Matthiessen State Park: The Complete Guide

River Flowing Through Forest
Eddie J. Rodriquez / EyeEm / Getty Images
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Matthiessen State Park

Address
2500 IL-178, Oglesby, IL 61348, USA
Phone +1 815-667-4868

While Starved Rock State Park is the more renowned Illinois hiker haven, if you travel 2.5 miles south, you’ll reach Matthiessen State Park, where wanderers will be rewarded with views of canyons, ravines, sandstone rock formations, prairie lands, and waterfalls. The mineral springs in this area create salt licks that attract a large white-tail deer population. Hiking through this wonderland, while looking out for frogs and salamanders, is a treat for the senses. You'll witness verdant mosses and ferns growing out of soggy gaps and marvel at towering old-growth oak and cedar trees thriving on the sandy bluffs. The canyon's damp and soil-rich undergrowth is pungent.

Located near Oglesby, in north-central Illinois, Matthiessen State Park was named after Frederick William Matthiessen, a prominent industrialist and philanthropist. Matthiessen owned the private land, which he originally called Deer Park, in the late 19th century. A trail system, with bridges and stairways, was created. Since Matthiessen’s death, the park has been donated to the State of Illinois and it has expanded to 1,938 acres for the public to enjoy. Keep reading to learn about the best trails, picnic sites, and natural beauty worth exploring.

Things to Do

  • Wandering past all the diverse geological features is a must-do activity while in the park. The Upper and Lower Dells exist in the main canyon, which is a highlight to investigate on foot. Begin at the Upper Dell, at Deer Park Lake, and travel through to Cascade Falls. You’ll see an enormous 45-foot drop off where the canyon, created by water erosion, appears to fall away. This is where the Lower Dell takes shape.
  • Be sure to look for little critters up high as well as underfoot, hiding in the park’s natural pockets, where mineral-rich ground water percolates out of the sandstone crevices and walls. Rock doves and cliff swallows make their homes here as well as toads, frogs, and salamanders. And, of course, out of the canyon and on the bluffs, where all the oaks, cedars, and pines grow, you can see and hear a wide variety of birds and insects.
  • Picnicking is a popular family-friendly activity, and you’ll find that the park has many spots that can accommodate your group in the Dells Area. Picnic tables, water fountains, toilets and even a playground may be utilized. After enjoying lunch or snacks, be sure to see the restored fort, mirroring the French fortifications built in the Midwest in the 1600s and 1700s. An additional picnicking area, with tables, shelters, grills, and water fountains, may be found at the south end of the park in the Vermilion River Area.
  • From December through March, visitors can cross country ski on 6 miles of trails. And, if you don’t have your own skies, you can rent equipment on the weekends (seasonal).
  • During the warmer months, adventurers can go horseback riding or mountain biking on nine miles of distinct trails, color-coded for safety and clarity (horses and mountain bikes are prohibited on all other trails throughout the park).
  • An archery range, with four targets, may be found at the northwestern edge of Matthiessen, near Deer Park County Club, off Illinois Route 71.

Best Hikes & Trails

Matthiessen State Park has 5 miles of well-marked trails that range in difficulty from easy to moderate. No matter where you are on the trail, you’ll find simple-to-see maps at each major intersection. For smooth terrain, without a lot of difficulty, hike on the bluffs in the upper section of the park. The trails that flow between the two dells are more challenging, especially during spring when the ground is more wet and muddy. The hiking near the bottom of the canyon can be slippery and water-covered as well as steep. Always remain on marked trails, not only for the health of the environment, but also, for your safety as you’ll notice there are sharp drop-offs and steep cliffs. It’s worth noting that alcohol is not permitted on any of the trails. Also, all the designated trails in the park are dog-friendly if your pal is on a leash.

  • Dells Canyon and Bluff Trail: This 2-mile, moderate, loop path is the most popular in the park as it takes you through incredible scenery. Expect to see rugged terrain, often wet and muddy, and make sure that you’re comfortable going up and down several stairs. It will all be worth it in the end, when you see the spectacular canyon walls and waterfalls.
  • Matthiessen State Park River Trail: This 2.3-mile moderate loop hike is ideal for bird and wildlife watchers as it takes you through a forested area and along the Vermilion River. Bug spray and good hiking shoes are recommended, especially during the warmer months. Beware that the trail might have sections that are closed during hunting season or other parts of the year—always check the park's website before you go for the most up-to-date information.
  • Dells Area to Vermilion Area Loop: For the most challenging hike in the park, explore the Dells Area as well as the Vermilion Area, with 564 feet of elevation gain. Be prepared for the mosquitos in the warmer months, as well as wet and muddy terrain. Sturdy shoes are a must. Parts of the trail may be closed during certain parts of the year—check the website before you go. Wildflowers, waterfalls, stone paths across creeks, layered canyons, and unique rock formations make the trek worth it.
Sandstone canyon in Matthiessen state park, Illinois.
Nicola Patterson / Getty Images

Where to Camp

From May to October, there is an equestrian campground, offered on a first come first served basis, only for horseback riders. If you want to camp outside of the park, there are a few nearby options.

  • Starved Rock State Park Campground:: RV, camper, or tent sites are available at this campground and must be reserved. Bathrooms, showers, a playground, and picnic tables are available. There’s a seasonal store where you can purchase limited foodstuffs and firewood.
  • Pleasant Creek Campground: This is the area’s newest campground, and arguably the nicest. Kids will love hanging out in the game room, fishing in the pond, or playing a round of volleyball. There’s a new bathroom and showers. Book a tent or RV campsite near the creek. You’ll be located near Matthiessen State Park as well as Starved Rock State Park.
  • Cozy Corners Campground: This family-owned campground is located in a pretty spot with lots of trees near the entrance of Matthiessen State Park in Oglesby. Fire pits and picnic tables are available for overnight stays.

Where to Stay Nearby

In addition to vacation rentals through Airbnb or Vrbo, there are affordable accommodations nearby that are suitable for families.

  • Best Western Oglesby Inn: Cost-effective, pet friendly, and close by, the Best Western has a heated indoor swimming pool and hot tub, a light breakfast, and a fitness center. 
  • Starved Rock Lodge and Conference Center: If you’re going to visit Matthiessen State Park, you might as well venture through Starved Rock State Park if time allows. Located just 2.5 miles away, stay at the lodge, or in a private on-site cabin, and enjoy brunch at the Lodge Restaurant. Accommodations here have been offered since 1939. Amenities include a large indoor pool and hot tub, two saunas, and a gigantic lobby fireplace. Plus, you’ll be within walking distance to all the trails at Starved Rock State Park and within easy driving distance to Matthiessen State Park.

How to Get There

Located 96 miles southwest of Chicago, you’ll need to leave early to make the most of your day. The park is open from 7 a.m. until sunset but closes when it reaches capacity (weekends are the busiest time). From the city, you’ll take I-55 south to I-80 west to IL-178 south. You’ll drive over the Illinois River and pass I-71 and then see the entrance to the park on North 25th Road.  

Tips For Your Visit

Due to a lot of safety concerns, you’ll have to adhere to the guidelines set in place. The park has many areas that are slippery when wet or muddy and there are rugged cliffs and drop offs. The trails are there to maintain the landscape and to ensure the health of the wildlife as well as to keep you safe from harm.

  • No swimming is allowed in the waterfalls, creeks, or river.
  • Rock climbing, rappelling, and camping are not permitted inside the park.
  • The trails are only meant for feet or dog paws—bicycles, scooters, skateboards, and the like aren’t allowed on the main trails.
  • Drones and metal detectors aren’t acceptable.
  • If you see leaves of three, leave them be—poison ivy plants thrive throughout the park.
  • Do not remove any archaeological or Native American items from the park.
  • Only hike, bike, cross country ski, or ride horses on designated trails.
  • Pets must be on a leash.
  • Bring bug spray and be sure to wear sturdy shoes that can get muddy and wet.
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Matthiessen State Park: The Complete Guide