Chicago area hiking opportunities can be found if you look hard enough. This last weekend I decided I would attend a local Meetup.com hiking group for what promised to be a six mile hike out at Mattheissen State Park (located in Utica, Illinois).
Mattheissen is often overshadowed by Starved Rock State Park located a few miles to the north. I’ve been to Starved Rock many times on a weekend and every one of them has been absolutely packed with people. Unfortunately more people usually means more trash, and all too often people litter.
Seeing trash in a state park on hiking trails (or other vandalism) causes my blood to boil. It makes me wonder what is honestly wrong with the person who makes a consciously decision to throw their garbage down when there are so many garbage bins readily available.
It can really put a damper on an outing. When I was a Scout leader we would always take along garbage bags and use it as a teaching opportunity for the scouts and at the same time pick up some trash. So when I saw that there was a planned hike out in Mattheissen, I quickly decided to join the meetup group on last Sunday hoping maybe that it would be less crowded and hopefully have less garbage.
Canyons, Streams, Prairies & Forests
All of these features are present in Matthessian, and when I looked at the park map, would be things that the hiking group would get to encounter on the trails we would be hiking. One of the attractions of this park are the geological features that are present – deep canyons, waterfalls and interesting sandstone rock formations are found throughout this park.
I had been here once before with my son’s Cub Scout Pack. During that trip we spent more time down in the canyons splashing through the water than hiking trails, so this time I was looking forward to seeing some new things.
I arrived promptly at 8:45AM, the hike was scheduled to meetup at 9AM and start around 9:10 at the latest. I was excited and the second car in the parking lot. The meetup invite map link had taken me to exactly where I needed to be, or so I thought.
As the time slowly crept toward 9:30AM I knew that the map had failed me. I knew people were on the way when I first arrived at the park because I had added a comment to the meetup page and received a reply. And then nothing, which likely meant that people were off hiking. I had missed the group.
If I am being honest I was slightly disappointed, I was looking forward to meeting some new people, and after an hour drive to get to the park, it was a little bit of a bummer.
But the sun was shining, the weather was crisp and I wasn’t going to let a hiking opportunity go by, so solo hike it would be. Honestly I don’t mind hiking alone. Groups can be noisy, people can turn into chatterboxes and the hike that you thought would be a great escape into the wilderness loses it’s spark.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy hiking with other people and love an opportunity to look at things and explore the outdoors with people, but there comes a point where people just need to be quiet and enjoy the world around them.
If you want to see an interactive map just hit this link. As you can tell I really meandered all around the Upper and Lower Dells portion of the park. I’d stop to take a peek at the map kiosks from time to time but I mainly just explored the different outbound trails I ran across.
The forest canopy in this area of the park is quite thick which gives the entire area a cooler feel. As a person who is always hot, I was happy to have a hoodie with me to give me some additional warmth when I first started on the trail.
From the parking lot you come to a log fort at the head of a series of stairs that take you down to the hiking trails. There had to be at least a hundred stairs going down interspersed with places to stop and catch your breath, I knew these would not be fun coming back, and no big surprise here, they were brutal coming back up after my hike.
At the bottom of the stairs you reach a cement bridge that spans the width of a large and very deep canyon. Roaring water falling over a waterfall was being augmented by happy voices of children playing in the water at the bottom of the canyon.
Trails led North and South along the side of the canyon I was on so I decided to hear North. After about a half mile I came across this smaller waterfall.
I was looking forward to seeing Mattheissen State Park lake which would soon be coming into view. The last time I had been here with the scouts the lake had been algae bound, something we wouldn’t see from the canyon where the boys were playing in the waterfall.
This time around it was the same, a solid covering of an almost electric green algae. Once around the lake I decided to follow one of the cross country/horse trails that led North. It had rained the night before and the trails were soft and muddy in some spots.
When I hike I like to keep an eye out for interesting signs of nature, sometimes those signs come from the ground, and I was excited to see two different types of animal tracks during this hike.
The first track I came across was a series of deer tracks. It’s a little hard to see in this picture but if you look closely you should be able to see it. I know seeing a deer track isn’t super exciting, but in all the hikes I have been on the number of times I have seen a live deer has been few and far between.
That being said, I was really excited to see this next track! I’ve never run across a raccoon track before, and this one was perfectly formed.
As I continued to explore the park trails, I was largely alone. Other visitors tended to stick near the path that went around the canyon. It was well maintained and easy to navigate, the other trails were not bad, a few downed trees in the path, but nothing that couldn’t be avoided.
Later in the hike I encountered a group of boys and their parents coming down the trail. I caught a quick look at the book one of the boys was carrying, it was a Webelos scout book. These were a den of Cub Scouts out for an excursion!
“You must be scouts!” I said loudly as I was approaching with a friendly smile. “We sure are!” One of the leaders replied. I laughed and made a comment about wishing my Eagle son was with me and wished them luck as I walked by.
They reminded me of a lot of great memories hiking with my son through his scouting career. Toward the end of my trip I found this mushroom colony slowly overtaking a downed tree.
As I came to the end of this hike my Garmin said I had gone just shy of 6.5 miles. I felt relaxed and had an tired glow of satisfaction. Conversations with the meetup coordinator after confirmed that I was in the wrong spot (I still maintain they were based on the map lol).
I told her not to worry that I had a great time on my solo hike. There is always next time. If you find yourself in Illinois in the Chicago area, I hope you might consider giving Mattheissen State Park a try.