Canyon Day Hike: Matthiessen SP

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Not all adventures need to involve biking.

In the muggy heat of August, it might be better to retreat to a nearby canyon for a shady hike. It’s a bit of a drive to Matthiessen State Park —almost two hours from Chicago— but still completely doable as a daytrip. And well worth it, too! On a hot summer day, a hike through the cool canyon with lush greenery, shaded by thick canopy of trees offers sweet escape, ample opportunity for exertion, and truly breathtaking scenery.

For access to the canyon, it’s best to park at the Dells Area. Trails around the perimeter of the canyon are well maintained and hard-packed. The terrain is pleasantly rolling, and if you maintain a good pace, you may be able to get out of breath. This path, as well as several spectacular bridges that soar over the canyon, provide tantalizing glimpses of carved sandstone walls and a ribbon of river below.

At various points around the trail, steep stairways lead down to the canyon floor, and this is where things get really interesting. The stairs themselves of course provide quite a workout, but regardless of the difficulty, you will be tempted to go up and down a number of times to explore natural wonders such as the Giant’s Bathtub or the Devil’s Paint Box.

During the dry spell of August, the bottom of the canyon was very dry, waterfalls slowed to barely a trickle, and a shallow stream wound it’s way over a mix of smooth sand and pebbles. But although the waterfalls were perhaps not as spectacular as they could be, the low water levels allowed for explorations that might not be possible in wetter season. Wearing sport sandals, I was able to easily wade through along most of the length of the canyon, and avoid either the muddy foot trails, or the slippery, angled sandstone embankments.

Although the park was moderately crowded on this weekday afternoon, it was easy enough to find a secluded spot for a solitary lunch on a fallen log. The sandstone walls, overgrown with dewy greenery, muffled the sounds of laughing children and distant conversations to a pleasant, lulling background music.

Summary:

  • Over 5 miles of hiking trails trace the edge of the Upper Dells, before dropping down to the floor of a mile-long sandstone canyon carved by a stream that flows into the Vermillion River., and further down to the Lower Dells for a view of a 40-foot Cascade Falls.

  • Less than 2 hours from Chicago, this is a great option for a day trip, and likely to be (somewhat) less crowded than the more popular Starved Rock.

  • On the other hand, for those with a little more time on their hands, it makes a fabulous long weekend bike trip from Chicago. To stay almost entirely off-street, take Metra to Joliet with your bike on board, and follow the I&M Canal Trail to the town of Oglesy, where you can access both state parks.

  • Such a tour could easily incorporate Starved Rock SP, where camping is available. Matthiessen itself only accommodates equestrian camping.

Illinois DNR Matthiessen page.

Illinois State Parks Matthiessen page.