Exploring the New Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis with kids
Find a truly unique family-friendly adventure when you visit Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis
Even if your family are not seasoned road-trippers, a short drive of less than three hours from Champaign-Urbana is sure to be doable for your crew. And if you’re looking for a truly *unique* experience, unlike anything else you’ll find in the Midwest, you can find it by planning a trip to visit the Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis!
Like any big city, there’s lots to do in St. Louis. You can take in a sporting event, like a Cardinals game, hop over to the famous City Museum (be ok with “losing” your kids when you go!) or visit free attractions like the St. Louis Zoo and the St. Louis Science Center in Forest Park. Or you can carve out an entire day and take in the complete Gateway Arch Experience right in the heart of downtown St. Louis.
Many people consider a trip to the arch to be parking, walking in, buying tram tickets and cruising to the top to check out the view. You may not even know how many other things you can do right there as part of your trip.
Basic Logistical Tips
The Gateway Arch recently underwent a significant expansion, so if you visited several years ago and remember certain things about your trip, you may be surprised when you arrive.
- There’s now a park stretching over the interstate so visitors are connected right to the heart of downtown St. Louis when you’re walking in.
- There is not a dedicated parking garage for the Arch but there are many, many parking locations close by (check them out here).
- You no longer enter the arch through the “legs” but through the west entrance (pictured below). As an additional note, the west entrance faces the new park, while the east side of the arch is what faces the Mississippi River.
- To get to the tram, you walk through the new Museum at the Gateway Arch, which has some awesome family-friendly exhibits to check out. (More on that.) Be *sure* to carve out the time before or after your visit to the top to spend in the museum!
- There is a cafe at the Gateway Arch, with a wide variety of entrees/sandwiches. A cheeseburger and chips costs $9.50 and a junior meal costs between $4.99 and $5.99, for your reference. You can also take a short walk on the walking paths near the Arch to get to the Laclede’s Landing neighborhood, where there are other dining options (pictured right). This is what our group chose to do. The street tacos at Mas Tequila cantina were fantastic, and the prices were very reasonable.
When You Arrive
You can now buy your Arch tickets ahead of time online, which will be *really* helpful during the busiest summer months and spring break! If you don’t buy them ahead of time, you need to stop at the ticket counter when you enter. They will tell you when the next available tram is. It could be hours from the time you walk in, and it *could* even be sold out for that day. Our advice is don’t set yourself up for disappointment and just get them online. Entry into the museum, the Arch Store and the Arch Cafe is all free. So if you have members of your group that do not want to ride to the top of the Arch, they can join you for much of the rest of the experience for no charge and wait while you ride to the top.
After that, you’ll be directed to the security area. This very closely resembles security at airports. You won’t need to remove your shoes but you will be putting everything in a bin and taking off belts and things. Just a heads up that this is absolutely mandatory for every person entering and another thing to account for when you’re timing out your day.
Entering the Museum
The entire museum was just redone! You are going to walk through it to get to the trams, so we encourage you to plan at least an hour before or after your ride to take in the museum. Something to note is that the museum was not just built with ADA compliance but with something called universal design in mind. Many exhibits are structured so that wheelchairs can roll right up to the display and comfortably fit. You will also see many smaller scale tactical models in front of larger exhibits (like the bison), so that guests who may be visually impaired can touch what the other guests are looking at and participate in the experience. Visual impairment or not, we think that guests of all ages will like running their hands over the tactical exhibits throughout the museum.
The museum is great for families who like digging into history together. The six galleries walk through over 200 years of history and share glimpses into historical periods like the boom of steamboats in St. Louis during the Riverfront Era and members of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints heading west towards Utah in pursuit of religious freedom in the mid-1800s, among many others. The final gallery documents the construction of the Gateway Arch and will have your architecturally and engineer-minded family members marveling at what actually went into designing and constructing the Arch. I know we were while we were there!
To The Top – 630 Feet Above Ground
Your tram ride time approaches and this is likely what you came for! Here is where you venture out of the museum area and into the open space near the gift shop, cafe and entry to the documentary movie theater. That documentary movie is not very long (25-30 minutes?) and would definitely interest most kids as it includes a lot of real footage from the days of building the Arch. It would also be a great activity for members of your group who are not traveling to the top of the Arch for whatever reason.
While the entire Arch Museum and surrounding area features a universal design and ADA compliance. The actual ride to the top is not fully accessible. Here’s what the Gateway Arch website states, as this is an important note for guests planning a trip to the Arch: The Tram Ride to the Top of the Gateway Arch is not fully accessible for guests with mobility impairments, as no wheelchairs, scooters or strollers are permitted on the Observation Deck. To reach the top and return, you must be able to manage at least 96 steps, divided into six flights, and you may need to stand for 30–60 minutes. No seating or restrooms are located at the top of the Arch.
After parking your stroller, you get in line for your trams. This part doesn’t take too long but if you have small children with you, be prepared for a short potential wait. There are things to look at and your group’s photo will be taken. Then you begin venturing into the loading area (pictured right). There are eight tram cars that seat five people per car. The ride is four minutes to the top and three minutes back down. Once you’re at the top, you can spend as long as you like! But remember, no bathrooms or seating up there, so plan accordingly. Take in the views and enjoy the sight of the city from 630 feet above!
What Else? Making A Day Of It
Here are a few other nearby ideas that are in very close walking distance to the Arch:
The Old Courthouse
History buffs, keep the excitement going and venture directly west across the way to The Old Courthouse. It’s part of Gateway Arch National Park (more on that in a minute) and has some serious history tied to it, in addition to just being beautiful to walk through. You can learn about famous cases at the Courthouse such as the Dred Scott suit for freedom and Virginia Minor’s case for a woman’s right to vote in the 1870s. It also tells the story of Lewis & Clark, Native Americans and colonial St. Louis. Best of all, it is completely FREE to visit!
Continuing just footsteps further west of The Old Courthouse and you arrive at Kiener Plaza. There’s a fantastic playground (with a gate and fence) for kids of all ages to play on, a splash pad and space for outdoor concerts in the warmer months and an ice rink in the winter months. The Courthouse and Arch provide a beautiful backdrop while you play at another FREE spot in downtown St. Louis.
Gateway Arch National Park Junior Ranger Program
Did you know there was such a thing as an urban National Park? That’s what Gateway Arch is! And all National Parks have Junior Ranger program activities for FREE! Visit the information desks at The Old Courthouse and the Gateway Arch for activity sheets (or download them here) and your kids will have a project to work on while you explore. They can get a stamp in their passport (if that’s something your family does) and share their answers with a park ranger at the conclusion of your visit, too.
Celebrating something special on your visit? There are riverboat cruises that depart from right outside the Arch. You can bundle a cruise with a ride to the top of the Arch when you buy your tickets online, or get them at the ticket counter inside the Arch, too. It’s one of those things we think you’ll probably want to plan for (because again, time) so check out the details and see if it’ll be right for your day on their website. Kids under 3 are free for the cruises (and all Arch activities).
We know there are so many things you can do on a trip to St. Louis. A trip to the Gateway Arch is so much more than a tram ride to the top and we want you to get the full experience if you’re heading there with your family. Hope you have a blast like we did!