What to Expect at Gateway Arch National Park


Last Updated on February 22, 2024 by Grant

You can’t miss the Gateway Arch as you cross the Mississippi River into St. Louis. This immense monument dominates the skyline and symbolizes exactly what the city was: the gateway to the West.

Originally called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, it was redesignated as Gateway Arch National Park in 2018 and is now the smallest named National Park in the country. 

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis
Gateway Arch

Constructed of stainless steel and concrete, this parabolic arch stands 630 feet tall, is hollow in the middle to allow for a tram system and designed to sway up to 18 inches in high winds or an earthquake. 

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Visiting Gateway Arch National Park

Gateway Arch is located right in heart of downtown St. Louis, along the Mississippi River, so visiting it takes a little bit of work to get there. There is no dedicated parking lot at the Gateway Arch, so be sure to look for one of the many parking lots and decks in downtown St. Louis when arriving. You’ll need to be prepared to walk a few blocks after parking.

We have visited the Gateway Arch twice. The first time the visitor center was quite crowded with normal summer traffic. The second visit, in June 2021, saw fewer crowds due to COVID and visiting on a Tuesday. 

Behind the scenes of Grant taking a picture of the Gateway Arch.
Grant taking a picture of the Gateway Arch.

The visitor center is actually located below ground right between the legs of the arch. Here you can get tickets to ride up into the arch, watch the movie about the arch or go on a riverboat tour. You can get tickets in advance and I recommend doing that.

There is an extensive museum about the migration west and the role St. Louis played as the gateway city. 

Inside the museum underneath the Gateway Arch
The museum inside the visitor center had several excellent exhibits on westward expansion.

In addition to the Gateway Arch and the visitor center, the park also preserves the Old Courthouse, which is where the Dred Scott decision was made, and the Old Cathedral, which is still an active Catholic Church.

The Museum and the Film

The museum has a number of exhibits detailing the history of St. Louis and the impact of westward expansion, both on the settlers and the tribes who lived there. 

In particular, I found the exhibit on the women of St. Louis before the Louisiana Purchase quite interesting. Did you know that the women of St. Louis (and the rest of the Louisiana Purchase for that matter) lost freedoms when the US bought the land from France? Indeed, women in St. Louis lost property rights after marriage along with other freedoms when they became American citizens.

The museum had many exhibits on westward expansion and St. Louis.
Inside the museum underneath the Gateway Arch.

The movie, on the other hand, tells the story of how the amazing construction crew turned designer Eero Saarinen’s breathtaking design into reality… all without wearing any safety harnesses. 

This is one movie you don’t want to miss. While the production value is dated, the footage from the construction of the arch is dizzying… and electrifying. There were so many moments in the film I was awed by what had to be done to make this amazing feat reality. 

Riding the Tram to the Top of the Gateway Arch

Because of COVID, our experience riding up to the top of the arch was a bit different than a normal visit. In addition to wearing masks the entire time, they also significantly limited the number of folks who could go to the top.

The tram (which is a marvel of engineering itself) allows five people per “pod.” Due to COVID, the Park Service limited the trams to one family group per pod, so we had the pod to ourselves. 

The Gateway Arch uses these tram cars to go to the observation deck at the top.
Inside the tram car going up inside the Gateway Arch.

The pods are tight. With 5 people in there, I am sure it would feel a lot tighter. That said, the doors are glass so you can see the interior of the arch as you ascend. The tram takes 4 minutes to ascend the arch, 3 minutes to descend. 

Normally, you could spend unlimited time at the top of the arch. With COVID restrictions, the Park Service limited us to 10 minutes and we had to “stay in our lane” of one set of east- and west-facing windows. 

Grant and Bonnie pose for a selfie at the top of the Gateway Arch.
Selfie at the top of the Gateway Arch. You can see how narrow the viewing windows are behind us.

Honestly, this system worked great. We were able to enjoy the top, take plenty of pictures and felt like we had plenty of time at the top. We recommend some variation of this system be employed in the future. 

The view at the top is spectacular but a bit confined. The viewing windows are not that large but they do provide a great view in both directions. The space at the top is a bit cramped but was not too bad based upon the reduced number of folks at the top. I have heard in the past it could get quite crowded. 

The narrow windows atop the Gateway Arch offer a great view.
Looking east at the Mississippi River and Illinois.

Bonnie has issues with heights and did not have any issues at the top of the Gateway Arch. I have issues with tight spaces and felt a bit confined in the tram pod. With only two of us, it wasn’t too bad, though. Had our pod been full, I likely would have felt differently.

Smaller crowds due to COVID made for a much less crowded experience at the top of the arch.
One of the best parts of the COVID restrictions is smaller group sizes at the top. It was really quite pleasant.

Where to Stay and Eat

Visiting the Gateway Arch means spending a good part of the day in downtown St. Louis. While the visitor center does have a cafe, we chose to grab lunch at Salt + Smoke, a local BBQ joint just a few blocks away. Boy, are we glad we did!

We started off with a couple of their specialty cocktails, a Manhattan for Bonnie and a Salt + Smoke for me… Wow, the cocktail paired perfectly with the BBQ I had and the smoky Scotch used in it (Laphroaig 10) was perfect. 

A BBQ plate with chicken, pork, brisket and ribs from Salt and Smoke
A BBQ plate with chicken, pork, brisket and ribs from Salt and Smoke

We decided to split an appetizer (Hush Puppies) and a four-meat plate. It was tremendous. We had ribs, chicken, pork and brisket (burnt ends) and two sides, mac n’cheese and pit beans. 

Wow! All of it was delicious. We highly recommend Salt + Smoke. 

In terms of where to stay, there are plenty of hotels in downtown St. Louis, including some great Hilton properties, which we always recommend. 

Book a Hilton Hotel | Read TripAdvisor Reviews

Since we had the camper, we were looking for a campground and did not find many we liked close to downtown. So, we ended up at the Babler Memorial State Park, about 40 minutes from downtown. 

Our camper at Babler Memorial State Park
Our campsite at Babler Memorial State Park

The campground here was great. In terms of connections, the sites only offer electric, with some offering 50-amp connections. That said, there is a dump station and fresh water fill station as well as a bathhouse. 

It was the perfect place to stay for a few nights while we visited Gateway Arch and Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.

Read about our visit to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.

Final Thoughts on Visiting the Gateway Arch National Park

Gateway Arch National Park is one of those things you have seen a bunch from a distance and think you know but seeing it up close gives you a new respect for the site.

Getting up close and personal with this engineering marvel definitely changed how I felt about visiting it. Seeing the arch from the inside and watching the movie on how it was made really added a lot to my experience. 

Gotta take a selfie when visiting the Arch!
Selfie at the Gateway Arch

I typically am more impressed with nature than man-made creations but the arch truly is a wonder. I really wish we still made wonders like this. 

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