116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
OXFORD — Sometimes, in your quest to find a cool place to spend a day away, you need look no farther than your backyard.
I’ve lived in the Cedar Rapids area since 1982, and have driven past the sign to F.W. Kent Park a zillion times. I’ve placed about as many news briefs in the paper, alerting readers to fun outdoor skills instruction offered there.
And then on Nov. 6, I had a couple of hours to kill between a wedding and reception in Iowa City. I thought about hitting the mall to start some Christmas shopping, but the afternoon weather was so beautiful, I just felt the need to be outdoors.
Where: 2048 Highway 6, Oxford; three miles west of Tiffin
Reservations: (319) 645-2315
Time to turn right off Highway 6 and enter the Kent Park realm.
I had no idea it was such a glorious place. Plenty of Facebook friends took me to task for waiting nearly 40 years to explore this 1,082-acre park just three miles west of Tiffin. (The number of acres varies according to websites, listed as 1,052, 1,062 or 1,082. In other words: “big.”)
“You've never been to Kent Park?!?!?!? Well, glad you’ve fixed that oversight.”
“Obviously my photos and posts weren’t enough to lure you.”
“It’s a beautiful park for sure!”
“Loved camping there as a kid.”
“Good birding too.”
“It is one of my favorite spots. ... When I was doing a lot of photography, that was one of my go-to spots.”
“My granddaughter had her senior pics taken there. It is pretty.”
“We used to walk there all the time when we lived in Coralville.”
“I love the trail around the lake!”
“I used to go fishing there. Great county park.”
“It is gorgeous! It's a county park on a state park level.”
Now that I’ve seen it for myself, I definitely echo that final sentiment: It’s a state park-quality site.
I headed straight for the beach, because I’m a water person. Since I was dressed for a wedding, not for outdoor exploration, I didn’t go past the fence at the 27-acre lake. However, a gaggle of geese had claimed spots on the fall-hued green and gold grass, summer tan sand and sparkling blue water. (Humans can swim there from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. from the first Saturday after Memorial Day through Labor Day.)
Plenty of cars were parking on the hard-surfaced lot on this gorgeous November Saturday, full of folks ready to embark on a hike that would take them over the first of seven historic country bridges that have been installed for pedestrians, mostly along the trail around the man-made lake.
In total, the park sports more than 13 miles of grass or crushed rock trails. According to the johnsoncountyiowa.gov/conservation/kent-park website, the lake trail offers fishing access from any spot you choose. The water is stocked with catfish, largemouth bass, bluegill and crappie, and in the coming weeks, they will become fair game for ice fishers on the lake that reopened in 2019 after a two-year $3.9 million lake and watershed restoration project.
Before the lake freezes over, a hard-surface boat ramp also offers entry to the water for small boats and canoes — gasoline motors and sailboats aren’t allowed. The lake has a fishing jetty, an accessible pier and accessible shoreline.
And as the snow flies and piles up, the trails will beckon cross-country skiers and winter hikers with good boots and layers of warm clothing.
I opted to drive around the park, getting lost in the tangle of roads winding through the campgrounds, but otherwise enjoying the scenery, photo ops and especially, the westside Knight Prairie Pavilion.
This site will not only will school you on the prairie’s ecosystem and all the critters that walk, fly or slither there, but also offers a panoramic view of 100 acres of prairie and wetlands. An antique plow anchors history there, and signage around the hexagonal pavilion provides a course in Prairies 101, their origins and importance.
Amenities at Kent Park
Keep on circling the park, and you’ll find six open shelters, which can be reserved by calling (319) 645-2315; picnic tables and fire grills throughout the park; a handicap-accessible playground and eco-learning center by the Bluebird picnic shelter; a playground near the campground’s shower house; and a youth group camp with an enclosed shelter and five campsites.
The Family Campground, priced at $20 per night, welcomes tents and campers. It features 86 electric sites, shower and toilet facilities (both pit and flush), picnic tables, fire rings, firewood for sale, and a sanitary dump station. About a dozen campers had staked their claim for fall’s final summery hurrah.
Near the park’s entrance is the Conservation Education Center, used year-round for educational programming and workshops, from prairie hikes and fishing clinics to day camps and outdoor living skills, like Dutch oven cooking. Binoculars, insect nets and aquatic study equipment can be checked out there. Half of the building is devoted to a hands-on learning center, with interactive displays, dioramas and a wildlife viewing area.
All of the park’s amenities are top-flight, but the real star of the show is the scenery. The trees — so many trees — the prairie, the lake, the ponds are in their glory any time of the year, but put on an especially spectacular show in the fall.
Who is F.W. Kent?
So who was F.W. Kent, for whom the park is named?
You’ll find a detailed explanation at johnsoncountyiowa.gov/conservation/who-was-fred-kent.
Here’s the abridged version: A photographer, Frederick Wallace Kent “documented everything from family and community life to landscape and natural vistas in Iowa, particularly in Johnson County.”
Born Feb. 3, 1894, he died July 17, 1984. He attended the University of Iowa from 1911 to 1915, and was a lecturer and instructor in photography there from 1923 to 1925. As a sophomore, he became the official photographer for all UI athletic events. Upon graduation, Kent was named the official photographer for all UI events until he retired 47 years later, and in 1939, he shot the iconic photo of Nile Kinnick ready to pass the football.
Kent also was an avid birder who explored “every inch” of Johnson County, so in 1966, when the newly formed Johnson County Conservation Board was looking to buy land on which to establish a park, Kent offered up some suggestions. On May 18, 1967, the board voted to place his name on the park’s initial 207.83 acres in Oxford Township that has developed into a magnificent legacy.
Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org