The REI outing started early one crisp, fall morning in Chicago. After we stood around getting acquainted and drinking coffee, the group and guides loaded up into the van. The trip to Matthiessen State Park in North Utica, IL., took a couple of hours. If you've ever driven through IL you understand that it isn't a very scenic drive, unless you consider rows and rows of corn to be scenic. Once we arrived at the park, the group got pointers on staying warm and dry during the hike.
The walking sticks were a good idea. It was still pleasant outside for that time of year, but there was definitely a bit of snow and ice on the ground that made walking difficult. Oh, and the mud and slippery leaves. I recommend taking walking sticks on your hikes to help you find secure footing and to help you up and down sleep slopes.
I had procrastinated in choosing my outing, and was kicking myself for waiting so long and not taking an earlier outing where there would have been more plants to see. But once we got underway I realized that there is just as much interest for plant lovers in fall and winter. Take the picture above for example. Have you ever seen an Osage orange? I'd never seen one in person myself. That morning when I posted pictures on social media, I learned that most people know them as hedge apples. Contrary to their common names, they are not related to oranges or apples.
The constant flow of water exposes the sandstone below the surface in this creek. We don't have geography like this in Chicago.
Matthiessen is also home to a lot of mosses, lichens and mushrooms. I couldn't help but kneel down and take pictures.
Even this late in the season there are still signs of the mushrooms that thrive in the area.
Does this look familiar? Well, if you are going to spend time hiking in the woods it would be smart to learn to identify poison ivy. The guides quickly pointed it out and made it a point to mention that even when it isn't leafed out, poison ivy will still irritate your skin.
This day I learned just how noisy a forest is; it was an odd experience for someone like me. Trees make a lot of noise as the bang together and sway in the wind. It sounded as if a tree would fall on me any moment.
Unfortunately, some of the trails were closed for repairs, or because the time of year made them dangerous to hike on. I was particularly bummed that we could hike down to the Vermilion River, but what I was able to see between the trees was beautiful. I made a note to return and see it one day.
Because of the closed trails, we took a detour and walked across the Prairie Connector. Going from feeling secluded among trees to standing in the middle of a prairie took some getting used to. You realize just how strong the wind is and noisy in an open prairie.
On the hike we were joined by Lenore Sobota, at docent at Starved Rock state park. Her expertise came in handy during the walk through the prairie connector when we encountered animal droppings and signs that a furry animal had met an untimely demise. She even found a bald eagle feather on the trail, which gave us a clue as to what may have found a meal here.
Looking down into the bridge that spans the canyon.
Matthiessen State Park was once private property and operated as a private park. Evidence of this can be seen by the extensive network of trails, but also in the permanent features like this beautiful stone bridge that spans the canyon. Here's a video of the decent into the bridge on my Instagram page.
Taking the staircase off the side of the bridge leads you down into the canyon. It is so beautiful and the canyon walls tower over you on both sides. It is amazing to realize that a steady flow of water over many years was able to carve this. View this short video of the inside of the canyon on my Instagram page.
Keep walking through the canyon and you'll end up at Cascade Falls.
The falls weren't doing much cascading, but you can see that water does run here. If you look up photos of these falls online, you will find some with some impressive pictures of ice covering this area.
Here is a photo of a family taking pictures at Cascade Falls to give you an idea of just how deep below the surface you are in this canyon.
Because of how soft sandstone is, the canyon is always changing. Water seeps into the stones, becomes frozen and splits open the walls of the canyon. That is how the small caves here are formed
Evidence of the canyon being created by water can be seen in the numerous boulders in the floor of the canyon.
The coolest bolder in the canyon is a rock with a face carved into it. Some people say it looks like Spongebob Squarepants. Do you see it?
The canyon floor is full of so much beauty. Just look at this tree's root buttress exposed by the flow of water. After some more exploring around the canyon it was time to head back up to the surface and leave Matthiessen State Park. Check out this video from above the canyon looking down towards the cave and rock face pictured above to give you an overhead view of the canyon.
We walked back through the canyon, and up the bridge to walk through the other side of the canyon. Only to be confronted by a wooden staircase to take a bridge that leads to an old fort from where we would head back home. I don't mind telling you that my legs were killing me by this point and I was ready to sit. But it was the kind of pain that makes you feel like you did something.
If you're looking for an adventure check out the workshops, classes and trips available through REI. A big thanks to REI for gifting me this trip to see a part of the state I have lived in most of my life that I had never seen before.
Have you ever been to Matthiessen State Park before? If not, you should go. Opt Outside this holiday season.