Rising 630 feet above the Mississippi River in downtown St. Louis, the shimmering stainless steel Gateway Arch is the tallest monument in America and the centerpiece of this famous national park in Missouri. Built in 1965 as part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the Arch commemorates Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and the subsequent westward expansion of the United States.
The NPS unit was redesignated in 2018 and, today, it’s the smallest U.S. national park at only 91 acres. But despite its small size, Gateway Arch National Park offers some excellent attractions that leave many visitors pleasantly surprised. When it comes time to plan your national parks road trip, Gateway Arch in Missouri should definitely be on your list!
Highlights include an observation area inside the top of the Arch that you can reach in a unique tramway. Underneath the Arch, there’s a visitor center and museum with exhibits about constructing the monument and westward expansion. The Tucker Theater shows a 30-minute film documenting the construction of the Arch, with tickets available in person or online. Across the street, the historic Old Courthouse has exhibits about the 1857 Dredd Scott case and women’s suffragette Virginia Minor.
Launching from the nearby waterfront, riverboats offer several tours along the Mississippi River. The Riverfront promenade and adjacent Mississippi Greenway offer walking and biking opportunities. And other St. Louis attractions include the expansive Forest Park, site of the 1904 World’s Fair, and today the location of several free museums, a free zoo, a series of lakes for pedal boating and paddling, and many paths for walking and bicycling.
Gateway Arch & Museum
The centerpiece of the park is the Arch itself, with the exterior grounds offering many excellent views of the monument. Many visitors’ favorite experience is the tram ride to the observation area at the top of the Arch, which involves riding in small capsules that rotate along a trackway inside the structure’s legs. Because of the popularity, advanced online ticket purchase is strongly recommended.
The visitor center and museum are located underneath the Arch. Remodeled in 2018, the museum has six galleries covering 201 years from the founding of St. Louis, the Gateway to the West, in 1764 to the building of the Arch in 1965. Colonial St. Louis covers indigenous and Creole culture before the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson’s Vision focuses on the third U.S. president and the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the west coast. Manifest Destiny focuses on the wars, treaties, and pioneers of westward expansion. The Riverfront Era covers the Port of St. Louis and steamboat era along the Mississippi River. Finally, Building the Arch follows the final chapter in the creation of the monument.
Old Historic Courthouse
Located a block west of the museum, the Old Historic Courthouse was built in 1839. Less than ten years later, the enslaved Dredd Scott sued for freedom for him and his wife. The famous case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that people of African ancestry weren’t citizens and therefore couldn’t sue. The decision sparked outrage and deepened tensions between northern abolitionists and pro-slavery southerners in the decade before the Civil War. In 1873, St. Louis suffragette Virginia Moore and her husband filed an unsuccessful suit arguing for women’s right to vote.
Today, exhibits focus on the Dredd Scott case, African American life in St. Louis, Old Courthouse architecture, and courts in American society. Please note that in late 2021, the Old Courthouse closed for a two-year renovation. Check the website for updates on reopening.
Riverfront & Riverboat Tours
A variety of riverboat tours on replica paddle wheelers depart from the riverfront at the Gateway Arch, including one-hour day trips, two-hour dinner cruises, and specialty trips. Adjacent to the Gateway Arch, a 1.5-mile riverfront promenade offers walking and sightseeing opportunities.
Connecting to the Gateway Arch is the 12.5-mile Mississippi Greenway. This paved walking and biking path runs from just south of the Arch to the Chain of Rocks Bridge that once carried the historic Route 66 over the Mississippi River. Visible from the bridge deck, the Chain of Rocks is a treacherous reach of exposed bedrock shoals and rapids that were hazardous to river navigation before the creation of a bypass canal.
Located on the western side of St. Louis City, Forest Park is one of the largest urban parks in the U.S. at 1,326 acres. Opened in 1876, the park was greatly altered for the 1904 World’s Fair, including the addition of the Grand Basin reflecting pools, plus connected waterways and lakes.
Throughout the park there are many paved and gravel paths for walking, running, and biking. This includes a pair of 5.5-mile multi-use loops roughly following the park’s perimeter. The outer route is a paved path mostly used by bikes and runners while the other route is crushed gravel for walkers and runners.
Not only is entry to the park free but most of the attractions are free as well, including all museums and the zoo. The most popular free attraction is the large Saint Louise Zoo, considered one of the best in the U.S. The zoo is divided into six zones, with many animals from all over the world, including elephants, big cats, great apes, bears, penguins, sea lions, and much more.
The Saint Louis Science Center offers a wide variety of hands-on science exhibits, plus a planetarium and Omnimax theater. The Saint Louis Art Museum is a comprehensive three-story art museum with vast collections of paintings, sculptures, and cultural objects. The Missouri History Museum has a rotating series of temporary exhibitions and two permanent galleries, one focused on St. Louis history and the other focused on the 1904 World’s Fair held in the park.
In addition, there are two golf courses, an outdoor theater called The Muny, and an art deco greenhouse called the Jewel Box. The Boathouse is a combined lakeside restaurant and boat rental facility, offering paddleboats, kayaks, and paddleboards to explore park waterways and the Grand Basin.
Want a complete list and recap of all our US National Parks as well as free downloadable maps and other great resources? Check out our US National Parks List and Map guide!
Cover image: The Gateway Arch during spring. Adobe/F11photo