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Think of Illinois just as the prairie state in all its flatland glory? Think again.

95 miles west of Chicago in central LaSalle County, you hit a gloriously scenic trio of State Parks: Matthiessen, Buffalo Rock and the big daddy of the three, Starved Rock.

If you crave solitude and adventure, then Matthiessen is the one for you.

The phrase "hidden gem" can be overused, but when it comes to Matthiessen, it's what naturally comes to mind. There, you can explore glorious wooded canyons, eroded by millennia of water into intricate designs, laced with spectacular waterfalls. Add to that magnificent trails that can satisfy any sense of adventure, and you've got yourself a jewel of a park, ready to delight you with its wealth of beauty.

A waterfall with a waterhole below, Matthiessen State Park, Oglesby

Matthiessen History

In the 1890s, immigrant industrialist Frederick William Matthiessen bought 175-acres beside the Vermilion River, called Deer Park for the large population of white-tail deer that lived there.

On this property he built his home, along with a number of other buildings, and employed a team of builders to construct trails, bridges, stairways and dams.

After Matthiessen’s death, his family donated Deer Park to the state to be preserved as a nature area and wildlife sanctuary. The park was renamed Matthiessen State Park in his honor.

A waterfall
Looking outwards from a cave, a waterfall cascades into a pool, next to snow-lined rock walls
A bridge stretching between two wooded areas, beneath a blue sky

A Growing Story

Since then, the park has grown to 1,938 acres, thanks to land added by the state.

It's bisected by a canyon eroded from the sandstone by Deer Creek. The Matthiessen family whimsically called the canyon the Dells, and the name has stuck to this day.

The Upper Dells begin at Matthiessen Lake with Lake Falls, where Deer Creek drops into the canyon below and continues downstream to the 45-foot Cascade Falls, where the Lower Dells begin. The canyon walls are beautifully colored by minerals and overgrown with ferns and mosses.


Two girls walk in front of a waterfall at Matthiessen State Park

Take a Hike

The park has five miles of trails from canyons to river bluffs, through woodland and past waterfalls.

For a pleasant loop that takes in all three waterfalls, start by going down the steps next to the log fort and take the trail along the Upper Dells towards the Lake. Cross the bridge on Lake Matthiessen and admire Lake Falls, then head down into the canyon, where you’ll see the wonderfully named Giant's Bathtub waterfall. Then take the stairs up out of the canyon, and stroll towards Lower Dells passing the Cascade Falls.

After about 15 minutes of walking along it felt as though we were in our own world. I loved seeing how water has carved its way through rock over millennia.

Eva J, Matthiessen State Park visitor, Tripadvisor
Two people standing in front of a waterfall, next to a serene pond.

Go Chasing Waterfalls

If you like some waterfall action, the best time to visit the park is during or after some rain, so the falls are in spate and the forest smells amazing. Make sure you wear sturdy boots, bring bug spray, and prepare to get your feet wet as you scramble up the canyon. Matthiessen is a wilder proposition to the manicured boardwalks of Starved Rock, so proceed with caution and proper gear.

Our family had the best time hiking to the waterfall! It is a stunningly beautiful park, and the caves and waterfall are indelibly in our minds and hearts!

KCLJ520, Matthiessen State Park visitor, Tripadvisor
Two people climbing on rocks in front of a rock waterfall

More to Explore in Matthiessen

In addition to hiking trials, there are nine miles of multi-use mountain bike and horseback riding trails—BYO horse! In winter the park is used for cross country skiing, with six miles of ski trails and weekend ski rental available December through March. Other park facilities include a field archery range and a radio-controlled model airplane field in the Vermilion River Area.

The Dells area is set up for picnics with tables, water fountains and playground equipment, as well as a large parking lot and restrooms. Kids love the log fort!

Great place to take young kids hiking. Smaller than Starved Rock, and you are able to get up close to the waterfall.

Jason H, Matthiessen State Park visitor, Tripadvisor

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