Matthiessen State Park

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.

lake
Lake and bridge overlooking the waterfall. I’m afraid of heights, so Reese is laughing at me panicking while he holds Finn over to look and I try and take a picture.

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.

pavedpath

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.

smallcreek
Small 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.

treespath
Path. To the right is the lovely drop off.
treeboy
To add to the sort of eerie vibe of the day, there is a boy in the tree.
creekexplore
The explorer in me wanted to keep following the creek, but the hunting signs told me probably not.

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!gorgpathWe 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.

creekwalk

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!

tree1
I love this tree. The roots are so amazing.

stonepath

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

IMG_7574
Stone jumping.

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.

waterfall
Along the way, our camera got a little wet so we put it away before the waterfall and used our phones to snap a few pictures in front of the waterfall. Check out my Instagram to see more! *note, check out our hiking Hello Kitty bag!

Pros:

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.

Bonus picture!

giantmilipede
I love these guys! They feel like phone cords and have the sweetest faces.

Reggio inspired alphabet practice

Summer months with a busy and active four year old can be both fun and exhausting, sometimes making you wish the school year would be begin a little quicker! I know there are times, at least for me, that it seems like a much better idea to lay down on the couch and put some PBS kids.  But, Instead of staying inside, I’d like to share some fun, inexpensive, and (best of all!) educational activities for everyone to enjoy.

Before my family and I moved to the Rockford area, we lived in Chicago for almost a decade. There, I went to college and had my first experience as a teacher. I worked at a school called Velma Thomas Early Childhood Center that was influenced by the Reggio Emilia approach, I will post more on this wonderful teaching practice as time comes. The short explanation: the Reggio approach is a child centered practice that uses the child’s interest to create educational and social learning. I was lucky enough to spend 10 days in Italy when I was in college learning more about this special approach and was more than excited when I was able to put it into practice in my classroom.

Since leaving the early childhood classroom and moving into early elementary, I still take this philosophy with me and use the teachings with both my second grade students and my family. To be able to teach a child fully and truly connect, you must first have an understanding of them and their needs.

Another key “teacher” in the Reggio Emilia approach is nature. Nature is the best tool you have to teach you child about the world around them. For the fun little lesson that I am going to share with you today, we use two simple materials: chalk and sticks.

My daughter loves chalk. She has also taken to the many sticks that you can find laying around our yard from that lovely hickory tree. To avoid problems when we mow the lawn, we started collecting the sticks in a bucket. Perfect for exploration and learning fun!IMG_7459

First, take a piece of chalk and write a few letters of the alphabet on the sidewalk big enough for the sticks you have but not too big so your child will get tired quickly. I went over the letters I wrote three times to make sure they were bold enough for her to see. Notice I did not do the alphabet in order. One reason for this is because you want your child to memorize the letters themselves and NOT just the pattern of the alphabet. I usually pick them at random, but if you are starting out fresh, I would start with the letters in your child’s first name. They learn to recognize their name fairly quickly and it’s an important first step!

IMG_7460

After doing a small demonstration, She was ready to begin working on her own! I never dictate which sticks she should use or whether it goes off the lines. Something that is important to remember about learning letters and numbers is they are symbols.  Have you ever looked at writing that is in a different language and your brain sort panics for a moment? That is how children see letters and numbers before they are developmentally ready to understand what the symbols mean. Start slow, repeat often, and never get discouraged! Showing frustration with learning will only make children feel unsuccessful.

IMG_7461
Trial and error for finding the right sticks.

finnchalksstick

After working and tracing over the other letters, she was ready to try and write her own. With a little help, she wrote the letter “H” using two different colored chalks then set to work covering it over with the sticks!

What does this activity help my child learn? It gives your child an opportunity to explore and experiment with letters in a different way. Adding nature into the mix always helps solidify concepts in a more meaningful and concrete manner. While doing this with my child, We said the letter name and the sound. Nothing else. I don’t like to add things that the letter begins with for one important reason: you child will ALWAYS repeat that sentence! “A is for apple, /a/ /a/ /a/” This does not mean they have an understanding of the letter, sound, or word, just a good memory!

Activity stats

  • Fine motor skills- grasping, writing
  • Hand-eye coordination- placing sticks over lines
  • Phonemic awareness- identifying letters, sounds