Being an outdoor enthusiast, I try to visit new places whenever time allows. This past week while on vacation I decided since I had never been to Matthiessen State Park it was time I made a visit.
I have always heard really good things about this park over the years, so much so that my expectations were very high. People have always said that Matthiessen is the place to go to get away from the crowds of nearby Starved Rock State Park just a few miles away. Turns out, not so much but I’ll get to that.
Matthiessen State Park is located near Utica and Oglesby, Illinois in LaSalle County. The park has an abundance of things for just about any outdoor activity – hiking, biking, picnicking, horseback riding areas, cross country skiing trails, hunting areas (in season of course), and even a nice area set aside for RC plane operators. At Matthiessen State Park there is something for just about everyone who has the urge to be outdoors.
Situated right in the middle of farm country, you would not expect to find a park area with deep canyons cut by various streams that eventually empty into the Vermillion River, which is located on the outer edges of the park. There are several small, yet lovely water falls that can be active with adequate rainfall. There is one larger waterfall, Lake Falls, which flows into what is called The Lower Dells area. When rainfall has been plentiful, the falls in Matthiessen State Park are actually very lovely and enjoyable for the Midwest area.
Hiking trails are fair. The park claims to have 5 miles of hiking trails and up to 9 miles of equestrian and mountain biking trails. The park may actually have mapped that many miles for hiking but I can assure you there are not that many miles accessible, but I’ll get to that in a moment also. I cannot verify the equestrian routes and access since that is not my thing, but there appeared to be adequate facilities and marked off locations separate from the general park crowds specifically for the equestrian enthusiast.
A recreated French fort sits on the property that is meant to depict French presence in the Midwest during the 1600s and 1700s. The fort itself is really nothing more than an empty structure, however, the fort is at the trailhead along with a pavilion that would be a very nice gathering point for larger hiking groups and/or other gatherings.
The park is separated into Upper and Lower Dells. The Upper Dells by far is the most scenic and easily accessible trail area. The Upper Dells will be where you will be able to view most of the falls and vegetation. The Lower Dells, during my visit, was only accessible near the southern end of the trails. During my visit, the Lower Dells was quite muddy due to recent flash flooding. A separate part of the park is the Vermillion River Area of Matthiessen. Here you will find fewer facilities, however, this area has a larger picnic area, is more remote and separated from the larger crowds, a larger horse trailer area, and this area is also where the RC plane area is located. (The RC plane area was quite well maintained and thus must be getting support from private donations and volunteers)
The Not So Good
If you are familiar at all with the financial woes of the State of Illinois, you will not be surprised at all by the rest of my opinion of Matthiessen State Park, or any other Illinois state park for that matter.
The facilities at Matthiessen State Park were the worst I have experienced of any Illinois state park I have visited in recently. The women’s restroom was closed and in its place were two Porta toilets. Not good for the ladies. Grass around the park looked as though it had not been mowed in weeks, making it rather unsightly for those that come to enjoy the picnicking experience.
Hiking trails were marginal in some places and many of the sightseeing attractions that this park is most noted for, are not accessible due to the hiking trails in disrepair. Stairs were collapsing and/or washed out, and looked to have been that way for a while. I also saw several places where drainage systems were washed out and left lying in with other debris – again, this is just part of the disarray Illinois is in due to lack of funding. There did not appear to be any safety issues on the trails so long as you stick to the marked trails and do not try to venture onto “Closed” trails. So, if you pull up the Illinois Department of Natural Resources website and see all the spectacular photos of the park, keep in mind that you will not be able to see some of it due to accessibility issues. Furthermore, do not expect to see the abundant wildlife the websites all claim. Sure, there must be plenty of wildlife around but you will not likely see any due to the constant flow of vehicles, people, yelling teenagers, and an occasional vehicle with blaring music.
The area where Matthiessen State Park is located is very popular for the weekend retreater and located very near the quite famous Starved Rock State Park. Therefore, expect fairly crowded parks and hiking trails. Matthiessen Park is no match for the popularity of Starved Rock State Park, however, you will still encounter some large crowds at the main park. During my visit I was rarely out of sight of other visitors to the park, something that does not really appeal to me that much. When I go to hike, I like the tranquility and relaxation of being separated from the masses and screaming children who got dragged to the park because Mom and Dad wanted to hike – Great idea!
Overall, I did like the park and still do encourage a visit if you are traveling in the area and looking for some pretty remarkable scenery for the Midwest. I do plan to return to the park, however, my next visit will find me parking and hiking predominately in the Vermillion River Area and if trails are in better condition, hiking the equestrian trail the one mile into the southern area of the Upper and Lower Dells of the main park.
A couple suggestions if you plan to visit this area and would like to see Matthiessen State Park. Come during the week if you can – Weekends should be avoided, particularly during the peak season of summer. Plan to visit this area during cooler months and make sure to see the Starved Rock State Park and Lodge. The lodge is really something to see and is a fabulous retreat in the Midwest with excellent facilities and great food.
Here are a couple useful links for the area along with some maps of Matthiessen State Park and other reviews.
Map with pictures and some estimated distances Keep in mind that some of these way points may not be accessible: Matthiessen_State_Park_Dells_Area_Trails