One of the things I was most upset about when moving on from college and out of southern Illinois was losing all of the hiking down in Shawnee National Forest. I had grown used to having all of those places in my “backyard”. For anyone not familiar with central Illinois, it’s incredibly flat and there are not many hiking opportunities, not of the likes of Shawnee anyway. I did, however, stumble upon Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks near Oglesby, IL, which was about a 2 hour drive north of Springfield. It seemed promising from some of the photos. I would do them both in the same day as they were within 10 minutes from each other, but Starved Rock would be the first stop.
Starved Rock was part of a shallow, inland sea about 425 million years ago. Later, only about 14,000-17,000 years ago, the glacier melt released torrents of water through the area and it created the gouges in the sandstone and glacial debris resulting in the Illinois River Valley and Rocks State Park. The Kaskaskia Indians inhabited the area for most of the last millennia, but Europeans discovered the area in the mid 1600’s with the French establishing Fort St. Louis on the sandstone butte in 1683. There is a recreation of the fort at Starved Rock where you can see where the fort was and a small scale replica in the visitor center. The significant French and Native American history is a huge draw as well as the landscape.
Starved Rock is much different than anything down in Shawnee, it’s closest comparison is Giant City as it has the lodge and restaurant, but the similarities stop there. Starved Rock was very commercial and there were hundreds of cars in the parking lot. I had never seen more than 15-20 in any parking lot in Shawnee, even at Garden of the Gods or Giant City. I did make the mistake of visiting on a holiday weekend, so everyone and their dog was down from Chicago visiting over the long weekend. That could be to blame, but I feel like Starved Rock is consistently way busier than anything in Shawnee. (Edit: after a little more research I found out Starved Rock is the most visited state park in Illinois with over two million visitors annually). Here’s the map and link to the map.
Starved Rock is located right on the Illinois River and some of the outlooks provide amazing views, in fact, I came across one outlook just after a guy proposed to his girlfriend. Anyway, the paths are largly paved and crowded until you get past the Beehive Overlook. Once you get out there the paths are no longer paved and just wood chips or dirt and people, while still more in number than in Shawnee, are much more spread out. Starved Rock State Park offers over 13 miles of incredibly scenic trails. There are numerous canyons you walk through, waterfalls with swimming areas below, and just generally beautiful wooded areas along the Illinois River.
Fourteen of the eighteen canyons at Starved Rock feature waterfalls nearly year round and all eighteen do if you go in early spring, so if waterfalls are your thing this is a good place to go. Three of Illinois’s four tallest waterfalls are at Starved Rock, including the tallest one. Wildcat Canyon Falls in Starved Rock is the tallest water fall in Illinois at 125′.
The waterfall is impressive in it’s scale. It tops Ferne Clyffe, the second largest in the state, by 25′. The water is generally pretty shallow beneath Wildcat Canyon Falls so there are not as many people hanging out in the canyon other than to get the photo of the water fall.
St. Louis Canyon Falls comes in next on the list at 80′ in height. Starved Rock is also a great place to go to see frozen falls. These occur in two ways when the weather is cold enough. One, the flowing water, as it cascades over the falls, becomes in part a huge number of individual drops and droplets falling through air well below the freezing point of water. These give up heat to the air and some of them freeze outright, while others become supercooled. The second way is when the water hits the extremely cold rocks or ice accumulations large portions of it freeze instantly. These form accumulations akin to cave stalagmites at the base of the falls, which steadily build up until they reach the top of the falls, which is similar to what you see in the photo above.
Starved Rock has another three waterfalls that make the top ten list for Illinois and several others that range from five to twenty feet in height.
Matthiessen State Park
Matthiessen State Park is a short four mile drive south of Starved Rock. It was carved out by the same forces as Starved Rock. There are considerably fewer trails here when compared to Starved Rock, but there are some amazing views and two beautiful waterfalls. The waterfall pictured above is Bridal Veil Falls and comes in as the eighth largest waterfall in Illinois at 45′. The water runs beneath the bridge then down to another, smaller waterfall. After that the water flows through the canyon and into the Vermillion River. The trails at Matthiessian total just 3.2 miles, but there’s a one mile long trail that connects to a river area that has another 2 miles in trails. The trails at Matthiessen run around the top of the bluff, then there’s a trail that leads down into the canyon. Here is the map.
There can be a lot of water in the canyon during the spring, if not there’s a good chance it’s still muddy unless you stick to the sides of the canyon. Once you get to the back of the canyon there’s a large open area and when the water is high enough, you’ll find kids playing in it.
Matthiessen felt as busy as Starved Rock, but mostly just because of it’s smaller size and denser trail system. If you live in central Illinois and enjoy hiking, a day trip up to Starved Rock and Matthiessen is definitely worth it.