Matthiessen State Park: Awe-Inspiring Canyons, Colorful Cliffs, and a Biodiversity Hotspot

I heard the soothing sounds of falling water striking soft sandstone as I descended the steep steps from the Dells Area parking lot to the trail below. By the sound, the water was falling fast and in large volume to the canyon floor. It was a beautiful 60-degree morning in mid-April, sunny and breezy, and I was excited to see Matthiessen’s waterfalls and mile-long main canyon that’s nearly 100 feet deep in some spots and ranges from 50 to 140 feet wide.

I hiked the trail and then the steps to the canyon floor, passing families with toddlers and a few older hikers who were taking a break on the steps.

And then I was at the bottom of the stairs in the sandy canyon that was probably 10 degrees cooler than the temperature on the sun-dappled cliffs above. Mosses, liverwort, and other plants were growing from outcrops in the sandstone walls, which were “painted” light and dark orange in spots with oxidizing minerals from the groundwater above. Ferns and wildflowers were growing on the sandy floor of the canyon, and the towering canyon loomed above me like the walls of a cathedral. I followed the creek toward the sounds of the water, walked by massive boulders, stepped in thick mud and atop piles of leaves from the past fall, and crossed the water occasionally on cement circles installed by the park and rocks and tree limbs placed by nature and visitors. Birdsong filled the canyon, and I noticed how everything was greener in this canyon microclimate.

And there it was: Cascade Falls in all its glory—gushing from the top of the cliff to a sandstone outcropping just a few feet above a pretty pool of water. The pond’s surface shimmered in the sunlight and also cast ever-changing reflections on the canyon walls nearby. Cliff swallows and rock doves flitted back and forth between the sandstone walls, where it seemed they’d set up house. I found a boulder to rest on and enjoyed the sounds and sights of the waterfall and canyon for about 20 minutes. I eventually stood up and began exploring the little nook-and-cranny caves that were located in the cliff walls and took a few photos. I looked down the canyon and saw a black Labrador retriever joyfully running back and forth through the creek and amongst the large rocks. The owners—a young couple, with a six- or seven-year-old—soon caught up with their lab. We greeted one another, and the lady said, “I know she’s off leash, but don’t worry if she comes up to you. She’s the friendliest dog. She just loves to be unleashed.” I said, “No problem [pregnant pause]…I love to be unleashed, too!” We all laughed, and I wished them a great day at the park. It was true. After being stuck at home for much of the pandemic, I was happy to be unleashed from the monotony and worries of pandemic times at one of the most beautiful state parks in Illinois.

Matthiessen State Park features nearly 1,950 acres of natural wonders: a main canyon (which consists of the Upper and Lower Dells) and sub canyons, cliffs, streams, prairies, and forests (comprised of white, black, and bur oak, hickory, white pine, and red and white cedar). In addition to the stream that traverses its canyon, you can visit Matthiessen Lake in the north of the park and the Vermillion River in the park’s western side. There are two units, or areas, in the park. The Dells Area features the canyon, several beautiful waterfalls, an archery range, picnic areas, 3.2-miles of hiking trails, and a restored fort that is representative of the fortifications the French built in the area during the 1600s and early 1700s. The Vermillion River Area has nearly two miles of hiking trails, picnic areas, and a model airplane field. You can travel between the areas by car or by two or four feet via a one-mile horse trail.

In addition to hiking and canyon viewing, there are many other things you can do at Matthiessen, including:

Enjoy the wildflowers. In the spring, look for shooting stars, columbine, Jack-in-the-pulpits, hepaticas, and spring beauties, while the summer brings yellow partridge peas, black-eyed Susans, and tick-trefoils, amongst other beauties.

Savor the fall colors. The beautiful forests come alive with color during the fall, and Matthiessen’s hiking trails provide many opportunities to enjoy the show.

Have a picnic. The Dells Area has picnic tables, water fountains, playground equipment, ample parking, and washroom facilities. The picnic grove is relaxing and a great place to rest and re-fuel before or after a hike. The Vermilion River Area also has picnic facilities.

Enjoy winter activities such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. There are six miles of cross-country ski trails, and skis are available for rental during weekends from December through March. The park advises visitors to call the Do It, To It Ski Shop to check on rentals and snow conditions at 815/343-7125 or 815/343-9014 before heading to the park.

Go mountain biking or horseback riding. These activities are listed together because bike riders and equestrians share nine miles of multi-use mountain bike/horseback riding trails at the park. (Mountain bikes and horses are prohibited on all other trails.) The trails are open from May 1 to November 1, weather permitting or as determined by park staff. The park advises visitors to call 815/667-4726 to check trail conditions and status before heading to Matthiessen. There is also a campground for equestrians.

final thoughts

While Matthiessen State Park is typically less crowded than nearby Starved Rock State Park—which is packed during warm weather—it can still get very busy. This may reduce your enjoyment level if you don’t like crowds. The IDNR says that “Matthiessen Dells area and Vermillion River Area typically shut down on weekends May through October when they have reached full capacity (parking lots are full) around 10 a.m. and will not reopen again until 3 p.m.” Keep this in mind as you plan your visit. The best times to visit are early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Mild days in early spring and late fall may also be less busy. Final advice: Have a few park backups ready in case you arrive and the parking lots are full. Two suggestions: Margery C. Carlson Nature Preserve and Buffalo Rock State Park, which are about a 10-minute drive from Matthiessen.

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes



I have been a writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlightnewsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job OpeningsNontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDsThey Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titlesThey Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. 

In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering CareersWhat Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).

My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.

My new book, Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit, will be published on June 29, 2021.

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