Living here in the United States you have likely seen photos of the famous St. Louis Arch, the Gateway to the West. This beautiful and breathtaking structure towers above the Mississippi River. St. Louis was the staging point for the westward expansion of the United States. But while many people are familiar with this iconic image of the St. Louis Arch, few actually realize that you can go up inside the arch – yeah, seriously!
Never researching how to do that, we showed up in St. Louis at the beautiful park under the massive arch. Several hours later we stood back in the same spot saying, “I can’t believe we were up in there!?!” There are at least over 100 things to do in St.Louis and by far one of the most popular is going to the top of the Arch. So to help you plan your visit, here is a list of 5 things we discovered about visiting the St. Louis Arch.
1. The St. Louis Arch is a Considered a National Monument
I guess I never really thought about The Arch being a National Park destination. Known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the “Gateway Arch” (as it is officially called) is actually a part of a larger group of sites at the memorial. Named for Thomas Jefferson to commemorate his role in expanding the country west, this National Park Service site also includes the Old Courthouse just a block away and highlights the pioneers who moved west, as well as Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom at the nearby courthouse and won.
We were happy to break out our National Park Passport and get our stamp for the site. Being history buffs, we enjoy visiting our National Parks and collecting stamps along the way to remember all the cool places that we have seen. To enter the arch you have to go through some heavy security, similar to an airport. So do not bring large bags or anything that could be considered a weapon. There is a security line, but we found it to move pretty quickly.
2. There is a Huge – and Awesome – Museum Underground at the St. Louis Arch
There are a lot of things to do when visiting the St. Louis Arch, so get there early to be sure you have plenty of time to enjoy it all. One thing we noticed immediately is the Museum of Westward Expansion. This was an awesome museum! It highlights the people involved with expanding the country westward, including presidents, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and the pioneers who braved the unknown. Be sure to take some time to explore this detailed museum and the cool artifacts all around. It is a great overview of the time period and the amazing discoveries that took place. There are also free Ranger Programs and Guided Tours around the museum, a great way to get an even more in-depth experience.
Another fun activity is to go after the Virtual Geocache at The Arch. Since you can not physically place caches on National Park Lands or Museums, you can get a virtual. For the virtual cache, you will need to explore the museum to find the answers to a series of questions, which will then reveal the coordinates for the virtual geocache. This is a fun activity – especially for families! For more information about Geocaching, check out our post Why Go Geocaching?
3. You can Ride an Elevator / Tram to the Top of the St. Louis Arch!
Most people don’t realize that you can go up inside the St. Louis Arch. It’s crazy to think about actually. I had heard about being able to do this, but when you are staring up at this massive, narrow, and curving structure, I can’t help but think “how does that actually work?” Laying up against the Arch, you can see the degree of the angle, which only made me more curious about how this experience was going to be.
When you purchase tickets to ride to the top of the arch, you will likely get a reservation time. We had to wait a couple hours until our time to go up, which was okay because we spent that time exploring the museum and watching a really awesome video about the Lewis & Clark expedition (highly recommended). When it was our time, we lined up and waited our turn to be loaded into the “pods” that would take us to the top. The “pods” are a unique type of train system. They ride a track that allows them to rotate as you make your way up the curved structure.
The pods are very small. They remind us of some kind of space capsule or perhaps a Willy Wonka experience! If you are claustrophobic, this is not a ride for you. The workers made jokes about us having 4 minutes to get to know our riding mates. Being cramped in a small space with 4 strangers is always fun! But if you are tall, then you may need to duck your head inside the pod. And your knees will probably touch your neighbor’s!
4. Be Prepared to Rub Elbows for a Picture at the Top of the St. Louis Arch
Once you exit the pods at the top of the St. Louis Arch, the first thing you realize is that it is not a flat walking surface; it continues to arch around. You will be walking uphill, then downhill – depending on how you move about at the top. As if that wasn’t enough to make walking difficult, the arch sways with the wind! Yes, swaying is natural. So you may feel a bit uncoordinated at first when you are walking around up there. Also, it’s pretty narrow up there and has a low ceiling. It is pretty crowded at the top, which only makes the small space feel even smaller. Again, not for those people who have issues with tight spaces!
There are small windows that look down over the Mississippi and St. Louis. You have to actually lean out, laying on your stomach, to look down through the windows. So if you have a fear of heights, this also isn’t an experience for you. Since it is a bit crowded, you will need to patiently wait for an open window to enjoy the view. But it’s definitely worth it! There isn’t a time limit for your stay at the top of the arch. So stay as long as you like, then just head over to the pods when you are ready to leave.
5. Affordable, Educational, Fun!
One of the biggest surprises to me was the cost of this experience. For $14 we got a ticket to the top of the arch, as well as for a 45 minute Lewis & Clark expedition film over at the museum. This was an incredible film that we are so glad we watched. It gave a detailed experience of the Lewis & Clark expedition west. It opened our eyes to things that we hadn’t thought of before, like dragging their boats upriver, and having to haul them by hand uphill around waterfalls! We have a whole new appreciation for what those guys went through, it was really amazing!
There are other ticket packages available, and even another movie that you can watch which is more about the building of the Arch. Overall, this is an experience that the whole family will enjoy – and it is so educational! We absolutely loved our visit!
Prepare to Spend 3-5 Hours to Experience it all!
You will need a few hours to experience the Gateway Arch and related attractions, but possibly 4 or 5 (depending on crowds). It’s not a place that you want to rush through, so be sure that you have the time to really enjoy it. The park outside the arch is also a great place to bring a picnic and relax under the trees. Being along the Mississippi River, you can also take riverboat rides and helicopter rides too.
The arch is in the heart of St. Louis, where there are a number of other things to do within walking distance, so be sure to check those out as well. In the end, we walked away understanding so much more about our nation’s history of the expansion out west, and have a new appreciation for what they went through. This is truly an awesome place to visit – so don’t miss it!