Starved Rock State Park is certainly not starved for attention. Located along the south bank of the Illinois River on State Route 178, the park hosts more than 2 million visitors annually. The same cannot be said for its close neighbor to the south, Matthiessen State Park
Just a few miles down the road from Starved Rock, Matthiessen is the less-visited of the two parks, but don’t be fooled by the lack of foot traffic. Locals come here to see the area’s famous exposed rock canyons but avoid the crowds. The park itself is a treasure trove of natural riches: a deep canyon cuts across the normally flat Illinois landscape, waterfalls flow throughout the spring and summer, and wooded trails promise an escape from city life.
The best part? You can see much of what the park has to offer within the span of 24 hours. Skip the crowds at Starved Rock and follow this itinerary to make the most of your visit to Matthiessen:
1. Explore the park’s canyons and waterfalls | 10 a.m.
Spiraling wooden stairs lead down into the mouth of the canyon, where the trail suddenly ends. Don’t be alarmed by the lack of a marked walkway; here you can blaze your own path, climbing in and out of caves and wading across rocky streams.
At the end of the canyon, waterfalls beat against the rock face with enough power to take your breath away. Wear waterproof shoes (or ditch the shoes altogether) to get close enough to feel the spray of the water.
2. Have lunch at a local pub | 1 p.m.
In the nearby town of North Utica, we recommend Skoog's Pub & Grill
, a cozy pub recognizable by the Swedish flag outside. The food inside skews more American than Scandinavian, with everything from battered veggies to barbecue ribs and jumbo wings (try the bourbon and mango-pineapple varieties).
3. Shop for a tough-looking leather jacket | 2 p.m.
The wide, empty roads of North Utica attract their fair share of bikers. Start your own roving biker gang—or at least look the part—by stopping in at Stonehead
for some leather apparel and accessories. The shop stocks tough-looking jackets for kids and adults, along with saddle bags and patches declaring an eternal love for hogs.
4. Test your aim at the outdoor archery range | 4 p.m.
Head back into Matthiessen through the north entrance, which leads to a series of outdoor archery lanes. You'll need to bring your own bow, arrows, and target, but the lanes have giant foam blocks at the ends to catch arrows before they get lost in the woods.
5. Tuck in for the night at a rustic resort | 8 p.m.
When you’re ready to call it a day, head north to Grizzly Jack's Grand Bear Resort
, which features 92 rooms filled with Northwoods-style furnishings and an indoor water park with a wave pool. If you’ve brought your own supplies for camping, the White Oak Campground
offers tent sites where you can roast marshmallows
around the campfire.
6. Start the day with a walk in the woods | 8 a.m.
After a refreshing night’s sleep, head back to Matthiessen through the park’s south entrance, where you’ll find a series of level trails that wind down to the Vermillion River. Though this section of the park lacks the dramatic ups and downs of the canyon, it has everything you need for a peaceful walk in the woods.
7. Cap off your trip with a fresh-baked cupcake | 10 a.m.
What’s better than a fluffy cupcake? A cupcake filled with gooey caramel. Before you leave, make sure to stop by Two Girls and a Cupcake
(723 S. Clark St. in Utica). The shop is hard to miss—just look for the pink tinsel and the unicorn guarding the front door. As for the cupcakes, they’re as unusual as they are delicious, with flavors such as cinnamon roll, key lime pie, and hot-fudge sundae.
Looking for more ways to spend a summer weekend? Check out Getaways to plan your next vacation.
Photos: Stephanie McDaniel, Groupon.