Oak Park holds the distinction of being the oldest city park within Montgomery. It has seen better days, with some of the remaining structures in disrepair. It is located within a stone's throw of I-85 and within walking distance to the Capitol Building downtown.
Back in its heyday, Oak Park was the living center of Montgomery. Locals would flock to its swimming pools, zoo (complete with a lion donated by then Mayor Gayle, and also a bear and a monkey island), dances, parties, political gatherings, tennis courts, and even regional football games. Over the years, it has lost the zoo and pools but has gained a state-of-the-art planetarium, named after the old mayor, W. A. Gayle.
What Makes It Great
The 1887 Montgomery City Directory reported the then-new park as a "place where the public may spend leisure hours in pleasant drives and recreation". More than a hundred years later, Montgomerians still congregate at the park for picnics and family activities. Since it is so close to the junction of I-65 and I-85, it is very accessible to most of the city.
These days, it remains an island of green in the concrete jungle. Mature oak trees provide shade over roughly 2.5 miles of trails spread out across 40 acres. A paved circular loop road serves as the main artery around the park, with shorter paved paths branching off. It is an easy hike along mostly flat terrain. There are benches and sheds scattered about should you need some respite.
Some of the paths may lead to obscure relics. A former popcorn stand featured the slogan, "By My Corn I Shall Be Known". A little bit of digging reveals that the well-loved Marcus B. Myers once served popcorn to thousands at this spot. Monkey Island now forms part of a nature walk, its moat harboring fish, turtles and ducks. In a sense, exploring Oak Park is akin to taking a trip down Montgomery's memory lane.
Who is Going to Love It
History buffs hankering to do some quick hiking will feel at home here. Since it is such a walk in the park so to speak, children and families alike will find it easy to navigate. The trail may prove unchallenging to the more experienced hiker but certainly not a boring one. The hardwoods lend much needed protection from the relentless Alabama sun.
It is also a popular pick for school field trips. Keep that in mind when you plan your outing. A word of caution: do not venture out at dark. Likewise, the revitalization of downtown has improved conditions overall, as have the talks of building a long-planned botanical garden there.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
From I-65 in Montgomery, take exit 171 to I-85 east, almost immediately take exit 2 left onto Forest Avenue then left into Oak Park Drive. Ample parking in several lots along the main road and at the planetarium. Open from dusk to dawn. Leashed dogs are allowed. Entrance is free. Most of the paths are wheelchair accessible.