Exploring St. Louis’s Gateway Arch National Park

While you’ll never convince us that St. Louis’s Gateway Arch should have been upgraded to a National Park from its previous National Monument status (and even the Department of the Interior, who oversees the National Park Service, agrees), it is nevertheless an impressive structure and definitely a great tourist destination. The monument was established in 1935 to commemorate “Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a transcontinental United States,” and its arch was completed in 1965 (opened to the public in 1967). A recent renovation of the grounds and museum have transformed the park and better connected it to the city.

The park itself, on the banks of the Mississippi River, contains only 91 acres, making it – by far – the smallest unit in the NPS system. It consists of the arch and its surrounding grounds, which extend west to include the Old Courthouse and Luther Ely Smith Square. Its small size ensures that you can surely see the whole of it in less than a day. 

The arch was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. A unique structure, it is 630 feet tall and built out of equilateral steel triangles welded together. (If you’re really into math, you might be interested to know that it takes the shape of an inverted catenary curve!) 1,076 steps climb to the top of the arch … but, luckily, you don’t have to climb the stairs if you want to get to the top – the stairs are for emergency use only. Instead, you ride up in a little (and I do mean little) tram car. The tram car design was created by elevator man named Dick Bowser. Extremely tricky because of the shape of the arch, I believe it was the first of its kind. The original system is still in use today.

We traveled to the top of the arch in one of these little cars, and it was an experience. I (Erin) do not normally find myself fearful of small spaces, but this time I would have to say I was a little unnerved. The cars hold five adults, knee to knee (luckily, there were only four in ours!). Tall people may have to hunch a bit depending on which spot they get in the car. It takes four minutes to get to the top. Four minutes can be a long time. Once at the top, you exit the tram cars and enter the viewing gallery which spans the top of the arch. It has 32 small windows (which can be seen from the outside if you know to look for them) that allow visitors to look straight down to the ground. If you lean forward onto the window it is really like you are leaning out over the ground. I thought the coolest thing from up there was seeing the shadow of the arch on the ground. I also liked how the gallery floor at the top curves along with the arch. (I guess I expected it to be flat!) It was interesting to be up there that high and look out, and I’m glad I did it…and I do not need to do it again. On the other hand, this was Jeff’s fourth trip to the top!

The museum below the arch is well done and very interesting. It has lots of information on the arch design competition, planning process, and construction. This truly was a feat of engineering! There’s also a lot of information on the tram design and operation. The museum also includes information about St. Louis history, the Lewis and Clark Expedition (which began and ended in St. Louis), and westward expansion of the United States.

Unfortunately, the Old Courthouse was closed for renovations during our visit, but outside there is a statue of Dred and Harriet Scott, who filed a slavery-challenging lawsuit there which was, eventually and reprehensibly, denied by the US Supreme Court. Behind the courthouse, look back to the east for a great arch photo opportunity. (And, just west of the courthouse, don’t miss a great city park, Citygarden, with all kinds of giant sculptures, fountains, and music!)

The park area immediately around the arch is peaceful and nice for walking. There are a couple of reflecting ponds, lots of grassy areas, and several walking paths. Stairs lead down to the banks of the Mississippi River. The far end of the south pond offers beautiful reflections of the arch. (Of course, that was one of my favorite spots to photograph the arch.) There is also another beautiful spot to photograph the arch: across the river at Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park in East St. Louis, Illinois. It’s about a 40 minute walk from the arch to that park via the Eads Bridge, but there’s free parking available if you choose to drive.

The park is directly across the Mississippi River from the arch, and has a nice elevated viewing tower – with a statue of Malcolm himself seated on the bench at the top, enjoying the great view of the Gateway Arch. Daily at noon from Memorial Day through Labor Day, a big fountain in the park – the “Gateway Geyser” – shoots up as high as the Gateway Arch itself. Another fun thing at this park is a webcam atop the viewing tower. Call your friends and have them get online to watch you and the arch in real time. Pretty cool, and free!

All in all, even though our enjoyable visit didn’t convince us that Gateway Arch should be a national park, this beautiful engineering masterpiece is definitely worth seeing. (It’s park #51 of 63 for us!)

Enjoy your next visit to a national park, whether it’s for a day, a week, or a weekend!


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