The highlight of 1,938-acre Matthiessen State Park is a narrow, mile-long canyon carved in sandstone by moving water. This moderately strenuous 5.8-mile hike begins by following the edge of the Upper Dell briefly and then dips toward the shady canyon floor. Admire both the top-down and bottom-up views of Lake Falls and be sure to stop for a photo of the aptly-named Giant’s Bathtub. The canyon’s moist, water-carved habitat is perfect for mosses, liverworts, and a several amphibian species—also look for cliff swallows and rock doves in the pock-marked canyon walls. Toward the canyon’s southern end, this route tucks into the Lower Dell for a peek at Cascade Fall’s impressive 40-foot drop before turning toward the park’s southern half.
Though you could spend lots of time exploring the forested bluffs and canyon floor, this route’s mileage comes from a more traditional 3.7-mile out-and-back extension that climbs to an open prairie, and follows a horse trail to several developed picnic areas. The payoff is a bluff-top overlook 150 feet above the Vermilion River.
-Mapped by Ted Villaire
- Distance: 9.3
- Miles from city center: 101
Location: 41.2962799, -89.0257874
In the Dells Area parking lot, start the hike by heading down the steps located next to the small log fort, a replica of forts the French built in the Midwest during the 1600s and early 1700s (the French constructed one of these forts on nearby Starved Rock in 1683).
Location: 41.2969589, -89.0266113
Turn right at this 4-way junction just north of the trailhead. This wide, elm-lined gravel trail follows the upper edge of the bluff above the creek.
Location: 41.2965355, -89.0201874
Stay left at this T-junction, to follow the Bluff Trail north. Listen for the sound of waterfalls running into the dell below.
Location: 41.2988957, -89.0245557
About 0.75 miles from the trailhead, the trail crosses the bridge and dam on Lake Matthiessen’ southernmost point. Just beyond the bridge, don’t miss the platform overlooking the most striking man-made waterfall in Illinois.
Location: 41.2986216, -89.0245879
Turn left at the T-junction onto the connector trail toward the canyon floor. Inside the canyon, mosses, liverworts, and ferns grow on the 30- to 40-foot sandstone walls.
Location: 41.2975577, -89.0242553
Just after rounding a bend in the dell, the trail skirts Giant’s Bathtub, a pool carved in the sandstone by the cascading falls.
Location: 41.2975502, -89.0251083
Stay straight ahead at this T-junction bypassing the stairs that lead right to the top of the bluff.
Location: 41.2974968, -89.0263519
Take the stairs out of the canyon and turn left, following signs for the Lower Dells at the T-junction. Pass the bridge and look for Cascade Falls on the left.
Location: 41.2938255, -89.0278924
Cross a high footbridge and follow the stairs on the bridge’s east side to the left. This route turns right for a .3-mile out-and-back segment through another section of the canyon.
Location: 41.2963371, -89.0276871
It’s a sort tenth of a mile to the end of this section of the canyon. Enjoy the soothing echo created by the 40-foot Cascade Falls. Backtrack to the top of the stairway where this out-and-back began and continue following the trail south toward the park’s Vermilion River Area.
Location: 41.2897708, -89.0265942
The trail gets decidedly less rugged as it switchbacks through a deep ravine and climbs 100 foot to a prairie: the berry and shrub lined trail along the route’s highest plane is wide, flat and grassy.
Location: 41.2845688, -89.019989
At mile 2.7, the trail reaches a horse-trailer parking area. Follow the gravel driveway, cross the park road and continue south, turning right into the next parking area on the right.
Location: 41.2799673, -89.019835
Follow the mowed trail west from the parking area From the parking area. The trail squeezes between the woods on the left and the picnic area on the right.
Location: 41.2989082, -89.0245743
This man-made waterfall near mile 0.75 descends 40 feet from the top of Lake Matthiessen’s dam to the floor of the canyon.
Location: 41.298404, -89.0244699
The view of the man-made falls (and the arch of the bridge) from the floor of the canyon.
Location: 41.2980816, -89.0234184
The canyon stream flows over solid sandstone into a pool called the Giant’s Bathtub. These pools grow larger because of the scouring action of rocks and pebbles swirled by moving water.
Location: 41.2938766, -89.0279388
The trail cruises several of these large footbridges above the canyon. This one is near Devil’s Paintbox.
Location: 41.281826, -89.0308838
This view from the top of a 150-foot cliff above the Vermilion River is the reward for the out-and-back on this route’s south side.