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Hiking Adventures in Matthiessen State Park, Oglesby, IL

Updated on October 24, 2016
LisaRoppolo profile image

Lisa is a writer & gardener with an extensive knowledge of plants and plant care. Her articles focus on easy care tips for home gardeners.

Matthiessen State Park: The Lesser Known Park

Just to the south of the more famous, Starved Rock State Park, lies a geological wonder called Matthiessen State Park. It is located about 4 miles south of Utica, IL (take I-80 to the Route 178 Exit and head south). This park has some challenging hiking trails (more so than Starved Rock) and a lower dells area that is very picturesque.

The park features sandstone rock formations, caves, canyons, streams, waterfalls and flora/ fauna. Other amenities include: hiking trails (easy to more difficult trails), picnic groves, camping sites, horseback riding, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in the winter months. There is also an archery range and hunting area at the site.

Mattheissen State Park

A markerMatthiessen State Park, Oglesby IL -
Matthiessen State Park, Route 178, North Utica, IL 61373, USA
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Fungi on a downed tree in the upper dells hiking trail
Fungi on a downed tree in the upper dells hiking trail | Source

History of the Park

The Park is named for Frederick William Matthiessen, who was a prominent industrialist and philanthropist in LaSalle county and who owned the original 176 acres that form the "core" of the park lands. Matthiessen purchased the land in the late 19th century and it was privately owned for many years. He originally called this land "Deer Park" because of the large population of deer that inhabited the area. The natural mineral springs are home to many salt lick sites which still draws deer to the area.

Matthiessen employed 50 workers to construct trails and bridges on the 176 acres of the park. Upon Matthiessen's death, the park land was donated to the State of Illinois and it was opened to the public.

In 1943, the park was renamed Matthiessen State Park in tribute. Since then, the park has grown in total to 1,938 acres, some of which was acquired from prairie land and farm land.

Footbridge in the upper dells area
Footbridge in the upper dells area | Source

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Geology

Exposed sandstone canyons were formed over millions of years by glaciers that carved out the rock . Water erosion from rains have added to the smooth layers of rock which cascade down 45 feet to the bottom of the canyon.

The main dells consists of an upper and lower dells area and trails. The upper dells begin at Deer Park Lake and travel to Cascade Falls. The canyon then drops to 45 feet where the lower dells area begins. The mineral rich waters can be seen along the trails seeping through the rock formations, which also provide striking beauty in the rocks; the minerals shape and color the rocks. You will see lots of reddish layers of rock from the high iron content in the water.


Cave in the lower dells area
Cave in the lower dells area | Source

Hiking the Trails

The upper dells path to the lower dells is about a 1 mile hike. The entire park itself has 5 miles of trails. The trails are well- marked and site maps are located at trail intersections throughout the system. There are some benches along the trails for you to take a rest stop.

The upper dells area is a fairly easy hike and is more suitable for novice hikers. The lower dells area going all the way to the bottom of the canyon floor is more suited for seasoned hikers. The reason being is that coming back up from the bottom is many steep stairs and trails. So if you or someone in your group has a tough time doing stairs, the hike down many not be for you. If you are determined to get down to the bottom to see the magnificent waterfalls and caves (trust me, it is worth it!) just take your time and rest along the way back up. Even a seasoned hiker can get winded doing all those stairs!

Another thing to keep in mind is weather and the condition of the trails. Here in Illinois, we have had a very rainy spring and summer. While this makes for great waterfalls in the canyons, it also causes very slippery and muddy trails, so be forewarned. Trails can also be slick in the fall from damp fallen leaves.


Area map of Matthiessen State Park
Area map of Matthiessen State Park | Source
looking down into the foggy lower canyon from the upper dells trail
looking down into the foggy lower canyon from the upper dells trail | Source
Ferns and lichen coat this rock formation
Ferns and lichen coat this rock formation | Source

Hiking Tips

Here are some additional tips for your hiking experience in Matthiessen State Park:

  • Wear comfortable clothing that you don't mind getting wet or muddy.
  • Wear shoes with good traction and that you don't mind getting dirty.
  • Bring a change of clothes, shoes and towels in case you get really dirty. You don't want to be tracking all that mud into your car!
  • Make sure you are well hydrated and bring some water with you during your hike.
  • Don't forget the bug spray!
  • Don't forget to bring a camera to capture all those beautiful falls and rock formations.
  • Don't litter. Take you trash with you. There are garbage cans located in the park lots near the bathroom areas.
  • Don't remove anything from the park.
  • Know how to identify Poison Ivy. There is lots of it in the park. Birds like to dine on the berries that form in summer and then it reseeds all over.

Small pond with small waterfall in the first leg of the journey to the lower dells area
Small pond with small waterfall in the first leg of the journey to the lower dells area | Source
Intricate spider web inside a cave entrance
Intricate spider web inside a cave entrance | Source

Flora and Fauna in the Park

Because of the moist environment, you will see various moss, lichen, mushrooms, ferns and liverworts dotting the canyon walls. The sandstone walls are habitat to many cliff swallows and rock doves that form their nests in the small cubbies.

Amphibian life here consists of toads, frogs and salamanders that are well adapted to the warm and moist environment. In the canyon streams you can sometimes find minnows and various aquatic insects.

In the forested areas are many more common woodland plants like jack-in-the-pulpit, may apples, Virginia bluebells and trees such as black and white oaks, red cedar and pine trees. Common understory plants include service berry, northern honeysuckle and black huckleberry which are an important food source for many bird species.

You can also find mammals such as hawks, deer, rabbits, raccoons and flying squirrels. In January and February the area is home to bald eagles. They can be best viewed on the Vermillion River and also at Starved Rock State Park on the Illinois River.

Sandstone is a very soft stone and easily carved.  Ancient carving or teenage graffiti? You decide!
Sandstone is a very soft stone and easily carved. Ancient carving or teenage graffiti? You decide! | Source

Illinois State Park Guidelines

Here are some guidelines listed in the Illinois DNR website to keep in mind prior to your visit to the park:

  • Groups of 25 or more must register in advance through the state office.
  • At least 1 responsible adult must accompany up to 15 minors.
  • Pets are welcome but must be leashed at all times.
  • It is a state offense to remove any archeological or Native American material from any Illinois state park.
  • Hike only on the marked/designated trails. There have been incidents in the past where people went off the trails and have been severely injured and killed.
  • No rock climbing or rappelling.
  • No swimming.
  • Check the Illinois DNR website for further information, including trail closures etc.

http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/PARKS/R1/mttindex.htm

Cascade Falls at the bottom of the dells area.
Cascade Falls at the bottom of the dells area. | Source
Cascade falls at the bottom of the dells
Cascade falls at the bottom of the dells | Source

A Great Place to Visit

If you enjoy the outdoors and natural wonders, this park is the place for you. Come back in every season to see how the landscape changes. There are many photo opportunities as well. The day that I visited, it was very foggy in the canyons due to recent rains that swept through the area overnight into that morning, creating an eerie effect in my photographs. It was like something out of the land of the lost! The weather can be ever changing, so make sure you follow the tips in this article to maximize your enjoyment of this beautiful park.

Remember, take only memories and leave only footprints.


Rock formations and caves in the lower dells area
Rock formations and caves in the lower dells area | Source

© 2014 Lisa Roppolo

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