Visiting St. Louis

A Day at the Arch

The Gateway Arch is an iconic monument to visit in St. Louis

By Nancy Milton

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Like many St. Louisans I was excited to make plans to bring my visiting family to the Gateway Arch. While New Yorkers may not go to the top of the Empire State Building, St. Louis residents are proud and regular visitors to the Arch on their Mississippi Riverfront, especially when they have friends or relatives coming to town.

I was happy to find in my research that the Gateway Arch National Park has been reimagined for the future in a spectacular way, both inside and out. Opened in 1965, well before my guests were born, the Arch has been welcoming visitors from around the world to its perch high over the Mississippi River for more than a half century. I love to watch the river, so it’s my favorite spot in St. Louis, and now it’s at the center of a 380-million dollar transformation.

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Rising to new heights

Access to the National Park was easy. I brought my relatives—an aunt and two young cousins—into the visitor center and museum from the new western entrance facing the city. Walking down a wide expanse of curving paths, the cousins tried to find exactly the right spot for a selfie with the nation’s tallest man-made monument.

I was determined to prove to my youngest guests—more interested in video games than a museum—that St. Louis was one of the most interesting historic cities in the nation. Inside the visitor center, a huge floor map of the United States displayed the Mississippi and Missouri river routes and highlighted western trails that took explorers and pioneers from St. Louis into the unknown west. The kids walked their way across it from sea to shining sea.

We had purchased our tickets ahead of time online to make sure we could get the tram ride time we wanted, to the top of the 630-foot-tall monument. While we waited for the tram, we wandered into the new museum and found ourselves swept back to 1764 when French colonial St. Louis was founded.

A statue of Lewis & Clark’s expedition outside the Gateway Arch.

My young cousins made good use of all the touchable and interactive elements in the museum’s six themed galleries that allowed us to travel through time. They peeked at each other through the doorways of a reconstructed vertical log house in the Colonial St. Louis area. The Jefferson’s Vision section let them follow along with the adventures of the Lewis & Clark expedition sent by President Jefferson to explore the Louisiana Purchase and establish a route to the Pacific Ocean. Models and murals of steamboats brought old St. Louis to life as a busy American trading port in The Riverfront Era gallery. The experiences of those impacted by western migration are heard in the Manifest Destiny section of the museum, and industrialization’s impact on American Indian lands is shown in New Frontiers. Awed, the kids listened to the stories of workers who constructed the monument in the Building the Gateway Arch gallery and saw the architect’s original model.

All of the museum’s touchable exhibits incorporated little tidbits of information pulled from diaries, journals and newspaper accounts of the lives of St. Louis’ earliest residents. We marveled at an original Wells Fargo stagecoach, restored to its glossy red showroom shine. Alongside the coach, an 1877 column from the Omaha Herald newspaper was filled with sassy frontier travel tips. The writer noted that the best seat on a stagecoach is next to the driver and that passengers should always “spit on the leeward side of the coach.” That elicited a fit of giggles from the little visitors. “Sit still and take your chances” if the horses run away, the tipster wrote, as jumping from a runaway stage will “always result in injury.”

And we thought airline travel was painful!

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Trip to the top

Our tram time had arrived. The ride to the top of the Arch takes four and a half minutes. The four of us climbed into a small capsule which looked like an industrial washing machine, the metal doors clanged shut and we were on our way, ratcheting our way up the inside of the monument’s south leg. A small window showed us the internal guts of the Arch—reinforced concrete—and we came to a stop 630 feet in the air. At the top, the kids looked out the windows to the east to see the Mississippi with its barge traffic and tourist paddlewheelers. To the west, they shouted when they saw Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, and the rest of the downtown sights displayed so far below them.

When we got back to solid land—three and a half minutes to the base with the help of gravity—I checked to see if the day had opened the kids’ eyes to the romance of the past. “Now what do you think of St. Louis?” I asked.

“You were right, it rocks here!” said the kids as they ran off toward the visitor center’s new cafe. Their mom smiled and gave me a conspiratorial smile. The transformation from disinterested gamers to future history buffs was complete and totally painless.

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Our tips for a monumental experience

Make your Arch tram ticket reservations online before you arrive to ensure you’ll get to the top during your visit. Popular times for the ride to the top of the monument tend to fill up quickly.

If you have mobility issues that make it difficult to take the trip to the top of the Arch, step into the new keystone exhibit where you can experience the look, feel and view from the summit via live webcams.

You’ll get a 30-mile panoramic view of St. Louis from the top of the Arch. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the tram is open until 10 p.m., so you can see the city’s lights from high above.

The entire Arch experience is enhanced by viewing the 30-minute documentary, “Monument to the Dream,” which follows the amazing engineering and construction of the Gateway Arch. You can buy these tickets in advance.

Before or after your ride to the Arch summit, visit the Old Courthouse to see where the infamous Dred Scott slavery trials began and pushed the nation toward civil war.

Check the calendar for your visit. Special events take place on the Arch grounds and in the amphitheater at the north end of the park. Annual events include Fair St. Louis over the Fourth of July holiday, Blues at the Arch concerts in August and the Arch Bark dog festival in October.

More than five miles of walking and biking paths are part of the outdoor Arch experience. Bikes can be rented from a kiosk along the river and you can ride the Riverfront Trail stretching 10 miles to the north. 

Experience a day at the iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis