You don’t have to travel far from Champaign-Urbana to feel like you’ve visited another part of the world — escape to Matthiessen State Park near Starved Rock for your next family adventure
We’ve lived in Champaign-Urbana for years and heard of the Starved Rock area as a favorite Illinois nature escape. So when we mentioned heading that way to friends, we quickly learned where we really wanted to visit was Matthiessen State Park, right next to Starved Rock.
Editor’s note: During COVID-19, some trails, facilities, or entire parks may be closed. Be aware of any safety protocols or group size limitations currently in effect for the area you will be visiting. Before you go, please check the website or social media for the specific park you plan to visit.
The two parks are located five minutes away from each other. However, Starved Rock is home to the Starved Rock Lodge, some dining, and heavy tourist traffic. Matthiessen can get crowded too, but it does seem to have a little more “best kept secret” vibe to it than Starved Rock itself. Ultimately, the terrain at both is going to be very similar, and it’s a beautiful area. We chose Matthiessen as it has the ever-popular “dells” (yep, just like Wisconsin Dells) and seems to have more water in general, including many picturesque waterfalls.
Where is it?
Matthiessen State Park is located in Oglesby, in LaSalle County, which is one hour, 45 minutes from Champaign-Urbana. It’s an easy drive on I-74 to Bloomington and then north on I-39 (toward Rockford). An important thing to note is that Starved Rock and Matthiessen have both been reaching parking lot capacity regularly before 10 a.m. on weekends and noon on weekdays. Due to 2020 considerations, the Illinois Department of National Resources has said if any of its parks reaches capacity, it is shut down until space becomes available. Follow the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on Facebook where it posts great info on this topic, or follow the Starved Rock/Matthiessen park page here. It is worth noting that Matthiessen State Park and Starved Rock State Park are the two most popular parks to visit in Illinois — you can always pick another park that sees less traffic and fewer crowds.
Where to park?
As mentioned above, when the parking lots reach capacity, the park is full. Overflow parking is not being utilized at this time so people can maintain social distancing and they are monitoring the parking issue, so stick to the paved, labeled spots in lots. There are two main areas you can enter Matthiessen. The main entrance, where you’ll find the largest parking lot near the “fort,” and an area near the “Lake Shelter,” commonly known as the back of the park. You wind along a road past a private golf course to reach this parking area, and you will be much closer to seeing some of the dells without actually hiking very far if you park at the back.
What do we do?
You’ll hear people talk about “hiking down” when you visit Matthiessen. This is because there are stairs to descend into the canyons and experience everything up close … LOTS of stairs! It is for this reason, first and foremost, that visiting Matthiessen is a trip best for people that are ready to walk (a lot!) and can comfortably ascend and descend many stairs. This is not a great trip for strollers, so bring the baby backpacks. And for visitors that utilize mobility aids, you can experience the beauty of the park from the paved trails but not “go down.” We saw some of the grandparent generation sitting on benches “above” while presumably other members of their party were exploring below.
The second reason this is a trip best suited for families with bigger kids is the water … all the water! The canyons are full of water — creeks and streams (whatever the difference is between the two), waterfalls, slick rocks, and more. You will get wet if you hike down, so bring shoes that can get wet. You can stick to just hopping on rocks to traverse areas of the trails — but will likely still get wet — or you can go full out creek stomping and get in. (For reference, our family wears Keen footwear on adventures like this.)
Chasing waterfalls? You’ve found them … now what?
Well, that’s really up to you. Do you take a picture in front of them and admire them from the paved trails? Climb a little closer by staying on the rocks to be misted by the falling waters? It is absolutely essential to note that all throughout the park it is very clearly labeled that there is no swimming or wading in canyon waterfalls, creeks and the Illinois River.
With kids who love to creek stomp, it’s easy to be following a marked trail, veer off the beaten path a little bit and instantly find yourself in unpredictably deep natural bodies of water. We saw this happen firsthand on our trip with a parent having to lend a child a helping hand to get out of water so deep it had to be treaded/swam. Remember to be safe around the water, do not let your kids swim and stay close to your children on your visit. No need to pack “beach gear” as you shouldn’t be treating the water areas as a beach. But you may want to put a change of clothes or shoes in the car for the conclusion of your hike.
Below is an example of being “on the trail” at Matthiessen. This is why we encourage you to wear shoes that can get wet.
How long should I plan to be here?
This is really up to you. Our recommendation is to make it a whole day trip, as “hiking down” takes so long. Get there early to ensure you get a parking space, hike down for a couple hours and then return to your car for a packed picnic lunch. Remember, leaving for lunch and attempting to come back doesn’t guarantee there will be a spot for you when you come back. So just pack the food, take a break and hike back down for part two in the afternoon. Make the most out of your “day getaway” as it’ll feel like a vacation while you’re there!
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