Matthiessen State Park

by Melanie and Jim

Last Friday we had time, opportunity, and weather for a perfect morning in Matthiessen State Park. Matthiessen is located in north central Illinois, very close to I-80. On Thursday evening we’d been in Sycamore, IL for my presentation to a quilt guild. On Friday we needed to head southward to my sister’s home. Matthiessen was right on the way.

The skies were bright and dry with early fall crispness. Clouds of dust arose on both sides of the highways, stirred up by farmers harvesting corn and beans. As we approached the park, there was little evidence of it besides a stand of trees in the distance. Like so many midwestern parks, instead of rising above the surrounding landscape, Matthiessen’s best features are below, hidden from view until you are deep within.

At the north end of the park are the dells trails around and through a water-eroded sandstone canyon. Reaching the upper trail requires descending a broad, stable stairway about five or six flights long, which some would find difficult. Once that far, the upper trail is a well-maintained loop and relatively easy for most hikers.

There also are stairways into the canyon for those who are more adventurous. Depending on water levels, the lower trails can be off limits. For us, they were open, though deep mud prevented us from exploring all the crevices we wanted.




In the pictures below, you can get a sense for the lower trail within the canyon. On the concrete stairway stands an older woman who generously gave me a mom hug. I had explained to her that I’d visited Matthiessen as a child, and that my mom had led those trips. That day also was my mom’s birthday, which made a poignant reminder for me. That’s me in the bright pink shirt.


Below the staircase the canyon walls rose on both sides. A path allowed access both upstream and downstream of the stairs. Across from the stairs was a small stream, the seasonal remains of the eroding waterway.

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen


In the bowl, water has worn away caverns on the undersides of the walls. Kids enjoy exploring the small caves.


Jim created a panorama of the canyon bowl. He is standing below the roof line of one of the caverns.

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen


And here is his video in the bowl.

After we ascended the concrete stairway, Jim and I disagreed about the correct direction to take. Should we cross the bridge spanning the canyon, or go up farther to the trail from which we’d come? The quickest way to answer the question was to head up to the trail map at the top. We both climbed more stairs, up another five flights to check. And as it turns out, Jim was right! We wanted to cross the bridge below.

A little farther along, we descended into the canyon again. This area was less used and it had more natural impediments. At one point we picked our way along a foot-wide ledge, avoiding tumbling into the bottom 12 feet below. Here we continued upward, climbing up through a series of stone ledges. After another section of stream bed hiking, we exited the bottom and returned to the upper trail.

Matthiessen is a great park for families. With picnic areas above, a recreated French fort, easy to moderate trails, and fascinating geology, there’s something to please everyone. The park will always be on our list to return to.


14 thoughts on “Matthiessen State Park

  1. Eliza Waters

    Once I thought about it, it’s obvious once you pointed it out that most midwestern parks are below level. I am so used to here in New England everything is hills! It must be nice and cool on a hot day. Great photos that really give the scale of the place.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      We have a lot of river and stream beds, bluffs, and canyons with hiking available. So even parks with lots of hiking at “ground level” often have lower parts to explore. Thanks for taking a look.

  2. Steve Gingold

    Wish we had a canyon around here. Like Eliza mentioned above…just a bunch of hills here, but there are a few caves around. Not too good for claustrophobic me though.
    Glad you had such a nice visit.

  3. Mrs. P

    I would certainly love to see the caves! When I lived in California I used to hike fairly often and loved the outdoors. Here, in Florida, the terrain is mostly flat and it’s just not the same. I have found I spend more time with enjoying the plants and wildlife, particularly the birds.

    It was nice to rekindle some of the joys of hiking in varied terrain. 😀

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      We don’t have mountains here, but we’ve got pretty good variation aside from that. And of course, this is the land of migrating birds. They don’t stay, but they do go through! Thanks for taking a look.

  4. shoreacres

    This certainly reminds me of Ledges State Park, which was close to Camp Hantesa. As I recall, it had one primary canyon, but some of the same sort of up-and-down hiking you experienced here. This looks like it would be a great summer destination — the photos suggest it would be shady and cool(er), and an enjoyable break from summers I remember as being somewhat humid and hot.


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