Bluff Trail Loop

Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

Trip Date: Sunday, March 15th, 2020
Last Updated: Thursday, May 21st, 2020
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★☆(4/5)
Overall Difficulty Moderate
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 2 miles roundtrip
Time 1.5 hours
Terrain Hilly
Best Seasons Spring, Summer, Fall
Family Friendly Yes
Dog Friendly Yes
Accessible No


Hike Summary

Just down the road from Starved Rock State Park, you'll find the slightly less popular but equally scenic Matthiessen State Park and one of the prettiest hikes near Chicago. Because the parking lots here are much smaller than at Starved Rock State Park, fewer people will disrupt your experience in nature even when the lots are packed. This hike along the Bluff Trail takes you through the dramatic sandstone dells this part of Illinois is famous for and passes three majestic waterfalls.

Adjacent to the trailhead stands a historic stockade -- take a look inside before starting your hike. The trail begins by descending the hill to a bridge crossing the dells. Beneath the bridge, you can glimpse a waterfall that you'll see later in the hike. Turn right on the trail just before the bridge to enter the dells; on the official map linked at the bottom of the page, this is labeled as an "interior trail". The trail follows the creek, and you'll enjoy views of sandstone walls surrounding you, as pictured below.

Moss adorns the sandstone walls

Moss adorns the sandstone walls

The creek you're currently following is responsible for eroding the fantastic sandstone formations pictured below. It's amazing that such a small, slow-flowing creek can do so much damage given the time!
The creek here eroded these sandstone walls

The creek here eroded these sandstone walls

One "fun" part of the trail is the many creek crossings (legitimately fun when it's warm out, just "fun" when it's cold). Like pictured below, most of the crossings are less than ideal, with small rocks and the occasional plank spaced a bit too far apart for comfort. Protip: if it's warm enough, don't bother trying to keep your shoes dry and just walk in the creek -- it's much easier than trying to hop from tiny rock to tiny rock.
Precarious creek crossings are a hallmark of this trail

Precarious creek crossings are a hallmark of this trail

At the spot labeled Cedar Point on the official map, the trail splits. Continue following the creek for the more scenic route. Eventually, you'll reach a particularly sketchy creek crossing onto the island of tangled tree roots in the first picture below. On the other side of the island, you can see the small waterfall in the secondn picture below.
A gnarly web of tree roots on an island in the creek

A gnarly web of tree roots on an island in the creek

Mossy rocks and a small waterfall

Mossy rocks and a small waterfall

After walking up a set of stairs and passing the small waterfall, you'll see lake falls and the high bridge, as pictured below. You can walk closer to the waterfall if you want, but it's hard to do so without getting your feet wet. (I did see a woman wrap plastic shopping bags around her feet if you want to try that cheap method)
The majestic Lake Falls

The majestic Lake Falls

After walking up the stairs, turn right for a quick detour to the bridge. There, you can see a Matthiessen Lake (first picture below) and a top-down view of Lake Falls (second picture below). You'll also unfortunately discover that this pretty waterfall isn't natural and is created by the dam on the lake.
The algae-covered Matthiessen Lake

The algae-covered Matthiessen Lake

Looking down on Lake Falls

Looking down on Lake Falls

Turn back around on the bridge, then continue following the trail on the edge of the dells. Further down and on your left, you'll pass the bridge you saw at the beginning of the hike. The trail winds around and eventually crosses a narrower footbridge. Go down the winding concrete stairs on the other side of the bridge to enter the lower dells. Follow the creek, and you'll end at Cascade Falls and some spectacular sandstone formations, as pictured below. This scenery was the highlight of my hike.
Cascade Falls is surrounded by awesome sandstone cliffs

Cascade Falls is surrounded by awesome sandstone cliffs

When you're done enjoying the waterfall, head back up the concrete stairs and turn left. You'll pass the Devil's Paint Box, a multicolored sandstone formation and Strawberry Rock, which actually does look like a strawberry. The hike ends back at the first bridge, and your tired legs will power up the final hill back to the parking lot.

Though the trail isn't particularly long, it's packed with scenic content. The rock formations may not be as impressive as in Starved Rock State Park, but I think the waterfalls here are better. Visit both and decide for yourself! Connect with me using the social media links below and share your adventures!

Important Information

Dogs are allowed on leash. This is a great hike for kids with its beautiful sights and many opportunities to play in the creek. You can hike this trail in the three warmer seasons, but I would avoid it in the winter because the stairs will be dangerously icy. While not as popular as nearby Starved Rock State Park, this park is usually busy and you should expect to see many people on your hike.


From Chicago, take Interstate 55 south to Interstate 80 west. After about an hour and a half of driving, take the exit for Illinois Highway 178, then turn left. Continue straight through North Utica and over the bridge. Look for a sign for Matthiessen State Park, then turn right and park in the lot at the end of the road.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Parking is free! There are flush toilets, water fountains, a historic fort, and a picnic area near the parking lot.

Nearby Hikes

The waterfall at the end of LaSalle Canyon
Lover's Leap and LaSalle Canyon Loop
Starved Rock State Park, Illinois
Rocky Glen Waterfall and Des Plaines River Overlook
Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, Illinois
Pierce Lake as seen from the trail
Pierce Lake Loop
Rock Cut State Park, Illinois
Indian Head
Mississippi Palisades State Park, Illinois

External Links