Gateway Arch National Park.

While there are many things to do in STL, the main attraction is, of course, the Saint Louis Arch. I’ve gone up the Arch twice, with both experiences being pretty much the same, other than being 8-months pregnant the second time. Located at 11 North 4th Street St. Louis, MO, it’s right across the Mississippi River, and can be seen from miles away in both Missouri and Illinois. Officially named Gateway Arch National Park, it’s known locally almost exclusively as simply “the Arch”. It’s open daily from 9am to 6pm, with a $3 entrance fee, and it costs $10 per ticket to ride to the top.

As mentioned, the Arch sits right on the river, with many areas to park around it. If you don’t get lucky and snag a street spot, there is a large parking garage nearby, although it will require a bit of a walk. Once at the base of the Arch, you must first go underground, down a very mild slope, leading to where the museum, gift shop, bathrooms, vending machines, and access to the top are all located. The Museum at the Gateway Arch is very interesting, covering around 201 years of westward expansion with an emphasis on St. Louis’s role in it, along with a great informative video that covers the history and construction of the Arch – highly recommend.

The area of the Arch between the two bases. You can see the underground entrance, where everything is located. The bridge in the background connects Missouri and Illinois.

The history of the Arch is rather fascinating, as St. Louis played a major role in the expansion of the United States, with the city considered to be a literal “Gateway to the West” (now the Arch’s nickname). The Arch is located near the starting point of the famous Lewis & Clerk Expedition, which is widely considered responsible for the continued push out West. It was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen and built by German-American structural engineer Hannskarl Bandel. It was designed in 1947, but construction didn’t begin for another 16 years, in 1963. It then took only two years to build, completing in 1965, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places just one year later, in 1966. It took 52 years for the federal government to upgrade it to a National Park, which they finally did in 2018.

As for going up it – you definitely trust your life to the engineers and elevator mechanics who built it. I’ll be completely honest, it’s not fun being inside one of the elevators. Officially referred to as a “tram” by the NPS, they’re more akin to small, egg-like pods, snugly fitting 5 adults. Since the Arch is built at an angle, you go up at an angle, which can be slightly nauseating and uncomfortable. There are no windows and all you can hear are the mechanical noises of the elevator going up. If you are legitimately claustrophobic it may not be the best idea.

Pod door: Only the white part opens and is probably 5 feet tall.

Be forewarned – both times I’ve gone it’s been PACKED, so getting on and off the elevators was a tedious process. The line to get on was long and slow, and there’s very limited space at the top, so getting off was quite difficult. The elevator pods at the top are positioned at a downward angle, perpendicular with a staircase that extends the entire length, and people will be waiting all along this staircase trying to secure a spot. You must – literally – push through them while exiting the pod, as there is nowhere else for them (or you) to go. It does not seem like the best procedure, in my opinion.

One of the teeny tiny observation windows at the top of the Arch.
Inside the base of the Arch, near the Museum store.

Once you “this is Sparta!” your way out and make it up the stairs, the actual observation room is considerably bigger than the narrow staircase. Here is where you can see for miles and miles. To the west is Saint Louis and to the east is East Saint Louis, Illinois. There’s really nothing to see on the ESTL side, except an aerial view of the Mississippi River. On the STL side, you can see a lot – all of downtown; the Old Courthouse; “The Dome at America’s Center”, which is the now-former Saint Louis Rams former football stadium; Busch Stadium, home of the Cardinals baseball team; the Wainwright Building, which was one of the first skyscrapers in the world, although it wouldn’t be considered a skyscraper by today’s terms; and much more.

View of downtown and Old Courthouse.
View of downtown, Cardinals stadium, and beyond.

One last thing about the Arch – it sways. It sways while you’re up there and you can feel it. However, don’t be alarmed. As mentioned, be sure to watch the video offered inside the museum which explains its history and construction. It’ll explain that it’s designed to sway and without that design element, it wouldn’t be able to stand the test of time. As you can see from the picture on the right, the middle part is very thin at the tip-top, and that is where the observation deck is located. This photo illustrates well the curvature the small elevator pods must take to reach the top.

Overall, if you’re ever in St. Louis or the surrounding area, take a few hours to visit this magnificent feat in structural engineering. The Arch is such an iconic American landmark, and one of the easiest National Parks to traverse, so passing it up would be a shame. There is more to do around the Arch, like the Old Courthouse (one of the oldest buildings in St. Louis and the site of the infamous Dred Scott case) and various shops and restaurants in nearby downtown. If you’re on a road-trip, the Arch is literally right off the highway. Don’t pass up this historical mindbender!

When you’re cheap and take a picture of a picture. 🙃

Leave a Reply