The oddity of an area of sandstone canyons and bluffs in the flat farmlands of north central Illinois often takes people by surprise. Within 2 hours of Chicago, Starved Rock is a justly popular four-season state park, with more than a dozen beautiful canyons, often graced with waterfalls. It should definitely be your first stop if you are in the area. But there is a second smaller state park nearby that also offers canyon hiking : Matthiessen State Park, and its beautiful mile long 'dells'.
Matthiessen (Mat-THUS-sen) State Park was named for Frederick William Matthiessen, a prominent industrialist and philanthropist from LaSalle, IL.
He originally purchased the land near the end of the 19th century and operated it as a privately owned park for many years. The original 176-acre park consisted primarily of the long, narrow canyon with its small stream flowing through it, which emptied into the Vermillion River. At that time, canyon formations of this type were called “dells”. After Mr. Matthiessen’s death, the park was donated by his heirs to the State of Illinois, which opened it as a public park. In 1943, the state renamed the park in honor of Matthiessen. Since then, the park has grown to 1,938 acres. Source – Illinois DNR
The Matthiessen Dell’s long park history guarantees that the canyon will not be a wilderness experience. Dams help sustain two of the falls, and stairways and bridges abound. But this does not overly detract from the overall beauty of the canyon. Even with these many amenities, crowded in the space of a mile, the canyon is half a level less ‘groomed’ than some state parks. Many stream crossings exist that will give pause to those who mind getting wet, varying from rock hopping to emplaced puncheons sometimes tilted at fun-house angles. You may have to get muddy to see some areas. And winter ice can make the area dangerous without microspikes and even somewhat inaccessible with them.
An easy rolling loop trail surrounds both sides of the canyon, though you still have to descend 145 stairs to reach it. Bridges on the loop trail span the canyon in three places, and stairways dive in and out of the canyon bottom. For a mile-long canyon, there is quite a complex set of trails and sights. Here are some of the highlights.
While the park is extremely well signed, with a map at every intersection, the canyon has a twist or two and you can get turned around.
It is possible to travel a short way down stream from the canyon to its outlet on the Vermilion River with the possibility of mud and brush. It has a nice low key payoff and snack spot at the end. A longer trail goes to the 'Lower Dells' across fields and woods, but is not as scenic.
The dells are nice in any season. Spring has more waterfall action, but at least once in my life the entire canyon floor was under several feet of water. Illinois Summers can be hot and humid, and without a recent rain the falls may dry up. Fall has beautiful foliage and very pleasant. But winter is my favorite season, as most of the time large frozen waterfalls form that give the area an unexpected grandeur. But beware winter! Both Starved Rock and Matthiessen are popular in winter weekends, and eventually the snowy trails are packed down into icy tracks which will require microspikes. But the canyons are quite beautiful that season, even if parts are inaccessible sometimes.
Matthiessen State Park is 2 hours southwest of Chicago, just south of Utica IL, and five minutes from Starved Rock State Park. You want to park at the lot for the 'Upper Dells'.
No entrance fee.