fountain along the southern coast of the island. Continuing east, you will run past the inland Lake Tacoma, Great Lakes Museum, and several scenic picnic grounds as you venture towards inland Lake Okonoka. While the Blue Heron Lagoon nature trail will certainly be tempting, this running trail requires you to stay on Lakeside Drive as you jog past the Belle Isle Nature Center, inland Lake Muskoday, the Detroit Yacht Club, and Belle Isle Beach. The route ends right where you began - at the entrance point to the MacArthur Bridge - although now you will finish right alongside the historic Belle Isle Boat House on Riverbank Drive.

Bonus Tip: Remember all of those scenic picnic spots that you just jogged past, especially those that have postcard-worthy views of Detroit's skyline or the Windsor shoreline? Well, we recommend circling back to one of those, laying out a picnic blanket, camp chairs, or hammock if you're near trees, and enjoying a well-deserved relaxation session after completing your grand tour of Belle Isle. Extra points if your friends meet you there with yard games, a speaker, and post-run snacks.

2. Detroit Riverwalk Trail

Distance: 5.3 miles

Completion Time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Running Trail Highlights: Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park, Hart Plaza, William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor, Mt. Elliot Park, and Gabriel Richard Park

Writing a review of the stunningly beautiful Detroit Riverwalk Trail is a bit of a moving target. For starters, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy constantly has their sleeves rolled up while breaking ground on new segments, featured destinations, and community events along the Riverwalk Trail. As of the moment that I'm writing this article, the Riverwalk Trail stretches roughly 5.3 miles from Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park to Gabriel Richard Park. Ongoing projects will further expand the Riverwalk Trail both east and west along the Detroit River, so there's a decent chance - no, an absolute certainty - that I will need to circle back on this article.

The current iteration of the Riverwalk Trail starts at western edge of Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park, right where W. Jefferson Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard meet. While the trail briefly connects to W. Jefferson Avenue around the Riverfront Towers, runners rejoin the river just south of the former Joe Louis Arena site (RIP). Continue east as you jog past the skyscrapers of downtown, including memorable highlights like Huntington Place, the Detroit Princess Riverboat, Hart Plaza, the International Memorial to the Underground Railroad, and the Renaissance Center. This unbroken stretch of the Riverwalk Trail leads you directly into William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor, including a direct link to the Dequindre Cut Greenway Trail (spoiler alert). For this run, however, you're going to continue pressing east - past the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre, through the Harbortown Marina and Mt. Elliott Park, and finally reaching your finish line at Gabriel Richard Park.

Bonus Tip: If you choose to run this trail from point-to-point, we only ask for one favor in return: promise us that you will return to the Riverwalk Trail simply to walk and explore all of the amenities that "America's Best Riverwalk" has to offer. Truly, it felt like a sin to skip over the overwhelming amount of incredible attractions, facilities, landmarks, and exploration opportunities that are featured within or directly accessible from the Riverwalk Trail. We'll write up a feature just on the Riverwalk, but until then, please - go forth and explore it.

3. The Dequindre Cut Greenway

Distance: 2 miles

Completion Time: 24 minutes

Running Trail Highlights: “Art Walk” murals, Dequindre Cut Freight Yard, Eastern Market, Campbell Terrace, and Outdoor Adventure Center

Possibly the most famous "Rail Trail" in Michigan, the Dequindre Cut Greenway trail was part of the Grand Trunk Railroad line in a former life, running parallel to St. Aubin Street. Since 2009, however, a coalition formed by the U.S. Government, City of Detroit, Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation has provided new life to this formerly abandoned and blighted outdoor space. In its current glory, the Dequindre Cut is a 2 mile trail that serves as a lightening rod for invigorating community recreation, social events, and urban art inspiration. A run down the Dequindre Cut is a quintessential Detroit experience - a microcosm showcase of the past, present, and future of one of America's greatest cities.

The most common running trail begins on the north end of the Dequindre Cut at Mack Avenue. Heading south, the Wilkins Street Plaza will be the first landmark, followed closely by the lively Dequindre Cut Freight Yard and its outdoor bar during the warmer months. Continuing south, enjoy an uninterrupted display of Detroit's finest street artwork - known as the "Art Walk" - until you come across the Campbell Terrace's outdoor stage and surrounding facilities. Fit Park and the DNR's Outdoor Adventure Center ("OAC") mark the final highlights before reaching the southern terminus of the Dequindre Cut at Atwater Street.

Bonus Tip: The Dequindre Cut ends not only at the OAC, but also directly across Atwater Street from William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor. If you have the time, we strongly encourage you to take your time exploring both of these DNR destinations found conveniently in the core of Detroit, especially the exhibits at the OAC and the Detroit Riverwalk segments within the park. One of the best cool-down walks that you'll ever have, we guarantee it.

4. Rouge Park

Distance: 5.1 miles

Completion Time: 1 hour 5 minutes

Running Trail Highlights: Joe Prance Recreation Area, Sorensen Recreation Area, Alex Jefferson Airfield, Cost Corner Recreation Area, and Scout Hollow Campground

Trivia question: what is the name of the largest park within the City of Detroit? Most residents of our region would probably guess Belle Isle Park, the massive idyllic island floating within the Detroit River. Reasonable guess, but nonetheless incorrect: Rouge Park, consisting of 1,181 acres on the far western rim of the city, holds the title for largest recreation area within Detroit’s city limits. Better yet, the park maintains several of the best paved and natural running trails in the city.

The running trail highlighted here is a paved route, although there are several nature trails that are immediately accessible from the main road running trail. Starting at crossroads of Rouge Park Drive and Spinoza Drive, head directly south towards Joe Prance Recreation Area - the site of the first of four nature trails that you will be able to access for additional mileage. Continuing in a counterclockwise direction, you will pass by the Butterfly Garden entrance to the Prairie Pathway, run along Warren Avenue on the southern boundary of the park, and turn north on the paved trail towards Sorenson Recreation Area before hitting Pierson Street. The northward route continues on Sorensen Promenade past Alex Jefferson Airfield, Cozy Corner Recreation Area, and Scout Hollow Campground, the only maintained campground within the City of Detroit (for now). Your run finishes right where it began, although not before crossing the namesake Rouge River.

Bonus Tip: Looking for more adventure? Bring the mountain bike along for your Rouge Park expedition! Our friends at the Motor City Mountain Biking Association (“MCMBA”) maintain the City of Detroit’s only MTB-specific trail within Rouge Park, a 3 mile singletrack loop with its trailhead located at W. Outer Drive and Tireman Avenue. The MCMBA held one its “Trail Days” at Rouge Park back in April, during which volunteers significantly improved the trail’s features and general conditions. Expect to see us running AND biking Rouge Park soon!

5. City Center Circuits

Distance: 3 - 10 miles (depending on route)

Completion Time: 36 minutes (3 miles) or 2 hours (10 miles)

Running Trail Highlights: Campus Martius Park, Wayne State University, Eastern Market, Cultural Center, and Hart Plaza

Credit's owed where credit's due, so we must start by giving a shoutout to our friends at RUNdetroit for mapping the following running trails through Detroit's city center - the Downtown, Midtown, Corktown, Mexicantown, Eastern Market, Lafayette Park, Rivertown, New Center, and North End neighborhoods. The recommended routes are categorized as either red, blue, green, or gold loops, and each colored loop has a mileage variation of 3, 6, or 10 miles.

While all of the colored loops begin at RUNdetroit's main storefront, that is quite literally the only trait that each run has in common. Depending on which route you decide to take, you could run through the heart of Downtown's skyscrapers pas Campus Martius, along the scenic Riverwalk Trail, down the cobbled streets of Corktown, among the museums in Midtown, past stadiums, markets, or any combination of the above. Each route contains a highlight reel of the best of Detroit's city core, providing runner's with exposure to a lifetime of exploration opportunities within each neighborhood that they will jog through. We absolutely love our wilderness runs, but there's an undeniable beauty to the history, architecture, and multiculturalism that have flourished within our great city for centuries. We're certain that you will agree as you take on any of these recommended routes.

Bonus Tip: While any of these loops are free game to run independently, it would be a disservice to our readership to omit that the RUNdetroit Team leads guided runs along these routes every Saturday at 8AM. Each week, RUNdetroit will select a different colored loop for their guided run, although runners can select which distance they would like to run before the groups take off. Oh, and did we mention that these guided runs are free? Walking tours be damned - this is our favorite, cost-effective way to explore the city's core.


Now that you've run Detroit's essential trails, are you still looking to explore our region's best outdoor experiences? Yet again, we've got you covered - be sure to check back here regularly for straight from the field, no B.S., original Expedition Detroit content. We also maintain our destinations page as new, off the beaten path exploration opportunities cross our radar.

With so much to explore, there's no time to waste - we can't wait to see you out there.


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