This past weekend, we made good on a plan of many years and visited Matthiessen State Park, which lies just South of a longtime family favorite, Starved Rock State Park. Things just lined up for us to finally get there, so didn’t miss the opportunity. A bit of history: Frederick William Matthiessen, and industrialist and philanthropist, originally bought land south of Utica for a private park, building trails, dams, stairways and bridges to enjoy the natural beauty there. The major geological feature of the park is a long, narrow ravine, or canyon, called the “Dells,” opened it to the public.
Our hike took us along the bluffs above the main canyon, consisting of the Upper and Lower Dells, as well as time on the bottom, following the stream. Low water meant we could safely access many features that might otherwise be too dangerous for families with small children. The negative of low water meant that the waterfalls were not running, but dripping – we’ll have to come back after a heavy rain or in the Spring when the snow melts. The Upper Dell drops 45 feet at Cascade Falls, where the Lower Dell begins – all together, the canyon is about 1 mile long, stretching from Deer Park Lake to the Vermilion River.
This is a heavily used park (contrary to what we had read), and we saw other hikers pretty much the whole day. A gorgeous place to walk and spend time observing nature, there are some obvious negatives to the park’s popularity, seen in copious graffiti and trash along the trails. This is probably the biggest difference we noticed in respect to this park and Starved Rock – the latter seems better prepared to handle numerous visitors and seems less crowded and degraded, even though it is much more popular, numbers wise. We’ll be back in the off season to spend some quiet time without other visitors and also to see the waterfalls and more time exploring the bottom of the ravines.
Five miles or so of trails mean there is a lot of ground to explore, and it’s not just limited to hiking. Cross Country Skiing, Horseback Riding, Equestrian Camping, and Mountain Biking are other recreational activities that are accommodated within this park.
Location: Roughly 100 miles Southwest of downtown Chicago; take Interstate 55 to Interstate 80, then take Exit 81, Rt. 178 to Utica, then five miles south on Rt 178.