If you follow along much with our blog, you know that Natalie is trying to check national parks off her bucket list. Though I had my June vacation off work, I didn’t want to spend all of it out of state. After all, there’s so much to see and do in Ohio.
Together, we decided on a visit to St Louis to spend one day at Gateway Arch National Park and check it off her list. All together, we decided to spend three days in St Louis, just enough time to visit the park and explore the city.
One Day at Gateway Arch National Park
At 93 acres, the Gateway Arch National Park is the smallest of all the national parks. The arch was completed and was opened in 1965 as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.
It was revitalized and rebranded as the Gateway Arch National Park in 2018 and as such is one of the newer parks in the national parks system. Should Gateway Arch qualify as a national park? If you do much scouting around online, you’ll see that this is a hotly contested designation.
It’s not my job to settle that debate. For Natalie’s purposes, Gateway Arch is a national park and was therefore on her bucket list. While not as compelling as our visit to Yosemite, or her visit to Mount Rainer, it does hold value to visitors.
A Brief History of the Gateway Arch
The idea of a National Park Service property was initially introduced in the 1930s. At the time, the US government was looking for a suitable spot for a memorial for Thomas Jefferson who, among other things, was instrumental in the expansion of our country.
St Louis seemed to be a natural spot for a monument to Jefferson and westward expansion as it was the starting point for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. A spot was planned on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Construction of the project began with excavation in 1961 and the pouring of the foundations the following year. The project was completed in 1965 and was dedicated by Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
Gateway Arch: The Size of It
At 630 feet, the Gateway Arch is the tallest monument in the United States. For comparison, the Statue of Liberty stands at 305 feet.
Looking for a comparison a little closer to home? Terminal Tower in Cleveland comes in at 771 feet, Great American Tower in Cincinnati is 665 feet and the Rhodes Office Tower in Columbus tops out at 629 feet.
The base of the arch is also 630 feet wide, with each leg measuring 54 feet in width. The arch narrows at the top to a width of 17 feet.
Pod Ride to the Top
Did you know that you can ride to the top of the Arch? A unique pod system exists that takes visitors inside and to the top of the arch.
The pods are fairly small, but fit up to five visitors per pod. Be sure to duck as I hit my head, not just once, but twice. The pods do not go from one side of the arch to the other as I incorrectly believed. Rather, your ticket will indicate your trip to the top via either the north or south tram. In other words, you’ll come back down the same way you went up.
We were assigned the north tram, but were shifted to the south tram as it was the only one open that morning. After the short ride to the top, we were afforded ten minutes in the small room at the top of the Arch.
There are small peepholes at the top on both sides of the Arch, providing views of both the Mississippi River and alternatively the city of St Louis and the Old Courthouse. Unfortunately, on the day of our trip it was rainy in the city. The windows, or peepholes, were mostly clouded with condensation. We had to pick around a bit between the windows, but eventually got a fairly good view from either side.
Check out the website and purchase your tickets ahead. The cost to ride to the top was $19 plus fees, but it was nice to not have to worry about ticketing on the day of our visit.
The Old Courthouse is usually part of the Gateway Arch National Park experience. Unfortunately during our visit, the Old Courthouse was closed for renovations. A quick check of the National Park Service website didn’t yield a completion date for the project.
You may remember from history class learning about the Dred Scott decision. Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, had been enslaved in Missouri but taken to the free (non-slave holding) state of Illinois.
Dred and Harriet each filed claims in Missouri for their freedom and that of their daughters, based on the fact that they had been held as slaves in a free state. Eventually their cases were combined and the trial was held at the Old Courthouse. Through trials and appeals, eventually the US Supreme Court ruled against the Scotts. Their case, however, was an important piece of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
(Note: forgive me for providing an oversimplification of the case. There are a number of books and websites on the subject. My site is not intended to dive deep into historic matters, especially those that did not take place in Ohio. I just wanted to provide enough of the story to establish relevance to the Old Courthouse.)
Riverboats and a View Across the River
As part of your visit to the Gateway Arch, you can purchase tickets to riverboat rides on the Mississippi River. There are a number of options including lunch or dinner cruises. The rides are narrated by a National Park Service employee and features information about the arch and the city of St Louis.
We had full intentions of taking a riverboat ride and purchased tickets for the one hour cruise. Unfortunately all cruises were cancelled for the day after the riverboat developed engine problems. Though we were a little disappointed, we were offered a full refund.
If you’d like to look across the river at the Arch, a nice view is provided by the Malcolm W. Martin park on the Illinois side of the River. There is an observation platform there that allows a nice view of both the Arch and the Old Courthouse.
Gateway Arch Museum
After our travels to the top of the Arch, we spent some time inside the visitor center at the museum. While I expected a quick review of the Arch and the building process, I was surprised to find a museum centered not only on the Arch but on the early days of our country and the expansion West.
Leave yourself at least an hour or two to explore the museum, which is very well done. I found that I learned a good bit about the expansion through Missouri and onward to the Pacific coast. In fact, I think the museum is actually the crown jewel of the park.
Considerable exhibits focused on the plight of Native Americans, on the early riverboat days of St Louis and on the exploration of the western United States. Several of the exhibits were interactive and children through senior citizens would enjoy the visit.
Explore St. Louis
If you’re spending even one day visiting Gateway Arch National Park, you’ll want to check out a bit of St. Louis as well. The area around the Arch is very walkable and there’s lots to eat and do. You can check out our article on our St. Louis visit. If you have plenty of energy, you’ll want to check out the City Museum and you can’t leave town without trying some St. Louis legendary barbecue.
Should Gateway Arch be a National Park?
We won’t be settling this debate today or, for that matter, any time in the future. Does it fit into a category with Yosemite, Yellowstone or the Great Smoky Mountains? I’d have to say no as they are natural wonders on a giant scale, each encompassing thousands of acres.
But the Gateway Arch National Park is an important piece of the puzzle of our United States. I would say that of all the National Parks I’ve visited, the museum at Gateway certainly provides the best visitor center experience. It’s definitely worth a visit and visiting the grounds and museum are completely free.
Thanks for FindingOhio and beyond with us. My passion is traveling our state and finding unique things to do, see and learn. Natalie, on the other hand, has a passion for exploring our nation’s national parks. We’ll be using this blog to bring you a little of each one.
Looking for more of Natalie’s adventures in the national parks? Check out her visit to Kenai Fjords in Alaska, Yosemite in California or Shenandoah in Virginia. Looking for something a little closer to home? We visited Ohio’s only national park at Cuyahoga Valley and we explored a true gem in our state park system at Hocking Hills.
No matter where you adventure, check back with us frequently as we’re posting new adventures every week. And remember, we appreciate it when you share our content to your social media. Together, we can tell everyone about our great state.