Matthiessen State Park: 1 Day Adventure

Matthiessen State Park is in LaSalle County, about 4 miles south of Utica, and about 100 miles from downtown Chicago.  At just under 2,000 acres, this park will take you down into a stunning canyon with massive, moss covered, sandstone walls where there are waterfalls, wildlife, and beautiful arched, stone bridges at every turn.  There are two areas of the park to visit- the Dells Area and the Vermillion River Area. The Dells Area is where you can explore the canyons and waterfalls before heading over to the Vermillion River Area for some beautiful forest and river views.  Below is a one-day itinerary to get your park planning started.  Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions! 

Entrance Fee: Free

Lodging: Matthiessen State Park has 1 campground and it is for horseback riders only.  It has 14 sites and does not accept reservations. 

Starved Rock State Park is just 3 miles away.  There they have one lodge, one campground, and one youth group camping area. Reservations for the campground can be made here- Starved Rock Campground. The Starved Rock Lodge offers traditional hotel rooms and log cabin rentals immediately next to the lodge. Reservations for the lodge can be made here- The Starved Rock Lodge. If you prefer to stay elsewhere, I highly recommend Grand Bear Resort at Starved Rock or the cabins next to Grand Bear. We went with a large group last time and the cabins sleep up to 16! We also love the Starved Rock Family Campground.

Dining: There are no food options inside the park, however there are many options just down the road in North Utica, IL.  Our favorites include- Nonie’s, Jack’s Place, Lodi Tap House, and Bruce and Ollie’s

There are also dining options inside Starved Rock State Park, just 3 miles away from Matthiessen State Park.  The Lodge Restaurant is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Café is open daily for breakfast and lunch. The Veranda is open seasonally for lunch and dinner. And Trailheads Concessions is open daily in the Visitor Center from 10 -4.

Must Know Before You Go:

1. Every trail has at least a small portion of the trail on the canyon rim or bluff. Please stay on marked trails and keep little ones close.

2. There is running water throughout most of the park making most trails extremely muddy and slippery. Hiking boots are highly recommended, especially in the winter and spring! In the winter, spikes are also recommended on your boots!

3. Pets are allowed in the park, on leash.

4. Swimming is prohibited in all waterfalls, rivers, and creeks. 

5. If you brought bikes with you, they are allowed in the Vermillion River Area ONLY. 

6. Parking lots in the Dells Area often fill up quickly in the summer months.  Arrive early to secure a spot. 

Cell Service: Limited service, especially on hiking trails.

One Day Itinerary

Dells Area

Park in the lot near the Fort.  It provides the best access to both trails in this area. 

Upper Dells Trail- This trail is approximately 1.5 miles roundtrip.  However, mileage will vary based on water levels in the season you visit.  

Head from the parking area and down the long set of stairs next to the Fort.  Once you are at the bottom, cross the bridge.  Follow the signs for Upper Dells and head down the next set of stairs and right into the gorge.  You will walk through the beautiful gorge until you come to a split in the trail.  Take the stairs to continue the trail to the Giant’s Bathtub.  The gorge will end right into Lake Falls, just past the last set of stairs. 

Next, head up the stairs and go right for lovely views of Matthiessen Lake and another look at Lake Falls from the bridge.  There are restrooms near the lake if needed, otherwise head back, past stairs, and follow the signs for the Fort/parking lot.

Once you arrive back at the main bridge, do not cross over it and instead continue straight.  Follow the signs for Lower Dells. 

Lower Dells Trail- If you only have time for one hike at Matthiessen, this one is a must!  The Lower Dells Trail is approximately 2 miles roundtrip.  Follow the Bluff trail south, from the main bridge, until you reach the next bridge.  Cross the bridge and take the set of stone stairs down into the gorge.  From there, head back north through the gorge, on the Canyon Trail.  The trail ends right into Cascade Falls.  Between the massive canyon walls, the gorgeous waterfall running under the stone bridge into an enormous, peaceful pool, and a cool cave area to explore, this is easily our family’s favorite spot in the park😊

After exploring the gorge, you can either head back the way you came, or take the other side of the bluff trail back to the main bridge.  Either way it is about the same mileage- we often split up and see who arrives back first!  From the main bridge, head up another daunting set of stairs to the parking lot.

I would recommend driving over to the Vermillion River Area.  However, if you would prefer to walk, there is a 1 mile connecting trail/horse trail from the canyon trail.  Head under the second bridge on the canyon trail instead of heading up the stairs to take the bluff trail back to the lot. 

Vermillion River Area

This area of the park has more forest, prairie, and river views then the Dells Area and a lot less stairs😊.  Before heading out I would make sure you have access to a map.  This area has many interconnecting trails, making it easy to feel lost.   Because most of the trails in this area don’t lead to a specific destination and you get beautiful river and forest views on any of them, this is a great place to let your kiddos be the leader and choose the direction you go next.  Just make sure to stick with actual park trails, not visitor created short cuts.  When you are ready to head back to the car, start taking trails that head away from the river! 

This entire area has approximately 2 miles of hiking trails, but again, mileage will vary based on the route your crew chooses.  And that’s it for this one-day itinerary!

While in the area, be sure to check out this 2 Day Starved Rock State Park Itinerary or this 1 Day Starved Rock State Park Itinerary. Combined with this Matthiessen State Park Itinerary, it’s the perfect weekend outdoors!

Hope you have a wonderful adventure😊 

family photo for Always Exploring

Meet the Johnsons

Welcome to Always Exploring! We are the Johnsons. We would love to have you follow along as we explore the world one adventure at a time! Here you will find itineraries to all of our explorations that will hopefully be helpful in your own adventure planning!

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