Matthiessen State Park day trip, by Rich Paschall
When you are heading out on your Day Trip, you may wish to take a long a few provisions. On our recent trip, my friend and I took a small flexible cooler with some water and flavored water. Then we dropped into the pockets some granola bars, chewy bars of something and some small pieces of chocolate or something. They were just quick snacks. If you plan to visit some picnic grounds, it is a bigger production and you should plan in advance and start earlier. We are not so organized so our lunch was at the concession stand and our dinner was at Culver’s on the way home.
Our main goal of the day trip was Starved Rock State Park. This spot is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Illinois and rival’s Chicago’s Navy Pier in surveys of the best places to visit. This may seem a bit odd to those outside the state who know of Chicago only. We must do a lot of state park advertising in neighboring states.
After our view from the top of the famous rock, my travel companion was interested in heading down into the canyon and seeing at least one of the waterfalls. I confess that I was totally unaware of the next stop of the day. It is not as well-known.
Just a few miles south of Starved Rock State Park is Matthiessen State Park. I did not want to disappoint my friend on his quest to find an Illinois waterfall, so we took the short drive down Illinois State Route 178 and found the entrance to this wonderland of flora and fauna.
Frederick William Matthiessen had acquired 176 acres of land here in the late 1800s where he built the private Deer Park. In it he constructed trails, stairs, bridges, and dams. The private buildings of his estate are gone now, perhaps a sad decision, but the park does contain a reconstruction of a fort like the ones the French built in the 1600s. After Matthiessen’s death the land was donated to the state. Additional land was acquired and the park is now a sprawling 1700 acres.
The fort marks the beginning of the hiking trails that will lead you down into the canyons. The trails are well-marked and you will not get lost, even though there are many choices along the way. There are two waterfalls you may wish to see in the upper and lower dells. I guess we chose the closer one in deference to my considerably slower pace. You can head up the trail to Matthiessen Lake and Lake Falls or down into the canyon and the “wishing well” and Cascade Falls.
We had already gone down a long way when we got the view of Cascade Falls from above. We could see some hardy souls had made the descent, and we decided to head down the trail until we found the stair way that would take us the rest of the way down.
A stream runs from Lake Matthiessen down to Vermilion River. Over the centuries a waterway carved out the canyon revealing the sandstone walls. The minerals in the water have added to the coloring of the sandstone. The mineral springs on the land are also an attraction for the large deer population.
We followed the stream through the canyon until we decided the only safe route was not through slippery paths and mud, but along the stream. We took off our shoes and socks and wondered on our way. We saw others trying not to get mud on their shoes, without much success. You would have to cross water to get to the falls. After the long trip down, we were going to make it all the way.
OK, it is no Niagara Falls, but it is hidden in a canyon and unique to our state. It was a wonderful exploration of what nature can offer us here. We were pleased with the pleasant nature trails and the variety of plants and trees to be seen.
The state park also has horse back riding trails, biking trails, an archery range and large picnic grounds. It is a great place for family and friends to enjoy nature.
Because of its proximity to Plum Island sanctuary, you may be lucky enough to spot a bald eagle here in late fall and winter. I was lucky enough to share this adventure with a good friend, and that is all that really matters to me. Get out on a day trip with friends and enjoy the world around you.
Related: CLOSE TO HOME, Day Trip