F.W. Kent Park in Oxford is one of eastern Iowa’s most picturesque and diverse parks — 1,052 square acres of forest, lakes and prairie and an ideal spot for hiking, camping, picnicking, birdwatching and (in non-pandemic times) letting your kids loose on the park’s playground or at a youth summer camp.
Kent Park’s most popular feature is its 27-acre lake, surrounded by a family- and dog-friendly paved loop trail, beaded with benches, a beach, fishing spots and historic bridges. It’s certainly worth the hype — but journey a little deeper into the park and you’ll find enough crisscrossing trails to choose your own hiking adventure 20 times over, staying socially distanced in the process.
Care for a recommendation? Try this 2.1-mile walk along the park’s northern boundary, containing minimal elevation changes, nice wide paths and a smorgasbord of sights.
Drive north past the campgrounds and shelters, and park in the Valley View Prairie parking lot. Right across the road is a trailhead marker, though it may be obscured by some vegetation. Take the grassy path and enjoy the prairie flowers and view of an idyllic farm in the distance. You’ll pass a cluster of regal pine trees on your right.
Look out for: Iowa’s state flower, the wild rose
When you reach the first fork in the road, go right. (The left side takes you on a 0.4-mile detour to a nearby pond — feel free to take it if you have the time.) At this point, you’ll follow the park boundary for a little over a mile. Hiking in a straight line may seem dull, but this stretch has plenty to offer, including shade as you walk in and out of lush tree canopies. Eventually, the greenery opens up on your left to reveal a beautiful hill of farmland, worthy of a Grant Wood painting. After you’ve passed this clearing, take the next path you see going off to the right.
Look out for: Animal tracks
Frolic through a grassy, flower-filled field for about one-tenth of a mile, then head right at the fork back toward the woods, where the trail turns to gravel. This path, too, will lead to a fork — step off to the right to rest on a bench overlooking one of Kent Park’s gorgeous, fish- and frog-filled ponds, then take the trail going left to continue your hike.
Look out for: Purple prairie clover and gray-headed coneflower
Cross the bridge and ogle the colossal oak trees growing in and around the ponds as you continue. The gravel trail leads you to the Conservation Education Center, around which researchers are conducting ongoing studies of the park’s birds. There is a popular, paved loop trail of about 0.4 miles that begins at the Conservation Center, as well as bathrooms nearby.
Look out for: Tagged birds and moth cocoons
Head towards the main road and walk along the roadside for a short distance, passing the Whip-Poor-Will Picnic Area, until you see an enticing grassy path off to the right. This will connect you back to the trail along the park’s boundary — turn left to go back where you began.
Look out for: Colorful mushrooms on dead trees
If you’d like to plop a cherry on top of your hike, or just want a spot to enjoy some lunch, take the trail leading off of the lot where you parked, towards the small shelter and picnic table on the hill. Soak in the lovely view and breeze. The rest of the trail is just about a half-mile, and shaped like a wonky horseshoe. It’s a short but refreshing jaunt, with trees on your left and prairie on your right, connecting back to the main road.
Look out for: Monarch butterflies
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 284.