Located in LaSalle County just west of the Starved Rock State Park is Matthiessen State Park, perhaps less known than Starved Rock but equally impressive in its geographical features that seem out of place in central Illinois. You’ll find beautiful rock formations, tons of tree-covered trails, wildlife and plenty of amenities for cyclists.
What Makes It Great
The park was created by industrialist and philanthropist Frederick William Matthiessen, purchased the land in the late 19th century and opened a private park for many years. It was originally called Deer Park, in reference to the number of four-legged grazers on the property. The park was donated to the state on Matthiessen’s death and in 1943 it was renamed in honor of him. The park has since expanded from that original 176-acre park to include nearly 2,000 acres that it encompasses today.
This is one of the great state parks in Illinois, and to have trails open to mountain bikers is a big victory. The mileage isn’t huge, but the trails are a lot of fun with prairie vistas and river views. And you’re a short hiking from the impressive canyon scenery in the park. There isn’t a traditional campground in the park, but there is an equestrian campground for riders and their horses just west of Route 178. Mountain bikers are better off camping at the nearby Starved Rock Campgrounds and riding over the Matthiessen to access the trails.
Most people going to Matthiessen for the first time will be surprised by the exposed sandstone formations that pop up all over the park. The main canyon was formed by water erosion and is more than a mile long, connecting Deer Park Lake to the Vermillion River. The sheer rock walls are home to cliff swallows and rock doves, while the moist canyon floor house salamanders, frogs and toads, in addition to an abundance of ferns and other moisture-loving plants.
Of course, to access most of this, you’ll have to leave the mountain bike behind.
The Matthiessen Vermillion River Area is the only section that’s open to mountain biking. But while you don’t get quite the same stunning canyon scenery as in the rest of the park, the nine miles of trails are still pretty darn good. The trails are shared with equestrians, so be sure to always yield to those on horseback and pedestrians.
The orange prairie trail is the longest, zigzagging north of the Vermillion River from its trailhead, which is at the entrance to the park just south of N2459th Road and off of Route 178 (look for signs to the remote controlled airplane field).
Bike Valley Illinois has been instrumental in opening up the trails for mountain bikers, and they provide an excellent map of the trails here. They also host a mountain bike race in the trails in May each year.
The River Trail, the western most of the web of trails south of the trailhead, offers a serious climb and some technical sections. Be sure to stay on the marked trail, and do not enter the adjacent quarry, which has banned bikes.
Who is Going to Love It
Experienced mountain bikers will find some challenges here, but any cyclists will find some trails that work for their skill level.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Parking is plentiful in the lot off of Route 178 and south of N2459th Road.