Starved Rock, an Illinois summertime staple, is known for its natural beauty, close proximity to the city (it’s about 90 minutes away) and 13 miles of hiking trails. Around three million people visit the park every year, coming to see snow thaw-fed waterfalls, nesting eagles and towering sandstone canyons.
But if your idea of communing with nature includes physically touching it, you might have written off the area due to the boardwalk-covered trails, which, while great for accessibility, make it pretty hard to get any dirt on your boots.
Fear not, intrepid outdoorsman! Just add a stop to your itinerary. Two miles south is another state park: Matthiessen. It’s smaller, grittier and wilder. Boots will get wet here.
What to See and Do
Don’t go chasing Starved Rock waterfalls. Streams there are fed by meltwater and typically dry up during summer months. Matthiessen’s 25-foot Lake Falls is, well, lake-fed, and therefore reliably cascading. On the three-mile Dells loop, you’ll traverse streams, hop across cylindrical cement stepping stones and scramble up sandy pathways as you move up and down the narrow canyons. Nature! Unlike Starved Rock, the trails here are not always obvious, so follow this Ranger-prescribed path, brimming with water features:
- Park at the Dells Area
- Start on Upper Dells toward Lake Falls
- Take the wooden staircase down to water level
- Continue on, hugging the riverbed — you’ll pass several small but scenic waterfalls
- Follow signs to Lower Dells
- Take the large cement spiral staircase into the canyon
- Follow the trail until it magnificently dead-ends into a stunning amphitheater of soaring 100-foot sandstone walls
- Climb back up the stairs and head to the parking lot
If you visit in July or August, the 60-acre sunflower field is a must-hit. Use Matthissen’s River Area entrance to find this botanic Brigadoon. Photographers will delight in rows and rows of stately, blooming sunflowers.
The area’s dramatic geology is all thanks to the numerous rivers and streams slicing through the land, so hit the water. Rent kayaks, take a beginner’s-level whitewater rafting tour or go slower with a chartered fishing trip or pontoon rental.
Road-Tripping From Chicago to Nashville: The 5 Best Stops Along the WayBiergartens, Indy race cars and probably more Tang dynasty art than you’d expect
Where to Eat
In Starved Rock, eat outdoors at The Veranda, the outdoor dining component of historic Starved Rock Lodge. Take in a few of the park’s sights before climbing (or driving) up to the casual patio spot perched high enough for a bird’s eye view of the Starved Rock. The Lodge has several casual dining options, all serving American eats. I recommend the ale-fried walleye. Lean in to summer Friday vibes with live music starting at 6 p.m.
If your group has varied tastes to accommodate, take the 15-minute drive to riverside Ottawa and try Burger and Sushi House. (You read that right.) Brisket sandwiches and mac ‘n’ cheese share menu space with nigiri and sashimi for a bizarre but tasty fusion spot. Take-out or dine-in, they’re doing a lot, but doing it well.
Where to Drink
After a hot day on the trail, grab a cold beer at Ottawa’s Tangled Roots. The award-winning outfit brews their “farm to foam” beers with hops and barley they actually grow on a farm nearby. Try Forty1 Eighty8, their 100 percent Illinois beer composed entirely of local ingredients. Weekend hours change slightly each day, but in general you can stop in from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
In Utica, Illinois Sparkling Co. vintners pour their homegrown bubbly. While Épernay this is not, a quiet hillside overlooking the Illinois River is good enough to yield sparkling wines created in line with the Méthode Champenoise. Their bottles just racked up 28 medals at the 2023 Illinois State Fair wine competition (you’re downstate now, baby), including one Top Award for a semi-dry red from their August Hill label. Seems like a day drinking vibe, because the shop closes at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Where to Stay
In keeping with the outdoorsy theme, choose between two glamping options. Don’t worry, both have AC and queen mattresses.
On the lavish end is Camp Aramoni. Located next to the Vermillion River in Tonica, 11 safari-style tents line the 96-acre property. Each one has a different configuration (some can fit six guests), but they all have a sitting area, full bathroom and wraparound porch. Private trails, excellent stargazing, solid on-site dining and complimentary s’mores over your private fire pit — which they’ll even light for you — mean bookings go fast.
Tiny cabin purveyor Getaway opened their Starved Rock outpost this year in Ottawa. We think these wifi-free cabins are the perfect antidote to city life. Each modern dwelling is outfitted with a flushing toilet, hot shower, kitchenette and outdoor fire pit. Upgrade to the Outdoor Suite to take in the stars from your private hammock or heated, cedar soaking tub.
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