If you are used to hiking in rocky mountainous havens like in the West or even in the rolling mountain hills of Appalachia, the hiking near Iowa City and in eastern Iowa will come as quite a shock. The trails are generally gradual and your elevation never changes more than a few hundred feet at a time. But just because many of these trails are "easy" does not mean that they cannot take you to some of the most pristine wilderness in the eastern half of the state of Iowa.
Located about fifteen minutes west of Iowa City in Oxford, Iowa, Kent Park has great hiking trails that meander through the forests and around a large lake. Trails away from the lake take visitors through natural prairie land, old growth forests, and through some remarkable large stands of pine trees. The lake trail takes visitors away from the main roads as they walk along the shorelines of this serene lake. Visitors pass over some very simple and beautiful old truss bridges, each with a description of its history and construction.
Trails away from the lake undulate quite a bit, but these trails are by no means strenuous. The paths are wide and oftentimes comfortably mowed. The trail around the lake is almost completely flat and is on a gravel path. Other trails branch off of the main lake trail, but beware that you do not get lost in the vast expanse of trails Kent Park affords. The main road in Kent Park almost entirely surrounds all of the park's hiking trails, so if you ever stray too far on a trail you should always wind up on the road. Unfortunately, that road might be miles away from your car.
Kent Park also boasts a great campground with an adjacent playground for the kids. Campers and visitors alike can head to Kent Park's sandy beach for a swim in the lake, or just to lay out in the sun for the day. Anglers can also enjoy the park from the shores or in boats with any motors. For those looking for something to do in the winter months, Kent Park has a great sledding hill that is easily one of the best in the area. The hill is located on the eastern side of the park just below one of the picnic shelters. All of the park's hiking trails also double as great trails for snowshoers.
Kent Park is completely free for all visitors. Visitors will be charged to camp or to use the beach at the park.
Palisades-Kepler State Park
Palisades-Kepler State Park is situated in between Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon along the Cedar River. From Iowa City, the drive is a little over half an hour to some of the best cliffs located in the state of Iowa. This beautiful state park features over 6 miles of trails and is great for a half day trip or just a leisurely day out. The longest of these trails is perched hundreds of feet above the Cedar River as it takes hikers to some truly breathtaking vistas. The hiking trail above the river climbs very steeply from the main trailhead located close to the water level. Novice hikers might find a somewhat difficult time with parts of the trail, but a little patience and perseverance is well paid-off with some great views.
Palisades-Kepler is also home to a historic lodge built in the 1930's by the Civilian Conservation Corps. This structure provides a great setting for any gathering big or small, and reservations can be made through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. In addition to the lodge, this state park also have four cabins that can hold up to four people each. Each cabin has a shower, restroom, stove, and fridge to make your stay a comfortable one. For those who want to "rough it" a little more, Palisades-Kepler also has a large campground where over half of the sites have electrical hook-ups.
The Cedar River creates the southern border of the park and provides for ample opportunities for fishing, fossil hunting, and wildlife watching. Just like all Iowa State Parks, Palisades-Kepler is free to enter, but if you want to camp or rent a cabin, you will need to pay all appropriate fees.
Coralville Reservoir / Lake MacBride
The Coralville Reservoir and Lake MacBride State Park are easy destinations for everyone in the Iowa City and Coralville area. Both the Reservoir and Lake MacBride offer camping, hiking, fishing, cross country skiing, and even biking. In the summertime, the Reservoir is full of boaters and jet skis and the beaches are often full of college students. Lake MacBride has taken on a little more laid back aura as it is a little farther from downtown Iowa City and it is a no wake lake.
Most of the visitors to the Reservoir are near the dam, where there are large parking lots, beaches, campgrounds, and playgrounds. The dam is the closest access point to anyone coming directly from Iowa City. However, the Sugar Bottom area at the "res" is definitely the place to be. Sugar Bottom can be accessed through North Liberty and is close to the Coralville Reservoir boat ramp. Some great rugged hiking trails can be accessed from Sugar Bottom, and there is also a very extensive system of biking trails in the area. To cap it all off, Sugar Bottom also has a frisbee golf course and a beach.
Lake MacBride has two sets of hiking trails that double as cross country skiing trails in the winter. The northern trails can be accessed through nearby Solon and the southern trails via North Liberty. The northern hiking trails meander around the lakeshore just below the campground stretching all the way from the dam dumping into the Coralville Reservoir. The southern hiking trails are more tucked into the woods but ultimate bring hikers near the dam where a rather beautiful set of cascades runs from Lake MacBride into the reservoir.
The southern area of Lake MacBride also has what is called the "Raptor Center" where injured birds of prey have been rescued can be viewed by the general public. There is just a short, easy walk to get to the Raptor Center, making this a great idea for families with small children. At the center, children and adults alike can view owls, falcons, and eagles--it is truly a great experience for all involved.