In sitting down for a tell-all post about how to spend a day at Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, I (Amy) am not sure we are the best people to ask for trip planning advice. Although we loved our day in the park and it’s one of the highlights of our Midwest National Park Road Trip, our time there was anything but ordinary.
Our visit was the last stop in a 9 day camping trip that would lead us right into the initial 2020 COVID-19 lockdown. When we arrived at Gateway Arch National Park, crowds were noticeably thin. As the security staff checked our bags at the museum entrance, we overheard them discussing shutdowns around the National Park Service, including at Statue of Liberty National Monument which had closed to visitors earlier in the day.
In a Before COVID-19 World...
Thankfully, we still had the opportunity to take the tram to the top of the arch.
As we sat knee-to-knee in the cramped tram car, we chatted about the unusual circumstances with a Canadian woman visiting St. Louis for business. Looking back now, the entire experience feels a bit surreal to us. As of this writing, the National Park Service has yet to re-open the tram to visitors. Even when it does open again, it may be years before we would again feel comfortable in small, confined spaces with strangers. We feel so incredibly lucky to have visited when we did (and to have returned home safe and healthy afterwards.)
Our Gateway Arch National Park Trip Itinerary
So, it’s with that disclaimer (and what in 2020 doesn’t need a disclaimer!) that we offer up our one-day itinerary to Gateway Arch National Park. We know it may not have been the average experience at the park, but it was still a terrific day in a national park. If and when your family gets a chance to visit, we hope you find it to be just the same!
START: Arrive Early
In all the resources we read online before our visit to the Arch, we repeatedly saw the advice to arrive as early in the day as possible. An early start allows you to take your time through the Visitor’s Center exhibits and museum, and make sure you have plenty of time for the park film and tram ride.
An early arrival also includes the caveat that given the national park is located in the heart of downtown St. Louis, an early arrival may mean extra commuting time. Weekday traffic into the city can be grueling. Depending on where you’re staying relative to Gateway Arch National Park you may want to time your arrival slightly after morning rush hour.
#1 Check in for the Film and Tram Ride
We also recommend making reservations well in advance for the tram tour. During the busy travel months (April through September), the tram tickets sell out well in advanced. While some same-day tickets are available first-come, first-served we wouldn’t recommend taking the risk.
We also recommend trying to book a time about 60-90 minutes after your planned arrival time. That will give you enough time to go through security checkpoints, watch the park film, and walk through some of the exhibits before you go up the tram ride.
The park film Monument to the Dream is a bit dated (1967), but contains the original footage from when the Gateway Arch was constructed in from 1963 to 1965. Fun fact: the park film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short the year it was produced.
Before we saw the park film, neither of us had any idea how the monument was constructed. It’s worth spending the 20 or so minutes to orient yourself before the tram ride.
#2 Wander Through the Museum
Before or after watching the park film and tram ride, spend some time wandering through the newly renovated park museum exhibits. The park museums were completely renovated and re-opened in July 2018 when the park was rededicated from Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to a national park.
The park museums travel chronologically through the history of Missouri and westward expansion, including a large collection dedicated to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The area where St. Louis and the Gateway Arch National Park now stand were the historical lands of the Osage, Miami, Sioux and Haudenosauneega (also called Iroquois) people. The park has hundreds of artifacts in the collection describing how these groups were forcibly moved as a part of westward expansion.
The last exhibit room of the museum shows the original design architect Eero Saarinen and structural engineer Hannskarl had for the monument grounds and the arch. If you don’t stop for the park film, be sure to walk through this area.
#3 Check out the Riverfront and Gardens
After the tram and museum, the next stop in our visit was to wander the rest of the park’s walking trails.
When Saarinen suggested the design for the Gateway Arch, it included an expansive gardens and urban park along the Mississippi River front. Today you can wander underneath the arch and down to the muddy waters of the Mighty Mississippi. It also gives you a chance to try out some of the strange photography angles from below and beside the Arch. Just watch out for the vertigo!
#4 Tour the Old Courthouse
As we wrapped up our visit to the park, we had one last stop to make before departing. Across the greenway area from the Gateway Arch stands the national park’s other historic structure, the Old Courthouse.
Completed in 1864, the Old Courthouse is most famous as the location where the landmark Dred Scott Case began. In 1846, Scott arrived at the Old Courthouse to sue for his freedom and his wife’s freedom from slavery. The case was eventually moved to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857. Today visitors can view a statue of Scott and his wife along with a courtroom staged how it likely would have looked during the time of the Scott hearings.
But the most impressive part of the Old Courthouse is by far the rotunda. The three-story cast-iron dome was inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Even if you have just a few minutes to spare, you won’t want to miss the view!
#5 Collect the Passport Stamps
A national park stop wouldn’t be complete without collection your national park passport stamps. Passport stamps can be found throughout the park including at the front visitor’s center desk, the ranger stop outside of the park film area and at the Old Courthouse desk.
Looking to add Gateway Arch National Park as a stop on a longer vacation? Stopping in the St. Louis area for a few days? Check out these other options to add to your #parkchasing adventure:
Just outside of downtown St. Louis, many people stumble on Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site by accident. It’s directly across the street from a popular St. Louis tourist attraction and amusement park with a similar name. Luckily, visitors that find their way to ‘White Haven’ won’t be disappointed. The historical home where Ulysses S. Grant met his wife Julia met and raised a young family is open to the public for guided tours. Visitors can learn about Grant’s early life in the St. Louis area and how he rose to become one of the most influential United States Presidents.
Located just east of Kansas City in the sleepy town of Independence, Missouri, Harry S Truman National Historic Site was one of the first presidential homes we visited in the National Park Service. Visitors can walk the streets Truman and his family called home and tour the museum that includes hundreds of Truman-era artifacts. But most importantly, plan time to take a guided ranger-led tour of the two-story home where Truman and his family lived before and after his term as our 33rd President.
If you have a little more time, visit the Truman family farm located in Grandview, about 20 miles south of Independence. The farm buildings are closed to the public, but the grounds are open daily for a cell-phone audio tour.
Of all our stops on our Missouri national parks road trip, George Washington Carver National Monument left the biggest impression. The site commemorates agriculture pioneer, educator, and humanitarian George Washington Carver. Born into slavery in Missouri, Carver worked tirelessly to gain an education and then entered a lifetime of teaching and philanthropy. His legacy left a lasting impact on thousands of lives.
Visitors to the site can walk a self-guided trail on the Carver farm where he was born and learn more about his life and agricultural methods.