When Don and I were newlyweds, we visited the Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis (which back then was called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial – the name was changed February of this year). It was summer so we walked around the arch and ventured inside to see the exhibits. However, the tram ride to the top was booked solid, so we weren’t able to go. We also didn’t have our passport books then, so when we came back to Missouri in June, we knew we’d be making another trip to the Arch to get that stamp in our books and finally see the view from the top.
About the Arch
The Arch is a memorial to Thomas Jefferson for his role in “opening the West”, but also to the pioneers and to Dred Scott (who sued for his freedom at the Old Courthouse). It was built in the 19th century, and I’m amazed at the monument they w
ere able to erect back then. The Arch is 630 feet tall and also 630 feet wide at ground level. It is 63 stories high and was designed to sway 18 inches either way (although it rarely does). It was also designed to withstand an earthquake.
The entire memorial is 91 acres – 62 acres is the Arch and surrounding grounds (for picnics, etc), and the remaining 30 acres includes the Old Courthouse and surrounding streets. While the grounds are frequently overlooked as part of the memorial, they were part of the original plan to “enhance the graceful lines of the structure” and include a pond and many walkways for visitors to enjoy.
We decided to go while Don was on leave so that we could go on a week day instead of a more crowded weekend. We chose a tram time of 11:40, so that we had time to arrive, park, and walk to the Arch. It was the perfect time, because by the time we arrived and went through security, it was 11:40 almost on the dot and we were able to get into a short line for the tram to take us to the top.
I don’t quite know what I was expecting, but I was pretty shocked by the whole experience to the top. They start with a short introduction by a tour guide, then we were placed in corrals in front of tiny little doors to board the tram. Each pod holds 6 people, but the guide was nice enough to let our family have our own because we “had our hands full” (aka what everyone says about twins).
The pod to go up is TINY, and there’s a glass door so you can see the insides of the Arch (aka the stairs/some maintenance areas) while you take the four minute ride to the top. I’m glad it’s short, because elevators make me nervous and the thought of something breaking and us plummeting 63 stories made me pretty nervous. Don said that the trams are on a belt so that wouldn’t happen, but I was still thankful to get out of there.
The TOP of the Arch can hold 160 people, but I think that would be a super tight squeeze. It’s basically a walkway with windows on either side so you can see the out towards St. Louis or over the river and into Illinois. Again, I don’t know what I was expecting, but I definitely thought it would be bigger, or that there would be exhibits at the top. Literally the only thing to do was look out the windows. We took some pictures and then got in line to take the tram back down.
Honestly, I don’t know if I’d recommend going up to the top. It’s $10 a person and includes a lot of waiting in line depending on the day/time. We waited probably 20 minutes in security plus another 10 in line for the “tour” and then probably 10 more waiting for the tram to come back down. So 40ish minutes (on a week day in the off season) to spend maybe 10 minutes at the top? I don’t like my time being wasted and I kind of felt like it was.
If you are like me and don’t want to “waste your time”, you can pay $3 to get inside the Arch and then see all the exhibits which I DO think are worth the time. (If you are military, under 16 years old, or have an “America the Beautiful” Pass, the entrance to the Arch is FREE but the tram is not).
If You Go
- Check out the Old Courthouse which serves as the welcome center for the park and has some extra exhibits.
- Book your tickets online in advance. That way you can choose your time AND avoid waiting in line to buy them
- Go early in the morning. We went at 11:40 and had a 20 minute wait for security. When we left at 12:40, the line to get into the arch was twice as long.
- DON’T GO to the top if you are claustrophobic or afraid of elevators! The tram ride to the top is very tiny and you will probably be in it with strangers. It’s only a 4 minute ride, but I was not a huge fan (also not a fan of elevators)
- Expect to walk at least a quarter mile. The closest parking we found was pretty full, but was still at least a 5-10 minute walk from the entrance. We parked in public parking about 1/2 a mile away and walked.
- You CAN take strollers in and leave them at the base of the tram. (I wish we had known that before we carried the kids 1/2 mile to the arch)
- Leave 15-20 minutes to get through security. No guns, weapons (pepper spray, knives, etc) alcohol, or pets allowed. The line to get through security is OUTSIDE so if it’s overcast bring a raincoat and if it’s super hot, bring a hat or sunscreen.
- The exhibits are worth going even if you don’t go up to the arch. Our first visit we only went to the exhibits and still spent a solid hour or so. Plus the outdoor area is beautiful on a nice day.
*Currently, the Arch is under construction. Some of the exhibits normally at the Arch have been relocated to the Old Courthouse, but not all of them. The only things to do in the Arch are 1. take the tram to the top and 2. go to the gift shop. It would be worth it to wait a few months until the construction is complete and the exhibits have returned.