If you live in the Midwest, I bet your are in the middle of experiencing our first heat wave in four years. It’s muggy and hot here, making it almost unbearable to go outside for any activity. Luckily, we narrowly missed the heat by just one day and were able to experience one of our best hikes to date.
Matthiessen State Park is near the Illinois River in a small town called North Utica, IL and just a few miles away from the more famous Starved Rock State Park. I have been to Starved Rock before, and even though the park is very beautiful, there are so many people traveling along the paths that it makes it a bit difficult to stop and enjoy your surroundings.
Matthiessen is off of I39 and roughly 74 miles south of Rockford and 96 miles from Chicago (thanks Google Maps!), and will take you through the cute little downtown area of Utica. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Google Maps, but sometimes it can lead you a bit astray. Turns out the bridge to get to the main parking area was out. So we decided to try and go around to the other side, but no luck. Luckily there was a nice local gentleman that pointed us in the right direction. Using the map but without the GPS we decided to take the small unpaved road that took us through a golf course and some lovely country club style homes. It might have taken us an extra 20-30 minutes, but hey, it’s all part of the journey.
There is a wooden staircase to the right of the bridge that takes you down to the path to the waterfall and gorge. We decided not to walk down there right away and wanted to hike around the paths first, but by doing this we also skipped the park map that told us where the trails were, but again, part of the journey. When you go straight on the bridge, it takes you down a paved path lined with beautiful tall trees. It felt a little surreal, maybe because it is a paved path in a forest in the middle of nowhere.
While walking down the paved path, we only encountered three other groups of hikers, which seemed to be the theme of the day. Not a whole lot of foot traffic, not sure if it was because of the bridge being out or because the weather but the park seemed empty at times. Which is pretty strange when you are walking in the woods and you don’t hear many sounds and see a lot of restricted hunting signs.
After a while, we finally came to our first park map and we picked our course through the forest. We decided to take the long way which would give us the full view of the park and also bring us to two gorges that we could explore. Right near the map, the trail is no longer paved and there is a pretty creek that leads through a little stone arch and a small waterfall into a larger creek.
The path is a little on the difficult side, on the right side there is a drop off that leads down to the gorge area. Along the way there are multiple signs that urge hikers not to try and hike down, its steep and muddy and I’m sure full of lovely poisonous plants and large spiders. During some parts of our trip, you can hear the sounds of people yelling from the waterfalls and pool areas below. Another thing we noticed while we walked is that there was a lot of garbage thrown into the woods. Garbage and clothes. Somewhere, there are a few naked people running around or people missing various shoe and or sock items. If you decide to explore this park, I would highly recommend sandals with straps or even, hate to say it, Crocs. Your shoes will not make the journey, they WILL get wet and muddy. Especially if you want to go down to the waterfalls. There are no real paths there and you have to hike through the creek.
At the end of the trail, it begins to curve around and head back towards the lake. On the map, the part is labeled with a big rock called “Strawberry Rock”. We took a few pictures here but we were having issues with the lighting. Very grey plus shady trees equals not the best picture taking. The path begins to go back uphill, which is slippery with mud and then meets a wooden staircase. Around here we ran into a few people without shoes wearing swimsuits or missing various items of clothing. No one actually naked though, which was nice. We also started to understand where all the mystery clothing items must have come from.
It took us sometime to get from Strawberry Rock back to the bridge where there is a staircase that takes you down into the gorge. There are a lot of stairs. Being 5 months pregnant tends to slow you down a little and I can tell you that I was more than happy to find the park map and nice little bench to rest on. While resting we also got to talk with an owl hooting from nearby trees. An awesome experience for both us and Finn, it’s not everyday you get to hear an owl!We found the staircase that lead us down to the “path” of the gorge. When we got around here we started to see more people, including a high school football team taking their senior pictures at the waterfall. As you can see, there is literally NO path to walk through that isn’t muddy or in water.
I cannot get over how much of an awesome experience this was. It might seem a little treacherous with a little one and pregnant woman but it’s important for children to get this experience. It helps them understand how they relate to the world around them and how to use their gross and fine motor skills. The creek is rocky and slippery so watch your footing!
There is another set of rock steps that bring you to another staircase. The water here was much deeper than the other parts of the creek so if your interested in a swim, here is you spot! There is
After a few more feet wading in the creek water, we finally made it to our destination: the waterfall from the beginning of our walk near the lake. Luckily for us, there was a staircase that goes right back up to the parking lot and bathrooms where we began. By the way, these bathrooms were scary! But, when you gotta go, you gotta go.
- Challenging paths to explore
- Amazing views
- Multiple connecting paths
- Walking through a creek
- Great opportunities to cool off!
- Incredibly photogenic area with A LOT to see.
- Litter- there weren’t any garbage cans at any point during this trip except right were we parked. It didn’t ruin the experience, just noticeable.
- Not easily accessible. There are muddy and difficult paths to walk on plus multiple stairs leading to trails throughout the park. So if you have a hard time getting around be careful.