The Ultimate Guide to Gateway Arch National Park
Let's address the obvious first—Gateway Arch isn't your typical national park. In fact, its signature feature is entirely man-made. Architect Eero Saarinen's iconic, glimmering swoop measures 630 feet both in the air and from base to base, making it the tallest stainless-steel monument in the world. It perches at the edge of downtown St. Louis, overlooking the Mississippi River. Nearly 2 million people a year wander through, snapping selfies, zipping up to the top in space-age pods, and resting city-weary feet in the grass. But you have to wonder: How many of them know this urban attraction is actually one of the country's 63 national parks? Not a national monument or site, but a full-blown, certified national park.
Gateway Arch National Park symbolizes history and American achievement, both good and bad. The gigantic span is an awe-inspiring feat of engineering. Across the street stands the historic courthouse where the Dred Scott case helped set in motion freedom for enslaved people. Located beneath the Arch, the free Museum at the Gateway Arch houses six galleries tracing the history of St. Louis and the diverse people and cultures that have intersected here. Beautifully revamped a few years ago, the exhibits are interactive and honest about the tragic impact of Manifest Destiny on Native Americans. Being the Gateway to the West is a mixed legacy, and this National Park invites you to both marvel at a stunning architectural masterpiece and confront the complex history it honors.
PLAN Because the museum and Arch tour are indoors, Gateway Arch is a totally acceptable place to visit in the dead of winter or the sweltering heat of summer. Tram tickets sell out quickly, so reserve yours in advance.
PACK Other than a comfortable pair of walking shoes (and if you're a little older, a good pair of reading glasses), you don't really need much. And if you do forget anything, you should be able to find a replacement nearby—it's in a major city, after all.
DRIVE Plenty of parking garages within walking distance of the Arch keep things easy. (Just watch out for rush hour traffic or Cardinals game days.) Preferred parking can be found at the Stadium East Garage (a five-minute walk), at a discounted rate for Arch visitors.
RIDE Leave your car parked at the hotel and take the MetroLink light-rail. Exit at either the 8th and Pine or Lacledes Landing stations, then walk 10 minutes to the park. Unlike the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, you'll have signs guiding you the entire way.
FLY St. Louis Lambert International Airport is less than 30 minutes from Gateway Arch National Park. You may even fly over the park on your flight.
TOP OF THE ARCH Take the delightfully retro tram to the top of the 63-story Gateway Arch. The cars are, in a word, intimate—essentially a 5-foot diameter barrel with narrow doors and vertical windows. Each pod seats five people, so you may be riding for several minutes knee-to-knee with strangers. (Concerned about accessibility or claustrophobia? Test out a replica in the west-entrance lobby.) Your reward: On a clear day, you can see nearly 30 miles. And the floor at the top is gently arched, which is pretty cool. Note that wheelchairs and strollers are prohibited on the trams, and you'll need to pass through security before boarding. For anyone unable to take the tram ride, an exhibit in the lobby has a full-scale replica of the Arch observation deck with four monitors providing a 24-hour live feed mirroring the view from the top.
MUSEUM AT THE GATEWAY ARCH Walking through six interactive galleries, you'll learn about the Indigenous and Creole cultures prior to the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition, St. Louis' growth as a center of commerce on the Mississippi River, and a young nation's determination to push its boundaries west. (A large digital map illustrating how the U.S. government repeatedly broke its treaties with Native Americans is particularly resonant.) If you have time, check out the award-winning documentary film about the construction of the Arch.
THE OLD COURTHOUSE Currently closed to the public for renovations, the Old Courthouse is where Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, first sued for their freedom in 1846, arguing that they and their white owners had once lived in free territories. After more than a decade, the case landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the Scotts were considered property and had no legal basis to sue. The decision hastened the start of the Civil War, which ultimately brought the end of slavery in the U.S. The building will reopen in the future with new galleries and exhibits.
CHECK IN The Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch is one of the closest hotels to the park. (Ask for an Arch-facing room for amazing views.) Also close by, The Pennywell, St. Louis Downtown is a newly renovated and rebranded hotel with plenty of historic flair, located in the former Merchants–Laclede Building.
CAMP OUT Less than 6 miles away, Cahokia RV Parque may be the most convenient spot for RVers on a cross-country road trip. Expect the standard campground amenities, plus an on-site barbecue restaurant.
RIVERBOAT CRUISE Want some fresh air while learning about the history of St. Louis and the Mississippi River? These one-hour cruises launch about every 90 minutes throughout the day in summer, with condensed schedules in spring and fall.
FOREST PARK Larger than New York City's Central Park, Forest Park opened in 1876 and was home to the 1904 World's Fair. In addition to 1,300 acres of green space, it's home to the Saint Louis Zoo, Art Museum, Missouri History Museum and Science Center (all free to visit).
GREAT RIVERS GREENWAY The 15-mile Mississippi Greenway stretches from the Arch to the historic Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. It also connects to 7 additional miles of paved trails on the Arch grounds.
ULYSSES S. GRANT NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE Grant, who would later lead the Union army and become the 18th President of the United States, met his future wife, Julia Dent, at her family home, known as White Haven. Today it's one of the primary attractions at this historic site, celebrating Grant's life and times.
CITY MUSEUM This former shoe warehouse's jungle of coiled climbing structures and tunnels is a sculptural playground for adults and kids alike. It all culminates in a 10-story-tall spiral slide. You might leave with a couple scrapes and bruises, but that's the totally worth-it price you pay. (Wear long pants.)