Disconnect to Reconnect — Hiking in Northern Illinois

Christina Staff

By Christina Staff,
Healthy Planet Staff Writer

If we have MORE things, we’ll find MORE happiness. Right? That’s the ideology marketing experts sell us, and today’s world makes it all too easy for us adults, and our kids, to get caught up in that materialistic mindset. Call me sentimental, but experiences have always held more value than the latest trends in technology, clothes, or gadgets, and that’s a viewpoint I try to model for my son. With that in mind, and to escape that pressure, he and I planned a spur-of-the-moment trip to explore one of nature’s most endearing state parks in Northern Illinois.

Matthiessen State Park in Oglesby is home to canyons, towering bluffs, lush forest, abundant wildlife, and (the sole reason for our choice of destination) flowing waterfalls. The area was named for the original owner, Frederick William Matthiessen, an industrialist from the LaSalle area, who privately operated the then 176-acre park for years. Nearly 50 employees were hired to create trails, and erect bridges, stairways, and dams. The park was later donated to the State of Illinois, which opened it to the public. Since that time, its span has grown to over 1,900 acres.

Hiking with a seven-year-old is a test in endurance. They can run on minimal hydration and nourishment, and I also learned they have the agility of a mountain goat, even in rubber boots. The main canyon is made up of two parts: the Upper and Lower Dells. The first thing to know is this is actual hiking; not a stroll down the sidewalk similar to other state parks you may have visited. While there are some clear pathways, there will be times you have to get creative and use tree roots to scale embankments, or find your way across small bodies of water using stepping stones and fallen logs. I highly suggest waterproof shoes. Or at the very least, shoes you won’t mind getting muddy.

Several sets of steps lead you to and from the deepest part of the canyon. Every passing step reveals nature’s unparalleled beauty. Venturing deeper into the trail, skyscraping bluffs and rock formations create a shady and damp passageway. The tranquil sound of trickling water can be heard throughout the hike, enticing you further, until finally, you reach a curve in the trail, and… there it is. A striking waterfall flowing into a calm pool of water below; the ripples slowly reaching the muddy shore where we stood mesmerized. The sun was shining so brightly onto the rock wall behind the falls that it was creating a glistening wall of gold. The only thing brighter may have been our smiles.

Sometimes the healthiest thing we can do is disconnect from the chatter to reconnect with what and who is most important. If the warmer weather has you feeling adventurous, and the beckoning of the great outdoors is calling your name, consider a road trip away from the city and into Matthiessen State Park. Exploring this state treasure is an unforgettable experience. When we left that day, we were physically worn out, muddy, and as my mother calls it, “smelling earthy.” That’s happiness you can’t buy.