Here is the complete guide to the Gateway Arch National Park. The Arch and surrounding grounds has been designated as the USA’s 60th National Park, right here in St. Louis, Missouri! Here’s what you need to know before visiting.
As a St. Louis native, I’m very excited to introduce you guys to America’s 60th National Park!
On February 22, 2018, a new national park was officially created (well, re-designated). As of August 2019, the U.S. now has 61 National Parks, one of the latest additions being Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, Missouri. (Indian Dunes National Park is the 61st).
Prior to February 2018, the Gateway Arch and grounds was known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Yes, it was already part of the National Parks System, but hopefully the name change will give it a bit more recognition.
Why the name change? Well, everyone knows the Gateway Arch! The giant silver arch looms over St. Louis and the Mississippi River as the gateway to the west. It’s one of the most recognizable monuments in the U.S. so it only makes sense that the park reflects its most famous component.
In addition to being one of the newest national parks, Gateway Arch National Park is also the smallest national park, and one of the only parks located in an urban environment. (I think this is a good time to note that throughout this article, when I refer to “national parks”, I am referring specifically to the 61 official National Parks, as listed here).
Gateway Arch National Park
The Arch is a national landmark and is worth seeing simply for the architectural wonder that it is. But this park wasn’t created to honor the Gateway Arch; the Gateway Arch is a monument created to honor Thomas Jefferson and America’s pioneering history.
History of Gateway Arch
Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States and one of the country’s Founding Fathers. The Louisiana Purchase was signed during his presidency in 1803, which transferred ownership of the Louisiana Territory from France to the United States. This westward expansion created opportunities for Americans to move west, and it was the catalyst for the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was conceived in the early 1930s, but it was put on pause for many years due to war. An architectural competition was held to design a monument to center the park, and the Arch as designed by Eero Saarrinen was chosen. The Gateway Arch was finally completed in 1965.
The park stands to commemorate Thomas Jefferson and an important part of America’s history. Its historical significance is the reason it was formerly designated as a National Monument within the National Parks System.
Location: Downtown St. Louis, Missouri
Price: Admission to the Arch grounds is free; Entry to the Arch is $3 for adults, free for children; Tram ride to top of the Arch is $12 for adults, $8 for children (prices may change based on peak times); Entry to the Old Courthouse is free.
Hours: The park is open year-round. The Arch is typically open from 9 am – 6 pm; the Old Courthouse is typically open from 8 am – 4:30 pm.
Facilities: Gateway Arch National Park includes the Arch and Memorial grounds, the Museum of Westward Expansion, and the Old Courthouse
Visitor Center: The Visitor Center is located directly beneath the Arch, through the main entrance.
Parking: Paid parking can be found in nearby garages. Check for parking options here. Street parking at meters is free on Sundays.
Security: You will be required to go through airport-like security when entering the Arch. Visitors can only enter through the main west entrance.
Accessibility: While many parts of the park are wheelchair-accessible, the tram ride to the top of the arch does not accommodate wheelchairs.
Things to Do at Gateway Arch National Park
Top of the Arch
The Arch is the main attraction for most people, so be sure to take a tram ride all the way up to the top! That’s right, you can actually go inside the archway and get a view of the city and the river from 630-feet up. The tram ride takes about 4 minutes, but the full experience (from the time on your ticket to the time of return) takes up to an hour. You must purchase a ticket. More info here.
Museum of Westward Expansion
The Museum of Westward Expansion is all about how this area became the “Gateway to the West”. The museum features exhibits on the pioneers of the westward expansion, telling the story of how it all began.
Underneath the Arch is a beautiful green park perfect for walking, lounging, picnicking, running, etc. There are plenty of concrete trails winding through the park. The park also connects you to the riverfront down below. This is a popular place to hang out in the summertime, and big events are often held here.
The Old Courthouse is a civil rights landmark. Inside, you can learn all about the famous Dred Scott case, and browse exhibits on St. Louis history. You can also tour the Old Courthouse and admire the architecture, or catch the documentary “Monument to the Dream”.
Hop on board one of the replica paddle-wheel riverboats for a day-time or evening cruise.
Interesting Facts About the Gateway Arch
Since the Arch is the center of the park, I thought I’d share a few quick facts about this national landmark:
- The Arch was designed by Eero Saarinen
- It was completed in 1965
- It is 630-feet tall, about 63 stories high
- It is the tallest arch in the world, and the tallest monument in the United States
- The Arch was designed to withstand an earthquake as well as lightning storms
- There are 32 small windows at the top of the Arch, 16 facing either side
- The reason the windows are so small is because larger windows could not withstand the pressure needed to insert the final piece at the top of the Arch
- The Arch is made of abut 43,000 tons of stainless steel and concrete
Expansion, Changes, and Updates to the Gateway Arch
Gateway Arch National Park, formerly the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, has been undergoing major changes for the last few years. An expansion and update of the Arch grounds began in 2013 to enhance visitor experience.
The first step in the updates was making it easy for pedestrians to access the Arch grounds from downtown. Before, the Arch was separated from the city by a large highway. Now the grounds run over the interstate so that people can walk between the Arch and the Old Courthouse.
Once the foundation for expansion was created, the grounds surrounding the Arch were completely redone. A beautiful park now sits below the Arch, with walking trails and ample green space.
The Museum of Westward Expansion, which is located beneath the Arch, is now open for visitors.
All of these changes have led to the biggest change of all: the new name and the new National Park status.
Why is the Gateway Arch an official National Park?
There has been some criticism over the renaming of the park, especially regarding the official designation as a “National Park”. After all, the Gateway Arch was already part of the National Parks System, but it was formerly designated as a National Memorial.
So what makes a site worthy of being called a National Park? According to the NPS, “Generally, a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources”.
Some National Park enthusiasts don’t believe Gateway Arch National Park fits that bill. It is not a large area of land (its only 91 acres), and the park doesn’t contain a variety of natural resources that need to be protected. Being set right in the middle of a city doesn’t help the case.
I have to agree that the National Park designation doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I think renaming it to the Gateway Arch National Monument would have been more fitting. I’m still not sure it’s meant to be designated as a National Park, despite the name. I can’t help but wonder if another change won’t come along soon.
However, the Arch is mesmerizing, there’s plenty of history here, and the redesign of the park is absolutely beautiful. I think the Gateway Arch deserves recognition and more people should visit, regardless of its name or designation within the National Parks System.
This post was updated with the latest information and photos in August 2019
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