National Park Guides

Gateway Arch National Park: A Journey Through America’s Entrance to the West

POSTED ON May 24, 2022 BY Ralph S.


Introduction to Gateway Arch National Park

The Gateway Arch National Park is a must-see destination for anyone visiting the city of St. Louis, Missouri. This stunning architectural marvel towers as an incredible testament to America’s past and bright future.

Beyond the iconic arch, Gateway Arch National Park offers a wealth of Native American history, cultural resources, and entertainment. Visitors can take a leisurely stroll through the beautifully landscaped park grounds or a riverboat cruise along the Mississippi River.

Our comprehensive guide will take you on a journey through the park’s history, highlighting its most famous attractions, and some hidden gems. Whether you’re a history buff, a nature lover, or a thrill-seeker, this national park is the perfect destination for you. So, let’s get started!

History

The Gateway Arch Park is a testament to America’s westward expansion and its pioneers. The story began in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase when the United States acquired a vast territory of over 800,000 square miles from France. The land extended from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, opening the door for settlement.

In 1846, the city of St. Louis became known as the “Gateway to the West” due to its strategic location on the Mississippi. It quickly became a major hub for trade, commerce, and transportation, and played a vital role in the westward expansion of the United States.

The United States began to commemorate this important period, thus establishing Gateway Arch National Park in 1935. Originally named the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, this monument was designed to honor President Thomas Jefferson.

In 1947 Congress approved plans as part of an effort to commemorate America’s expansion westward (also referred to as “manifest destiny”). The project was funded by a public-private partnership between the City of St. Louis and the United States government. Arch’s construction began on Feb. 12th, 1963 and was finished shortly after in October 1965.

The centerpiece is the Gateway Arch, a stunning feat of architecture and engineering that stands 630 feet tall. Designed by Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American Architect, the arch was completed in 1965 and is made of stainless steel, making it a truly unique and modern marvel.

Today, this park is a popular tourist destination for anyone around the world. In addition to admiring its magnificent architecture, you can explore the museum at the Gateway Arch which offers detailed exhibits about America’s pioneering spirit and how it transformed the city.

Key Facts About Gateway Arch National Park

Size: About 91 acres (37 ha)

Number of visitors: 1.62 million (2022)

Established: Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (1935) and Gateway Arch National Park(2018).

Length of hiking trails: Approximately 7.6 miles (12.2 km)

Lowest point: Mississippi at 446 feet  (136 m) above sea level

Highest point: Top of the Arch at 630 feet (192 m) above sea level

gateway-arch-in-st-louis

 

Other interesting facts about Gateway Arch National Park:

  • Not your typical national park, it is located in the middle of the city of St. Louis, Missouri and by far the smallest of the national parks, just 2% of the next smallest Hot Springs National Park.
  • The Gateway Arch was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who won a nationwide competition to design the monument in 1947.
  • The arch was constructed between 1963 and 1965 at a cost of $13 million (equivalent to approximately $100 million today).
  • It is home to several buildings, including the old courthouse, which was the site of the famous Dred Scott and Harriet Scott slavery case.
  • The Riverfront Trail is a popular destination for cyclists and is part of the 10-mile-long Mississippi Great Rivers Greenway.
  • The stainless steel Arch expands and contracts with temperature changes, allowing it to sway up to 18 inches in the wind.
  • The park is a popular filming location for movies and TV shows, and has been featured in films such as “Escape from New York” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”

Climate and Weather

Gateway Arch experiences a humid subtropical climate with four distinct seasons. Each season offers a unique experience, with varying temperatures and weather conditions.

In spring and summer, temperatures range from the mid-50s (F) in the mornings to highs of around 90 degrees during the day. While it is usually hot and humid, there are occasional thunderstorms that bring heavy rains.

In fall, temperatures cool off into the low 50s with occasional snowfall, especially in November and December. Winter brings average lows around 30 degrees with occasional snow storms, causing temporary closures of roads and trails.

Here’s what to expect in each season: You can visit the park’s official website to know the exact weather conditions when planning your visit.

Summer (June – August)

Summer is the busiest season as tourists flock to enjoy the warm weather and outdoor activities. Temperatures can range from the 70s to the 90°F (21°C to 32°C), with high humidity and occasional thunderstorms.

Fall (September – November)

Fall is a popular season as the leaves change colors and the temperatures start to cool down. Temperatures can range from the 40s to the 70°F(4°C to 21°C), with occasional rain showers. The hiking trails are generally clear and offer stunning views of the fall foliage.

Winter (late December – February)

Winter is a quieter time as the temperatures can be quite cold with limited outdoor activities. Temperatures can range from the 20s to the 40°F (-6°C to 4°C), with occasional snow and ice. However, it can be a beautiful sight in the winter, with snow-covered trees and the arch illuminated against the night sky.

Spring (March-May)

Spring is a beautiful time to visit the park as the flowers start to bloom and the weather begins to warm up. Temperatures can range from the 40s to the 70°F (4°C to 21°C) with occasional rain showers. Hiking trails are generally clear and offer stunning views of the budding trees and flowers.

When to Visit

The best time to visit depends on what you’re looking for in your trip. There is no ‘wrong’ time to visit as each season offers its own unique experience!

For outdoor enthusiasts, day hiking, and other outdoor activities, the best time to visit is during spring break or fall when temperatures are mild. Also during these seasons, temperatures are generally mild, and there are fewer visitors than in the summer. Spring brings beautiful blooming flowers and trees, while fall offers stunning views of the changing leaves.

The summer months can be hot and humid but still offer plenty of opportunities for fun in the sun. So, it’s important to bring plenty of water and sunscreen when visiting during this time. It is also a popular season for tourists.

For those looking to enjoy indoor attractions like the Museum which features educational opportunities for students, winter can be a great time to visit. There is a 15-minute film that tells the story of the westward expansion and the construction of the arch.

Also, winter provides excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing and photography. During winter, crowds are smaller, and the park can be peaceful. The arch also looks beautiful illuminated against the winter night sky.

old-courthouse-at-gateway-arch-national-park

Recommended Gear

Regardless of when you visit Gateway Arch, there are certain items that will make your trip more enjoyable.

Summer:

  • Lightweight, breathable clothing as temperatures can get hot
  • Light rain jacket for any unexpected thunderstorms
  • Comfortable shoes for walking or hiking
  • Sunscreen and a hat to protect against the sun
  • Plenty of water to stay hydrated
  • Bug spray to protect against mosquitoes and other insects

Fall:

  • Warm layers for cooler temperatures
  • Comfortable hiking shoes or boots
  • Hat and gloves to stay warm
  • Rain gear in case of showers
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent

Winter:

  • Warm, insulated clothing layers such as thick sweaters or jackets, hats and hand warmers
  • Waterproof boots for navigating icy trails, slush and sidewalks, as well as snow tires if you plan to drive
  • Gloves, hat, and scarf to stay warm
  • Extra backpacking foods and water in case the roads become impassable due to ice or snow.
  • Flashlight or headlamp for early sunsets or night hiking

If you are planning on hiking, you can check out this complete guide to winter hiking for the best experience.

Spring:

  • Comfortable hiking shoes or boots
  • Lightweight layers for changing temperatures
  • Rain gear or an umbrella in case of showers
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent

No matter when you visit, a good pair of binoculars is always recommended for wildlife spotting, bird watching or stargazing!  And don’t forget a camera so you can capture your memories.

Check out this backpacking checklist to find more information about what to bring along when hiking in Gateway Arch.

What to Do in Gateway Arch  National Park

Whether you’re looking for a self-guided tour at the grand staircase or a relaxing getaway, there is always something for everyone. But it’s important to have an idea of what you can do.

Fishing at one of its many well-stocked lakes; enjoying picnics and birdwatching in quiet meadows; camping along the banks of the Mississippi; and exploring on horseback are a few popular activities.

The iconic arch itself is a must-see attraction, offering stunning views of the city and the Mississippi from the top.

Hiking and Backpacking

Hiking has its benefits, and with a variety of trails ranging from easy to moderate difficulty, Gateway Arch National Park is a perfect destination for hikers and backpackers alike. Head out for a day of exploration on one of the park’s signature trails like the Chouteau Island Trail, Old Carondelet Trail, Eads Bridge, or Gateway Arch Trail, or take on an overnight challenge with Grasslands Trail or Gravois Trail.

Enjoy scenic vistas at points of interest like Lewis and Clark Monument, Old Rock House and Tower Grove Park Visitor Center, facing Fourth Street and the historic old courthouse.

Best Hikes in Gateway Arch National Park

From leisurely strolls to more challenging hikes through grasslands and wooded areas, there’s something here for every type of explorer. Plan ahead to make sure you have plenty of time to enjoy the beauty of this special place.

Riverfront Trail – This paved trail runs along the Mississippi. It offers beautiful views of the water and the Gateway Arch. The trail is relatively easy, with only a few small hills, and is accessible to all skill levels. The full trail is approximately 11 miles (17 km) round-trip, but it can be broken up into shorter segments for those looking for a shorter walk.

Points of interest include the Old Rock House, Lewis and Clark Monument and Carondelet Coke Plant.

Plan for 3–4 hours to complete the full 11-mile loop.

Chouteau Island Trail – Located just across the park, this 7-mile (11 km) moderately challenging loop offers beautiful views of the river and surrounding wildlife. The terrain includes some elevation changes and rocky sections, making it a moderate-difficulty hike.

Points of interest include the Lewis and Clark Monument, Chouteau Island Conservation Area and the famous Eads Bridge.

Plan for 2–3 hours to complete the full loop.

Old Carondelet Trail – This historic route is approximately 2.2 miles (3.5 km) long and offers beautiful views and multiple historic sites along the way. The terrain can be steep in places with some rocky sections, making it a moderate difficulty hike.

Points of interest include Old Rock House, Carondelet Coke Plant and Gateway Arch National Park Visitor Center.

Plan for 1–2 hours to complete the trail loop.

Eads Bridge – While not technically a hiking trail, walking across this historic bridge is a must-do activity. The bridge is approximately 0.6 miles (1 km) long and offers beautiful views of the Mississippi and the Gateway Arch, making it an easy experience for all skill levels.

Plan for 30–45 minutes to complete the walk across Eads Bridge.

Gateway Arch Trail – This short trail leads visitors up to the top of the arch, where stunning views of the city await. The trail is accessed via a tram that takes visitors to the top of the arch, taking only 4 minutes each way with no elevation change or rugged terrain. The trail is considered easy, as visitors do not need to hike but rather take a short tram ride.

Plan for 45 minutes to 1 hour to complete the entire experience. Also, you need to reserve a spot in advance online

Tower Grove Trail – This short, but steep trail is 3.4 miles (5.5 km) long and offers beautiful views of the surrounding nature. The terrain can be quite rocky in places, making it a more difficult hike for less experienced walkers.

Points of interest include the Old Rock House and Tower Grove Park Arch visitor center.

Plan for 1 hour to complete this trail loop.

Gravois Trail – This short, but steep trail is 3 miles (4.8 km) long and offers beautiful views of the surrounding nature. The terrain can be quite rocky in places, making it a more difficult hike for less experienced walkers.

Points of interest include the Lewis and Clark Monument and Chouteau Island Conservation Area.

Plan for 2 hours to complete this trail loop.

Grasslands Trail – This moderate-difficulty trail is 4 miles (6.4 km) long and offers beautiful views of the grasslands. The terrain can be quite bumpy with some elevation changes, so it’s best suited to experienced hikers.

Points of interest include the Old Rock House and Tower Grove Park Arch visitor center.

Plan for 3 hours to complete this trail loop.

Gateway Arch National Park

Camping

Camping is a great way to truly immerse yourself in the beauty of the park. However, there are no camping facilities within the park itself. Only two campgrounds located nearby offer camping opportunities with breathtaking views of the Mississippi and surrounding nature.

The RV Park, a few miles from the park offers RV camping and tent camping. The Cahokia RV Parque, which is located across the Mississippi in Illinois offers RV camping, tent camping, and cabins. Both campgrounds have amenities like electric and water hookups, restrooms, and showers.

If you are looking to camp in a more natural setting, there are several state parks and forests located within a short drive. The Pere Marquette State Park in Illinois offers campsites, cabins, and a variety of recreational activities. The Hawn State Park in Missouri offers primitive camping and hiking trails.

It’s important to note that all camping spots are accessible by car or kayak (depending on location), and require a permit that can be obtained through the office or online. So, be sure to check with the individual campground or park before planning your trip.

Kayaking and Paddleboarding

The Mississippi provides the perfect opportunity to explore nature and wildlife up close while kayaking or paddleboarding. There are a variety of routes that can be taken, from day trips to overnight adventures.

The park also has several launch sites like the Eads Bridge Launch Site and the Gateway Arch Launch Site which offer easy access to the river, and paddleboard rental services. Though, you can bring your own board.

Fishing

There are two stocked fishing ponds where you can cast your line. Catfish, bass, crappie, bluegill, and sunfish are just some of the species found. Note that fishing permits are required for anyone 16 years or older, and can be obtained from the national park service office or online.

Birdwatching

There are several species of ducks, geese, waterfowl and shorebirds that can be spotted in the reflecting ponds near the arch grounds. Also, there are many trails leading to nearby wetlands and grasslands where you can spot different bird species like cardinals, hawks, orioles, and warblers.

Horseback Riding

Horseback riding is a great way to explore the Gateway Arch and its many trails. There is an equestrian trail located near the entrance that is ideal for riders of all abilities. The trail winds through woodlands and marshes and offers some stunning views of the arch grounds. The horses can be rented at a nearby stable or visitors can bring their own horse.

Bicycling

There are several arch grounds suitable for biking and exploring the park from a different perspective. The most popular route is the Trail of Tears, which is a five-mile (8 km) loop that winds through the Explorers’ Garden, past two reflecting ponds and 7.5 acres (30,351 square meters) of green space.

There are also roads where cyclists can ride, but you should be aware of narrow and sharp curves. Bicycles can be rented from the park’s office or any local gift shop.

While riding, you can see a historic courthouse across the street where the Dred Scott case was heard.

For more information about other recreational activities and special events, visit the park’s official website.

You can join to become a member and make a monumental impact on the Gateway Arch Park Foundation. Once you are a steward of an international icon, you will enjoy special member benefits like tram rides and complementary shopping & parking discounts throughout the year.

Where to Stay

With no overnight accommodations within the Park, there are plenty of options for lodging in nearby towns and cities.

There are many budget-friendly hotels and motels with preferred parking and luxury accommodations in St. Louis. Some popular options include the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at The Arch, the Drury Plaza Hotel St. Louis at The Arch, and the Hilton St. Louis at The Ballpark.

If you’re looking for something a little more unique, consider staying at one of the city’s boutique hotels like the Moonrise Hotel in the Delmar Loop neighborhood or the Angad Arts Hotel.

Lastly, there are bed-and-breakfast joints in nearby towns like Arnold, Festus, and Kimmswick. They provide a cozy and comfortable stay in a peaceful setting.

How to Get There and Getting Around

Getting around Gateway Arch is convenient because the park is about 10 miles east of downtown St. Louis, Missouri, and serviced by major airports like Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (STL), MidAmerica St. Louis Airport (BLV), and Downtown St. Louis Heliport (FES).

From Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, you can take a taxi or ride-sharing service to the park in about 30 minutes.

For those who prefer public transportation, the St. Louis MetroLink light rail system provides direct access from the airport to several stops near the park. The Amtrak Gateway Station is also located just a few blocks and offers service to and from major cities like Chicago, Kansas City, and Los Angeles.

Other convenient options for getting around include renting a car or bicycle at a discounted rate. There are many rental locations around the city and bike-share programs in downtown St. Louis & other parts of the metro area. Ample parking is available in the West Entrance lobby just outside the restrooms.

Tour buses drop tourists and park on memorial drive and Luther Ely Smith Square near the west entrance. Preferred parking can also be found at the Stadium East Garage (a five-minute walk), at a discounted rate for Arch visitors.

Lastly, there is a free tram ride to the top of the Gateway Arch.

Conclusion

Gateway Arch National Park is an iconic destination that offers something for everyone. Whether it’s taking in the breathtaking views from the top of the Gateway Arch; exploring nature on the trails; or learning about St. Louis’ culture at the many museums and attractions, you can make lasting memories at this unique park.

For more iconic national parks, check out our National Park Guides to see some ideal locations worth visiting.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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