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Matthiessen State Park

Do you, like me, have a craving for adventure, but feel like you can't get up and go because you don't have friends and family that want to participate in activities like hiking? Growing up in Chicago, I never knew of people that went hiking or visited state parks. REI offers a number of classes, outings, and Events. I was invited to participate in an outing to Matthiessen State Park last year and kept putting it off. I finally got around to taking REI up on their generous offer to do an outing after Thanksgiving.

 REI tour guides Matthiessen State Park

The REI outing started early one crisp, fall morning in Chicago. After we stood around getting acquainted and drinking coffee, the group and guides loaded up into the van. The trip to Matthiessen State Park in North Utica, IL., took a couple of hours. If you've ever driven through IL you understand that it isn't a very scenic drive, unless you consider rows and rows of corn to be scenic. Once we arrived at the park, the group got pointers on staying warm and dry during the hike.

REI Hiking Matthiessen State Park

The walking sticks were a good idea. It was still pleasant outside for that time of year, but there was definitely a bit of snow and ice on the ground that made walking difficult. Oh, and the mud and slippery leaves. I recommend taking walking sticks on your hikes to help you find secure footing and to help you up and down sleep slopes.

Osage Oranges Matthiessen State park

I had procrastinated in choosing my outing, and was kicking myself for waiting so long and not taking an earlier outing where there would have been more plants to see. But once we got underway I realized that there is just as much interest for plant lovers in fall and winter. Take the picture above for example. Have you ever seen an Osage orange? I'd never seen one in person myself. That morning when I posted pictures on social media, I learned that most people know them as hedge apples. Contrary to their common names, they are not related to oranges or apples.

Creek with exposed sandstone rock

The constant flow of water exposes the sandstone below the surface in this creek. We don't have geography like this in Chicago.

Log covered with moss

Matthiessen is also home to a lot of mosses, lichens and mushrooms. I couldn't help but kneel down and take pictures.

Mushrooms on log Matthiessen State park

Even this late in the season there are still signs of the mushrooms that thrive in the area.

Poison Ivy Matthiessen State park

Does this look familiar? Well, if you are going to spend time hiking in the woods it would be smart to learn to identify poison ivy. The guides quickly pointed it out and made it a point to mention that even when it isn't leafed out, poison ivy will still irritate your skin.

Mathiessen State Park Hiking

This day I learned just how noisy a forest is; it was an odd experience for someone like me. Trees make a lot of noise as the bang together and sway in the wind. It sounded as if a tree would fall on me any moment.

Hiking trail closed sign

Unfortunately, some of the trails were closed for repairs, or because the time of year made them dangerous to hike on. I was particularly bummed that we could hike down to the Vermilion River, but what I was able to see between the trees was beautiful. I made a note to return and see it one day.

Birdhouse Prairie Connector

Because of the closed trails, we took a detour and walked across the Prairie Connector. Going from feeling secluded among trees to standing in the middle of a prairie took some getting used to. You realize just how strong the wind is and noisy in an open prairie.

A photo posted by @mrbrownthumb on

On the hike we were joined by Lenore Sobota, at docent at Starved Rock state park. Her expertise came in handy during the walk through the prairie connector when we encountered animal droppings and signs that a furry animal had met an untimely demise. She even found a bald eagle feather on the trail, which gave us a clue as to what may have found a meal here.

Bridge Matthiessen State park

Looking down into the bridge that spans the canyon.

Matthiessen State park bridge

Looking towards the other side of the canyon through the bridge.

A photo posted by @mrbrownthumb on

Matthiessen State Park was once private property and operated as a private park. Evidence of this can be seen by the extensive network of trails, but also in the permanent features like this beautiful stone bridge that spans the canyon. Here's a video of the decent into the bridge on my Instagram page.

Canyon Matthiessen State park

Taking the staircase off the side of the bridge leads you down into the canyon. It is so beautiful and the canyon walls tower over you on both sides. It is amazing to realize that a steady flow of water over many years was able to carve this. View this short video of the inside of the canyon on my Instagram page.

Keep walking through the canyon and you'll end up at Cascade Falls.

Cascade Falls Matthiessen

The falls weren't doing much cascading, but you can see that water does run here. If you look up photos of these falls online, you will find some with some impressive pictures of ice covering this area.

Cascade Falls

Here is a photo of a family taking pictures at Cascade Falls to give you an idea of just how deep below the surface you are in this canyon.

Matthiessen State park

Because of how soft sandstone is, the canyon is always changing. Water seeps into the stones, becomes frozen and splits open the walls of the canyon. That is how the small caves here are formed

A photo posted by @mrbrownthumb on

Evidence of the canyon being created by water can be seen in the numerous boulders in the floor of the canyon.

Rock with a face Matthiessen State Park

The coolest bolder in the canyon is a rock with a face carved into it. Some people say it looks like Spongebob Squarepants. Do you see it?

Tree roots Matthiessen State park

The canyon floor is full of so much beauty. Just look at this tree's root buttress exposed by the flow of water. After some more exploring around the canyon it was time to head back up to the surface and leave Matthiessen State Park. Check out this video from above the canyon looking down towards the cave and rock face pictured above to give you an overhead view of the canyon.
Fort Matthiessen State park

We walked back through the canyon, and up the bridge to walk through the other side of the canyon. Only to be confronted by a wooden staircase to take a bridge that leads to an old fort from where we would head back home. I don't mind telling you that my legs were killing me by this point and I was ready to sit. But it was the kind of pain that makes you feel like you did something.

If you're looking for an adventure check out the workshops, classes and trips available through REI. A big thanks to REI for gifting me this trip to see a part of the state I have lived in most of my life that I had never seen before.

Have you ever been to Matthiessen State Park before? If not, you should go. Opt Outside this holiday season.