Search My Garden Blog with Google Custom Search


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.


  1. Been missing you, MGT. Glad to see a post. Sounds like a spectacular day! and a great experience for a "city boy" like you. Being a "city girl" myself, i found your comments about sound very interesting.

    Hope you have had a good year and are looking forward to even better things in 2016.

    1. Hi Webb, Thanks for the nice message. Yeah, I had a busy year writing for some other blogs so I didn't post much. Hoping to catch up and post some more before the New Year!

  2. Fun hike! Glad you are out enjoying the trails!

    1. Thanks! It's a whole new world out there. Glad to finally be getting out in nature and seeing scenes like these.

  3. We used to live about an hour from the part and hiked here multiple times, your pics brought back old memories. Have fun!

    1. IT2AGRI, How cool. I wish I lived closer so I could go there at the drop of a hat. I still need to go back some day when the waterfalls there are all ice over. Those pictures look amazing.

    2. ah yes, when it's frozen it's an awesome sight. Especially the starved rock falls.

  4. I love these posts from you! I hope you'll continue to share all the great stuff you find on your nature trips; especially the nearby areas that are so different than Chicago.

    1. Hi Jane,

      I hope to get more chances to go out there and experience these areas. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Great post! Made me nostalgic for the days I used to go out once in awhile with a birding club. So much to see!

    1. LostRoses, This trip had a lot of people from different walks of life, and of varying experiences with hiking. I realized on this trip that going out with others (like your birding club) is something that I really enjoyed.

  6. This is a fantastic article, thank you very much. I particularly enjoyed the pics. I will be on the lookout for another one of these.

    1. Leroy, Glad you enjoyed the pics. Thanks for commenting. Check out the hiking label for more nature excursions.

  7. Nice hike! I never knew REI had activities like that, thank you for the great post!



Feel free to leave a comment. You can always use the search box for my blog or the search "Google For Gardeners" if you're looking for gardening information. If you're looking for seed saving information check out "Seed Snatcher"search engine.

Do not have a blog yourself? Comment using the "anonymous" feature. If you have a Twitter or FB account feel free to use the "Name URL" feature so other people can find you.

Thanks for visiting.