Growing up in Kansas, whenever my family’s summer vacations would take us east on I-70, it was always a thrill to spot the St. Louis Arch from the car. The tallest monument in the U.S., it stands prominently on the edge of downtown St. Louis, towering over the Mississippi River. Back then, the arch was called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, but in 2018 when it became our nation’s 60th national park, the name was changed to Gateway Arch National Park.
Matt and I had visited the memorial years ago when a tangle of freeways and parking structures cut the monument off from the rest of the city. We returned in May of 2019 to get the official national park stamp and to check out the results of its massive multi-year redevelopment project. A partnership of private donations, city, state, and federal funds, and a regional sales tax increase raised $380 million to renovate the grounds and the visitor center. Walking to the park from our Hampton Inn hotel a few blocks away, we noticed the transformation immediately.
New trails and bike paths now wind through the 91-acre park, improving connectivity to surrounding neighborhoods. An interstate once separated The Old Courthouse from the arch, which can now be accessed by a pedestrian land bridge built over the highway. The visitor center and museum have been renovated and expanded to 150,000 square feet and sport a stunning below-ground glass entrance. Every area of the park has been beautifully redone except the iconic arch itself, which has remained untouched for over 50 years.
Construction of the arch was completed in 1965, but the idea for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial originated back in the 1930s as a way to commemorate Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the expansion of the United States, and the men who made it possible. It was built on the site where Lewis and Clark launched their 1804 exploration to find a route across the western half of the continent, commissioned by then-president Jefferson. At the time, St. Louis was the western edge of civilization, the jumping-off point into the wilderness of the newly-acquired Louisiana Territory.
After spending a day exploring this urban park and the surrounding neighborhoods, we put together a list of the highlights:
The new interactive museum at Gateway Arch does a great job of explaining not only the westward expansion of the United States but 201 years of history within six themed exhibit areas: Colonial St. Louis, Jefferson’s Vision, Manifest Destiny, the Riverfront Era, New Frontiers and Building the Arch. With real-life exhibits like village storefronts, covered wagons, and even a life-size statue of a bison, you could spend hours there.
Tram Ride to the Top of the Arch
No visit to the Arch would be complete without taking a ride 630 feet up to the top for amazing views of the city in every direction. The tram system is the same one that was installed in the 1960s, rising up through the inside of the Arch’s hollow legs. Entering one of the small tram cars for the 4-minute ride felt a bit like climbing into an industrial clothes dryer. Once you exit at the top, you’re free to spend as much time up there as you like, returning on any of the trams that leave every 5-10 minutes. Tickets sell out well in advance, so if you’re planning a trip be sure to buy tickets online at https://www.gatewayarch.com/buy-tickets/
One of our favorite things about our day at the park was watching the 35-minute documentary Monument to the Dream. The movie documents the building of the Arch from beginning to end, and the suspense builds as you watch workers build the Arch’s two legs separately and then at the end, the final stainless steel centerpiece is lowered into place. If their measurements had been off by as little as 1/64th of an inch, the Arch would not have connected at the top. Showcasing one of this century’s greatest civil engineering achievements, it’s a look back at what it was like in the 1960s for the men who built the Arch, working at unnerving heights without today’s standard safety gear. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award in 1967 for Best Documentary Short. You can purchase a combo ticket online with your tram ticket or buy a ticket in person at the park.
Lunch in a historic district
There is a new café inside the visitor center, but Matt and I walked over to a neighborhood just north of the park called Laclede’s Landing, nine square blocks of 100-year-old renovated buildings. Once the manufacturing, warehousing and shipping hub of St. Louis, it’s now home to restaurants, bars, and even a brewery. With all the choices, it was hard to decide on a place for lunch, but we settled on a great Mexican restaurant called Mas Tequila Cantina.
The Old Courthouse, built in 1839, is incorporated into Gateway Arch National Park. Two landmark cases were heard in this building: Dred Scott v. Sandford, which argued for African Americans’ equality, and Virginia Minor v. Happersett, which argued for women’s rights. You can wander around inside to see the ornate rotunda, the restored courtrooms, and listen to a park ranger program.
We didn’t have time for a boat ride but if you’re interested, you can travel back in time on a replica 19th-century paddlewheel riverboat with a variety of sightseeing, dinner, and specialty outings from which to choose.
For park hours, directions and all other information, check out the following link: https://www.nps.gov/jeff/index.htm