Running Destination: Michigan's Kal-Haven Trail

by Jeff Burtka

Kal-Haven Trail

Before the advent of automobiles and highways, trains carried Americans and cargo across a system of rails connecting small towns, big cities, and Great Lakes and ocean ports. As cars and air travel became more popular, much of this rail system became obsolete. Beginning in the 1960s, conservationists and outdoors enthusiasts around the country started a movement to convert these railroads to trails for public use. The United States now has approximately 2,100 rail-trails for 23,501 miles.

On a trip to South Haven, Michigan, I had the opportunity to run along the Kal-Haven Trail on the morning I left town. The trail is a 34.5 mile former railroad that connects Kalamazoo and South Haven, both of which are exciting towns with plenty to do. South Haven is on the shores of Lake Michigan with beautiful beaches and sunsets as well as a downtown with shopping and restaurants. Kalamazoo is more urban and is the home of museums, theaters, Western Michigan University, and Kalamazoo College. Several topnotch breweries, including Bell's, also call Kalamazoo home.

I started at the trailhead, which is about one mile northeast of downtown South Haven. I parked in the trailhead's lot, stretched, and began running.

A view of the Black River from the Kal-Haven Trail

I ran an out-and-back of approximately 15 miles, so I only saw about 7.5 miles of the trail. The first stretch of the trail is paved before it eventually turns into crushed limestone. The starting mile marker is probably about 0.2 miles into the trail. The trail has a mile marker every mile. I  questioned the accuracy of a couple of mile markers because twice I had a very quick (for me) split immediately followed by a slow split, and I don't think my pace was varying that much.

The first mile of the trail was the most scenic part I saw, as it mostly runs next to the Black River. The glassy water of the river and the lush green trees make a peaceful setting for a run, walk, or bike ride. The highlight was running through an old covered bridge over the Black River. Shortly after the bridge, the Black River section of the trail ends as the river veers away toward the south.

Covered bridge across the Black River

The second mile of the run is still heavily wooded, but the tree-covered path gives way to farmland near the mile two marker. Blueberry farms and cornfields were the primary scenery for the next five and a half miles. The trail still had enough trees lining it to provide shade from the July sun peeking out from behind the clouds on the overcast morning.

One of many farms along the Kal-Haven Trail

Once I hit farm country, the trail crossed country roads every mile. At the intersections between the trail and country roads, I saw a few houses, a church, and a business touting its clean bathrooms. The roads were quiet, and I only once had to stop for a car to go by.

For a weekend morning, there were not many other people on the trail. After the first mile, I went five to ten minutes without seeing anyone else a few times. I was surprised I didn't see any deer or wildlife other than a few birds, since I see deer a few times a week in my suburban Detroit neighborhood. Although I didn't observe any wildlife, there were wild raspberries growing along the trail. Even though they looked good, I did not stop to try them, because the ones I noticed were too far off the path.

One of many roads that cross the Kal-Haven Trail

Overall, the Kal-Haven trail is a great trail for runners training for a marathon or half-marathon. The unpaved trail is less jarring on bones and joints than asphalt or concrete, and the mile markers make it easy to keep track of your distance. Except for a few tiny hills in the first half-mile, the trail is flat and not challenging, making it a good trail for people who want an easy stroll surrounded by nature. I also would love to see the rest of it by bike, because the trail does pass from farmland to woods again and through a couple of small towns before reaching Kalamazoo. If I lived in Kalamazoo, I might even considering making a weekend bike trip to South Haven to take a dip in Lake Michigan.

After my run, I went to one of the public beaches in South Haven. I waded out into the water and just floated, letting the water remove the burden from my legs.

[A different version of this article originally appeared on the blog Lifelong Michigander at]

For more information about rails-to-trails across Michigan and the United States, visit the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy website at

For general information about Michigan trails, visit the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance website at