New York City has the Statue of Liberty, San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge and St. Louis has the Gateway Arch! Yes, the state of Missouri can really hold its own in relation to some of America’s fine architectural landmarks. Not only is the Gateway Arch an iconic representation of freedom, also known as the Gateway to the West, it is also a popular attraction for folks who enjoy breathtaking views across the city.
Why? Because did you know that it’s possible to actually climb all the way to the summit of this structure, through the interior of the arch! The journey to the top of the arch is a memorable yet interesting experience and I encourage you to consider trying this on your next trip to St. Louis, though there are a few caveats that you should think about first (more about those later…)
History of the Gateway Arch
The history of the Gateway Arch dates back to 1963 when construction was first started on this unique structure. A design competition held in the mid-1940s led to a Finnish-American by the name of Eero Saarinen creating this iconic representation of St. Louis in 1947.
When construction began in February 1963, the project manager of MacDonald Construction Company, Stan Wolf claimed that the difficulty level of creating Saarinen’s masterpiece was far superior to anything he had done before.
In a building, everything is straight up, one thing on top of another. In this arch, everything is curved.
After years of turmoil including numerous lawsuits being filed against the potential safety risks of both the construction and eventual completion of the Arch, the final piece was added on October 28, 1965.
When I look at the Gateway Arch, I am stunned that this is a design that dates back to the 1960s. This is an absolute credit to Saarinen’s success in creating such a structure that even to this day remains a modernized composition. This could quite easily pass as a structure that was designed in the 21st century!
The Gateway Arch has a simplicity which should guarantee timeliness
Let’s take a look at some key characteristics of the Gateway Arch. The Arch is the tallest memorial in the United States at 630ft in both height and width. The structural load of the arch is composed of stainless steel which is visible, along with a solid concrete construction that leads to an earthquake safe structure.
Of course, the Gateway Arch is hollow allowing for the tram system developed in the late 1960s to allow tourists to experience the beauty from within the arch.
Purchasing tickets to experience the Gateway Arch is thankfully much easier than the construction of the arch itself. You can buy tickets online or simply visit the Old Courthouse which is another really cool experience that is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.
Tickets are priced at $10 for adults ($7 if you hold an America is Beautiful National Park Annual Pass) and $5 for children. You could also opt for a cheaper option if you just want to visit the Arch, without actually taking the tram to the top…though I personally recommend going all out and reaping the rewards of experiencing the tram ride!
The ‘Journey to the Top’ ticket also includes a 35-40 minute movie in the Tucker Theater, located below the Gateway Arch. Titled ‘Monument to the Dream’, this movie depicts in more detail the construction of the arch and how this has changed the St. Louis landscape over the last 50 years.
Journey to the Top of the Arch
The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial landscape is currently under mass construction so it’s inevitable that there will be delays and potential confusion if you don’t follow directions given by park rangers and staff inside the Old Courthouse. After collecting your tickets, I strongly encourage you to head down to the Gateway Arch about 20-30 minutes prior to your timed ticket.
Our visit to the top of the Arch was at 11:00AM and we headed down to the base about 10 minutes prior. You cannot enter the security line more than 30 minutes prior to your scheduled visit, and staff are always available to direct you when it’s your time to line up.
Given the scorching hot weather that St. Louis was encountering during out visit, it really was a miserable experience as we lined up waiting to get through the single security checkpoint.
After passing through with only a couple of minutes to spare we headed to the North Tram entrance where we again lined up. This process is what really takes the most time. By 11:20, we were still waiting to board our tram.
Staff asked each family how many were in their party and issued ‘boarding passes’ that corresponded with the tram number you would enter. We watched a short movie providing an overview on the history of the Gateway Arch, the doors opened and after allowing the descending visitors to alight, we scrambled inside the tram.
Ok so now is a good time to explain this ‘so-called tram’. Imagine a small pod or orb like object and this is exactly what you are traveling in. Designing and constructed in 1967, the North Tram (and soon after South Tram), takes visitors to the summit of the Arch in 4 minutes.
The doorway is about 4 feet tall and not particularly wide. Once you enter this orb, there are 5 seats strategically positioned around the orb and if you are unfortunate enough to have 5 people in yours, it’s a pretty tight squeeze! Be extremely aware of your surroundings, otherwise if you are tall you may well suffer as I did when I cracked the back of my head on the side of the pod.
A word of caution right now, if you suffer from claustrophobia, you should probably consider when this is a journey for you. However, perhaps it’s a great way to overcome your fears.
The doors closed and the journey up the rickety tram system started. Honestly it’s a really cool experience though of course not for the feint-hearted. When the journey began, I was a little feared wondering what would happen if the tram broke down.
However, as you peer out of the window inside the arch, you can see an emergency staircase that spirals up the side of the arch, though how long you would be trapped before someone climbed to meet you…I’ll let you be the judge of that (hopefully that situation never arises!)
4 minutes inside this pod really seems like an eternity but after reaching the summit you climb a few stairs and you are literally on top of the arch!
Afraid of heights? Don’t worry, the Gateway Arch is a great way to overcome this fear. The windows that provide the breathtaking scenery across St. Louis are surprisingly small and narrow. You don’t realize looking up from ground level just how small these windows are.
But they do offer gorgeous views across the Mississippi River into Illinois on one side, and of course downtown St. Louis and beyond on the other.
Take a moment to identify some of the key landmarks that we all love in St. Louis. Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals MLB team; Edward Jones Dome, home of the St. Louis Rams NFL team and of course the Old Courthouse that is directly in front of you.
It’s really cool to peer down and see all 630 feet below you! We were fortunate to visit on a perfectly clear day with the sun shining at the perfect angle to create a reflection of the arch on the ground below us.
Although you can spend as much time as you like once you have reached the top, it’s probable that you will only need 10-15 minutes given the crowded nature of the summit. Take a few selfies, overcome your fear of heights and of course savor the stunning scenery that is in front of your very eyes.
As soon as you are ready to head back down, let a staff member know and they will arrange for you to be on the next available tram. The journey back down is a short 3 minutes, and yet again be sure to watch your surroundings as you squeeze inside these pods.
I am an avid fan of high-rise buildings, skyscrapers and basically anything that allows a birds-eye view overlooking the nearby surroundings. Inevitably I had to experience the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and I can now attest that the Journey to the top of the Arch is well worth the time and effort it takes.
The process may be a little slow and painful at times (including the back of my head!), but the ultimate reward of the breathtaking views of the city are enough to justify the trip. The design of the Arch is uniquely brilliant and it’s an absolute credit to the city of St. Louis that this can be identified around the world as the true ‘Gateway to the West’!
Disclaimer – We would like to thank Explore St. Louis for providing us with 2 complimentary tickets for our journey to the top of the arch. These are solely our personal opinions/experiences and we were not financially compensated for this post.