Am I the only one who didn’t realize you can ride to the top of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis?
For years, I’d seen the Arch on tv and always thought it was a solid steel structure. For some reason it had never occurred to me that there could be a way to go up inside.
But on my trips to St. Louis, I learned that you can indeed visit the top of the Arch, provided you’re willing to sit inside a tiny orb that travels up on a rickety, angular tram elevator system similar to that of a ferris wheel.
Read on for more information about visiting the Gateway Arch in St. Louis – which happens to be one of America’s newest national parks! It’s one of the only national parks in an urban setting.
Tickets and Cost of Visiting the Gateway Arch
The Arch opened in 1965 and attracts in excess of four million visitors every year. It stands 630 feet tall, about half the height of the Empire State Building and just higher than Seattle’s Space Needle.
As of 2023, ticket prices for the Arch now vary depending on the day of the week. The basic weekend price of going inside the arch is currently $15-19 for adults (less if you have a National Park Passport) and $11-15 for children under 15.
The cheapest prices are usually available from Monday to Thursday. Consult the Arch’s website, because their prices change so frequently from day to day.
Assuming you’re ready to go up inside the Arch, where can you get your tickets? Purchase them in advance on the Arch website. Tickets do sell out, so be sure to plan ahead so you’re not left out!
There’s also an optional 35-minute “Monument to the Dream” film that comes with an extra cost: $7 for adults and $3 for kids.
And there are various riverboat cruises that guests can purchase through the Arch website to take a ride on the Mississippi River.
The Arch also has a store if you want to pick up a few overpriced books or souvenirs for your collection.
As of this writing, Gateway Arch admission hours are 9 am to 6 pm during the winter and 8 am to 10 pm during the summer, with the last tram going up one hour before closing.
So you can visit the Gateway Arch at night and get some nighttime St. Louis skyline photos, if you desire.
On my recent visit to the Arch (my second time riding the elevator), I purchased a 9:10 am tram ticket. When I got to the Arch at 8:45 am, there was a long line of folks waiting outside in the cold.
This is yet another NPS fail. They should open the doors earlier (why not open the lobby at 8:30?), rather than forcing people to stand out in the cold all morning.
It was 9:26 before we finally boarded the elevator, and 9:50 when I was back downstairs and done with the entire experience.
There are paid parking lots near the Arch, but I was able to find plentiful street parking with meters. I paid a few bucks for an hour, and only had to walk two blocks to the Arch entrance.
Riding the Elevator to the Top of the St. Louis Arch
After arriving and paying for the ticket, we were given a number and told to stand next to the corresponding door.
We were shown a brief movie on the history of westward expansion and the Mississippi River, before the eight skinny doors opened, revealing bright-white orbs behind each.
Each orb elevator sits up to five people. You enter the orb through a small rectangular opening. This ride is not for large folks.
Another view inside the elevator door to see the futuristic orb that will take you to the top of the Arch:
After the door closes, you begin the slow four-minute ride to the top. The elevator ride is rickety, much like a ferris wheel, as the orb shakes back and forth.
Some of my co-riders commented that the ride felt scary and unsafe, but I enjoyed it. The danger made it exciting! Just pretend like you’re on a thrill ride.
St. Louis Arch Fun Facts
The tour guides and informational videos offer a number of fun facts. Like this: The Arch is both 630 tall and 630 feet wide. Who knew the height and width were exactly the same?
The Arch was designed to sway up to 18 inches and can withstand 150 mph winds.
There are 1076 steps in each Arch leg.
Guests can see as far as 30 miles away on clear days.
The tram ride is 4 minutes to the top, and 3 minutes on the way back down.
The doorway of each elevator is 4 feet tall, so you have to duck down to walk inside.
View from the Top of the Gateway Arch
Be prepared – the view from the top of the Gateway Arch is not like the panoramic view from the Empire State Building or the Space Needle. The windows at the top of the Arch are very small, just 7 x 27 inches.
Inside the top of the Arch, there’s not a huge amount of space. A lot of people are walking around a small area.
For the best views, you have to bend down and lean out awkwardly to put your face against the glass. It’s a decent view, but nothing special.
You can see the St. Louis skyline on one side and western Illinois across the Mississippi River on the other.
The last time I visited, it was almost too foggy to see anything! The river was barely visible.
In the past, you could stay at the top of the Gateway Arch as long as you like. But now, they make you take the next tram back down. So you’ll get about 10 minutes up there.
And that’s really all you need. After a few minutes taking pics out the small windows, you’ll start to get bored. It’s still worth the ride up.
There’s just not much going in inside the top of the Arch. Taking a trip up the Gateway Arch is definitely worth it, just to check off the bucket list. As long as you’re not scared of heights!
The Former Museum of Westward Expansion
The Arch used to have at its base the Museum of Westward Expansion, which was free to visit even without an Arch ticket. The museum consisted of a small room with galleries of presidents and historic figures, including a map of the travels of famed explorers Lewis & Clark.
I was particularly interested in that since I’ve seen Lewis & Clark historic markers all over the country, from Missouri to Oregon.
The museum also included an exhibit on Native Americans, artifacts from the era, and life-sized stuffed and mounted animals that used to roam the era, including a buffalo.
A couple years ago, the Museum of Westward Expansion closed and construction began on a new museum at the bottom of the Gateway Arch. It opened in July 2018.
The New Gateway Arch Museum and Visitor Center
The new museum aims to provide the kind of comprehensive experience you get from every national park visitor center. It provides six galleries full of history and information.
The current exhibits include Jefferson’s Vision, New Frontiers, The Riverfront Era, Building the Dream, Manifest Destiny, and Colonial St. Louis.
The new museum is quite impressive, but most tourists didn’t spend much time there. The problem is that the museum sits right before the queue to rid the tram to the top.
Most visitors speed through the museum because they are eager to get in line for the ride. That’s a shame. It’s not the greatest design on the part of the National Park Service.
The same is true of the gift shop and the cafeteria, which both sit before the tram ride rather than after. The cafe serves burgers, chicken, ribs, coffee… basically family-friendly snacks and meals.
Make sure to give the museum and gift shop some time. You can go back to them after you get back down from the tram.
The Courthouse Building at Gateway Arch National Park
At just 91 acres, the Gateway Arch is by far the smallest U.S. national park. It consists of the Arch itself, the park beneath the Arch that runs along the Mississippi River, and a former courthouse nearby.
It’s literally just called “The Old Courthouse.” This is the building where slaves Dred and Harriet Scott filed a lawsuit to try to win their freedom in 1847. The Supreme Court eventually ruled against them, creating outrage and possibly hastening the start of the Civil War.
The courthouse has been undergoing renovation for a couple years now. The plan is for it to reopen to the public, with new exhibits about the history of slavery and the Dred Scott decision.
It will be great for tourists to be able to tour the Old Courthouse, but as of now, it’s still closed to visitors.
Gateway Arch National Park Summary
The Gateway Arch is such an iconic structure that a trip to St. Louis isn’t complete without a visit there.
That’s even more true after it was elevated to official national park status, joining the company of such long-revered parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon.
But the views are just ok, so if you’re on a budget, you may be satisfied with taking some pictures from outside. You can always check out the visitor center instead of paying for the ride to the top.
Or you could stop by the City Museum instead. Or the Citygarden sculpture park, which sits only a few blocks from the Arch and features public artwork with distant views of the Arch.
The Arch is a great way to finish off a drive from Chicago to St. Louis.
Have you visited the Arch since it became an official national park?