Downtown Spokane. Hmm. Well, for starters, a river runs through it.
Smack in the middle of downtown, sprawling innocently below the infamous RPS parking garage, watched over by the metalwork Bloomsday runners, and within earshot of the roar of the falls, is the Centennial Trail, stretching from Nine Mile Falls in Riverside State Park to the Idaho state line and hugging the Spokane River for most of its 37 glorious miles. If wanderlust has struck, you can continue for another 23 miles in Idaho and go clear past Coeur d'Alene.
Kaye Turner, of the Friends of Centennial Trail, described some of her favorite places on the trail as she did trail chores one afternoon. Hard by the Idaho border, miles 1-3 offer a "park-like setting" and miles 4-9 run right along the Spokane River. In fact, says Turner, the Spokane Valley section of the trail is most heavily used of all. She recommends Mirabeau Meadows as a great place to picnic. Boulder Beach, at milepost 16, is a good place to cool your tootsies on a hot day. You may be tempted to take your fishing pole along, but Turner warns, "For goodness' sake, don't eat the fish!"
We said near nature; we didn't say anything about pristine.
Riverside State Park Ten thousand acres with 55 miles of hiking trails. Cougars and coyotes and bears, oh my.
This behemoth of local parks was begun by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s at the Bowl & amp; Pitcher area, where the log cabin they built still stands. "Most people think Bowl & amp; Pitcher is the park," says Park Ranger Jody Maberry. Not so.
Deep Creek Canyon, up near Nine Mile Falls, is one of Maberry's favorites. It has a "fantastic trail" he says, as well as a wonderful scenic overlook. Trail 25, just completed in 2004, loops through the entire park, beginning at Trail Town Equestrian Center.
If you fancy a less traveled route, you can try the Little Spokane Natural Area - stretching from Highway 291 to Rutter Parkway. The 1.7-mile trail west from Painted Rocks Trail along the Spokane River is mostly flat, but the six-mile Valley Trail offers more challenge as it loops north and then back down toward the river.
From the higher elevations, Ranger Mac Mikkelsen of the Little Spokane area says, "You can see a stretch of river several miles long. You wouldn't even think you were near Spokane at all. Your worries go away at that point."
It's a big park and there is wildlife aplenty, including osprey, heron, moose, cougars and bears. And be careful out there: One hiker claimed that he saw a cougar carrying golden retriever, though Mikkelsen's not sure he believes it.
It will take even an avid hiker a long time to thoroughly explore this park. Ya' better get going.
High Drive Trails If you don't live on the South Hill, you probably don't know about the High Drive Trails. They girdle the west and south bluffs, with Latah Creek winding alongside the railroad tracks below, and the thrum of traffic from Highway 195 just beyond.
A few steps below High Drive - at 21st or 29th avenues or at Bernard Street -- you're away from the cars and gazing down at Hangman Valley with its smattering of greenhouses and vegetable plots.
To the north, I-90 straddles Spokane Valley, 18-wheelers hurtling across. The railroad trestle looms above, with the blue shadows of the mountains in the distance.
But make no mistake; even if the decorous enclaves of South Hill are just yards away, this is a small slice of nature. Trails form narrow corridors walled by pines and the summer slopes are still covered with fading balsamroot and bachelor buttons.
Wildlife is more limited here - chipmunks and raccoons and crows mostly - but every so often a more exotic note is struck. Hawks soar on thermal drafts, hunting for dinner. That thing an inquisitive dog might mistake for a slow-moving shrub turns out to be -- uh-oh -- a porcupine.
Rocks and roots aplenty here; so, think traction, think ankle support, think hiking boots.
Liberty Lake Park
Just off I-90, wedged between a golf course and housing developments, sprawl the nearly 3,000 acres of Liberty Lake Park.
Bryant Robinson, who became the first Spokane County park ranger this June, counts 22 miles of trails in the park, including the seven miles of the Main Loop.
Highlights include a splendid cedar forest; a little further on, a set of waterfalls cascades over rock outcroppings into pools below. Lynx, bears, moose, fawns, herons, osprey and eagles call the park home.
About three miles in, a thousand feet of elevation gain earns hikers "cool vistas of Liberty Lake and the valley as you get above the cedars," says Robinson. Between the waterfalls and the cabin at Camp Hughes, about three miles from the start of the Main Loop, it feels "quiet and untouched," says Robinson, "like you're in the middle of the Cascades."
There are places in this 500-acre natural area where you can clearly hear the traffic whizzing by on Sprague. But the goal of the park when it began in 1966 was to protect it from the encroaching suburban sprawl and preserve the natural character of the Spokane Valley as it was before white settlers arrived. The granite outcroppings of Dishman Hills were formed by the floodwaters of glacial Lake Missoula more than 12,000 years ago.
Attentive hikers can see coyotes, weasels, squirrels, chipmunks, marmots, porcupines, white-tailed deer, hawks, ruffed grouse, pheasants and more than 50 species of butterflies.
The several miles of trails offer a lot of shade and several ponds, so it can be a cool refuge on hot summer days. Those seeking vistas can try the Ridge Top Trails and Eagle Peak Loop and be rewarded with views of Spokane in the distance.
Be reminded, though: This little outpost of nature is surrounded by private land, and it is amazingly easy to stumble into someone's yard before you realize it. Have that map and be ready to use it.
So let's review. Spokane. Near nature? Near perfect? Well, again, a river runs right smack through it. Not pristine, perhaps, but hardly the Cuyahoga either. Miles and miles of trails. Yes, there is curiously lackadaisical attitude toward signs, but in hiking perseverance is a virtue that is its own reward.
A lake. Fabulous vistas. Wildlife, including big, snarly carnivores. Abundant flora. Suburban tracts may be encroaching, but all the more reason to celebrate others' foresight in preserving natural spaces.
There aren't many other cities where you can leave work and reach some kind of nature inside 20 minutes.
So lace up those boots and get out there.