By Joel Gaff, Jr.
The first time I ran McKinley Loop was probably back in 1995 when I was a sophomore on the cross country team at Traverse City Senior High (there was no "West" or "Central" until 1998). It's still my all-time favorite running route in Traverse City.
Maybe it's because it was a loop that we ran a lot back then, or maybe it's because it has great scenery, quiet roads, a nice challenge in the middle, and is a solid, yet not terribly long distance (it's six miles on the dot). Probably a combination of all of the above.
I typically run this loop in a counterclockwise direction starting and finishing at Traverse City Central High School. Here's a quick overview of the loop...
From the Central High School gym parking lot on Eastern Ave., turn right onto Eastern avenue and head east. I recommend staying on the sidewalk.
The sidewalk will turn into a paved path just past Eastern Elementary School.
Stay on the path all the way to Birchwood Ave. (also known as East Shore Rd.), then turn left.
You're about 0.7 miles into the loop when you turn left onto Birchwood Ave. For the next two miles you'll be running along Birchwood/East Shore Rd., which is mostly tree-covered, and the views of East Grand Traverse Bay are only rivaled by the views you'll get of West Grand Traverse Bay when you hit mile four.
It's completely flat until you get to mile 2.7, where you turn left onto McKinley Rd. and the road then heads skyward.
Over the next 0.8 mile you'll gain about 150 feet of elevation. Just before you reach the true crest of the hill, you'll arrive at Center Rd. Center Rd. is a very busy road with cars travelling upward of 50 mph, so use caution when crossing. Continue straight on McKinley Rd.
Just past Center Rd. is where McKinley Rd. peaks, and you'll begin to lose elevation - quickly. The descent down to Peninsula Dr. is very steep. So steep that we would sometimes run down it backward back in high school.
When you reach the bottom of the hill, hang a left onto Peninsula Dr. Just around the corner is the four-mile mark, and you've got two miles of winding road, a wide shoulder most of the way, and fantastic views of West Grand Traverse Bay the entire way.
At mile 5.4 you'll arrive at a traffic light. To the left the road is called Center Rd. (the same road you crossed back at the top of the hill). To the right the road is Peninsula Dr. (the same road you've been running on for the last two miles). You should take a right and continue on Peninsula Dr.
This is another busy intersection, and you should use caution as you navigate your way across the intersection. The next quarter mile or so the road is fairly busy, so keep alert.
You're almost home when you reach the next traffic light at Eastern Ave. Turn left onto Eastern Ave., and you'll soon see Central High School on the right. If you run all the way back to where you began on Eastern Ave. you should be at exactly six miles.
There are lots of grassy areas where you can sit and stretch around the tennis courts next to the parking lot. My favorite spot is just east of the tennis courts, near Eastern Elementary School under the large trees. If you want to cool down your legs post-run, Bryant Park is a great spot for a quick dip.
Joel Gaff, Jr. is the founder of Traverse City Run Co. You can slide into his DMs on Instagram at @joelga.