I like to think of Matthiessen State Park as one of Illinois’ best kept secrets – a little piece of paradise hidden in plain sight.
Why is it hidden? Well, the parking lot at the Dells Entrance to Matthiessen sits just three miles from the awesome Visitor’s Center of its big sister park – Starved Rock. And if you’re exploring along the Illinois River, just a few miles south of Utica or a few miles east of Oglesby, it’s easy to miss the park named for industrialist and philanthropist Frederick Matthiessen while climbing around the canyons at Starved Rock.
Matthiessen – the person – purchased the land for the park in the late 1800s and developed it as a private park – which he called Deer Park because of its frequent inhabitants. The park, which was passed to the state of Illinois and rechristened in his name after Matthiessen’s death, has grown from its original 176 acres to nearly 2,000 acres today – and while it’s very comfortable and spacious, can be covered from tip-to-toe in just a few hours on the abundant hiking trails.
As a photographer, I’m drawn to the waterfalls – which are plentiful. The creek that runs through the park flows out of Lake Matthiessen and down to the Vermillion River in just a few hundred yards. And yet in that space there are no less then 10 falls of note – many nameless – just begging to be captured.
The lovliest waterfall for me is Cascade Falls, down in the Wishing Well canyon. The falls themselves sit very close to the northern entrance to the park, off Illinois Rt. 178 about one mile south of Illinois Rt. 71. You can see them from the little footbridge above the waterfall but the grand view is from down in the canyon which requires a little hiking – and splashing through the creek.
But beyond the falls are five miles of hiking trails and lots of opportunities to get your feet a little – but never too – wet. You can experience the entire park from trails along both the creek and from above – on top of the canyons. The park is also kind of two parks in one. Everything I’ve talked about so far describes the northern Dells area. The southern River area lets you hike right along the Vermillion before it flows into the Illinois – and has lots of picnic areas and family-friendly opportunities.
The park is also an amazing place to visit in the winter. I’ve had days up there in January and February where I’m the only car in the parking lot and I have the park to myself – what an amazing experience! Because of the canyons, which can easily reach 70-80′ deep, you are well protected from any wind and the peace and quiet is just breathtaking. I also love to hike around in the spring where the waterfalls are gushing – I think late-April through early-May are just top notch times to visit with a good pair of water shoes.
Be sure to check out the Illinois Department of Natural Resources web page before you go – especially between November and January when the park closes for a few days at a time during hunting season (there’s no hunting in the park proper, but there is on adjacent properties).
– David Vernon
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