DIRT PROVIDES RESPITE for a runner’s body, while road is unforgiving. “Trail running is so much softer on joints and bones; I could not put in nearly as much mileage if it was all on pavement. Also, just the beauty of it and getting out of the city and back to nature,” says Chris Zeller, head cross-country coach and assistant track coach at Eastern Washington University. He’s been trail running throughout Spokane County since seventh grade and is a 1996 graduate of Mead High School. “When the city talks about ‘near nature, near perfect,’ they’re talking about trail running. We’re so lucky and so blessed with the number of trails that are so close.”

Here are some of the best local trails, according to Zeller, within an hour’s drive of anywhere in metro-Spokane.

The T.J. Meenach Trail is a dirt trail that parallels the Centennial Trail, starting under the T.J. Meenach Bridge on Fort George Wright Drive. Park in the small lot at the bottom of Doomsday Hill (Downriver Drive). This trail goes all the way to Riverside State Park’s Bowl & Pitcher trails- ten miles round-trip. With just a few hills, Zeller says it’s a fairly easy route.

If you just want to have a smorgasbord of trails, just start your run at Riverside State Park. “That’s probably the best place as far as number of miles of trails,” says Zeller. There are restroom amenities and some outhouses on the trails (as well as one near the park’s equestrian area). More importantly, the variety of trails allows runners to custom-design a workout with varying degrees of difficulty.

Riverside State Park’s Indian Painted Rocks is another great running road trip. Starting at the Indian Painted Rocks trailhead parking lot off Rutter Parkway, there are two options for running. The Valley Trail begins just past the outhouse (look for a small sign). It’s a challenging 7-mile loop (approx.) with a gradual uphill the first few couple of miles, then one mile of steep climbing followed by a downhill, and then the last couple of miles are pretty flat, explains Zeller. In the late fall, Zeller has seen moose grazing just off the trail. (Note: No dogs are allowed on these trails, which are within the Little Spokane River Natural Area.)

If you’re looking for less mileage from the same parking lot, take the River Trail-Zeller’s ultimate favorite. It’s a fairly flat 3.5 miles out and back. “It’s the most scenic in terms of foliage, birds and wildlife,” he says. In addition to wild turkeys, he’s seen moose and deer. The parking lot seems fairly safe, according to Zeller, with periodic patrols by the park rangers come by. “I haven’t heard of anyone having trouble there,” he says.

Another good trail network is on Beacon Hill. Park either at Esmeralda Golf Course or Minnehaha Park (parking lot is off Upper River Drive). Spot the hill and go. “There’s not one specific route but a network of trails, which can be fairly challenging with a lot of up and down,” Zeller says.

High Drive, on Spokane’s South Hill, is another option. From downtown Spokane, drive south on Maple Avenue, which eventually turns into High Drive at 29th Ave. A small city-maintained parking area is nearby to access this conservation area. There are a few different shoulder pull-off sections to then access the hillside, which slopes towards Latah Creek below. Walkers and mountain bikers frequently use this challenging network of narrow trails. The only criticism Zeller has is “it seems a little weird on my knees and ankles” because of running on the side of the hill. No amenities, but it’s well used and has safe parking.

Additional trail running destinations around the county include the Mt. Kit Carson trails at Mt. Spokane State Park; Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge near Cheney; Fish Lake Trail, with 20.9 miles of gravel and 2.2 miles of paved trail, according to Trails.com; Dishman Hills Natural Area in Spokane Valley; and Liberty Lake County Park.

Regarding shoes, specific trail running shoes aren’t necessary. Zeller doesn’t think they make a difference in performance or injury-prevention. “I don’t like shoes that are too clunky,” he says. “I like my feet and ankles to have some movement.” He recommends strengthening feet and ankles by running barefoot on grass, or working on balance exercises using a BOSU(r) ball, which is flat on one side and rounded on the other.

If a runner does roll or sprain an ankle on a trail, Zeller says to head back as quickly as you can, taking the shortest route. Then, as soon as possible, apply pressure with an ace bandage and ice to reduce the swelling. His advice to all runners: remember “R.I.C.E.” as an easy self-help guide -rest, ice, compress, elevate.

And above all, remember trail running etiquette. When going downhill and other runners approach coming uphill, give the right-of-way, and come to a stop if you can. If you’re approaching another runner from behind, call out a greeting or a warning like “on your left.” Zeller also says, “Respect the trail. Leave it in the same way you found it.”