Growing up in a big city can make you oblivious to the beauty and peacefulness of the outdoors. I like to believe that I’m the most obvious example, tethered to Chicago through my early 20’s before falling in love with everything nature.
If you’re living in my home city and you’re undecided if nature is your thing, or even if you’re visiting The Windy City and you want to pass on the horns and train rumblings for a while, start your day at this state park that offers hiking, a fort, beautiful canyons, and a WATERFALL!
On your way to Matthiessen, about a 90-minute drive from downtown Chicago, you’ll see cars turning left just before you reach the final stretch to the park. That’s what I like to call Matthiessen’s big brother: Starved Rock State Park. Three miles closer, its obviousness makes it the go-to for most people, leaving little sister ‘Matti’ often an afterthought. I encourage you to dodge the invisible lasso coming from the left and continue onward! You can be assured of fewer people traversing Matthiessen State Park, especially in the early hours. The park opens at 7 am!
After checking the laces on your waterproof shoes—recommended for comfortability through stream trails, if you plan around rain you’re in for a good time—and looking inside the fort at the top of the stairs, descend into the park. (Note: This park is also ADA Accessible! You can enter the park via wheelchair near the golf course next to the park, which leads to the Upper Dells area.) I like to cross the bridge and take the short stairs to the right all the way into the canyon, where you can really begin exploring the trails and streams of the Lower Dells!
By hopping into the canyon via ‘stone lily pads’ this hike is full of stream crossings and sprawling tree roots that will ensure you take your time enjoying the landscape of Matthiessen. During drier weeks, you can scale the shorter layered mini-falls in some parts of the canyon! Still, you should aim for wetter days; Lower Dells Waterfall, Matthiessen’s main attraction, is a pretty incredible sight descending into the canyon from Matthiessen Lake. You can traverse the streams to get right up to the waterfall, or climb the stairs to the Upper Dells bridge to get a view from above!
State Parks are a beautiful departure from the sometimes overwhelming action of incessant city life, and Matthiessen is a canyon-crossing step outside that box that will have city-dwellers awaiting another adventure.
Best Time to Visit
With COVID-19 very much afloat, the park is operating regularly as long as adventurers mask-up and practice social distancing both on the trails and beyond.
Matthiessen is beautiful any time of the year! I like to recommend according to the type of individual or group adventuring into the park:
Solo: Anytime! Late summer through the start of the next one, take your time and explore every level of this place! There are two bridges, mini caves, and trails of solitude all around!
Friends/Family: Springtime brings the rain and with it the powerful waterfalls! Both the Upper and Lower Dells trails are family-friendly, and you can even bring your doggo—Leashed, of course!
Photographers: The all-seasons incorporated Midwest is, at times, counterproductive for camera-strapped adventurers, but frozen waterfalls and lakes throughout winter months and gorgeous colors in both spring and fall beckon artists with every change of season.
Check the flight on the way (back)?!
Just a ten-minute detour heading back to the city, discover a downed 1940s era twin-engine plane alongside a major roadway! The Danway Plane is located at the intersection of IL-71 and E 25th Rd. Check out this mass of metal and the story behind it!
Other things to do in/near the park:
Picnic: There are picnic tables situated throughout the park, so grab the cooler, pack a lunch, and make it a day trip!
Horseback trails: Horseback riding is available throughout the Upper Dells area, visit the Matthiessen State Park website to learn more about availability.