Gateway Arch National Park: The Third Newest but does it belong?

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The Arch

Why is Gateway Arch National Park a National Park?

The National Park Service manages 423 sites, of which 63 of them are designated as official National Parks.  There are National Historic Sites, National Memorials, National Seashores etc.  National Parks are the flagship of these sites.  On February 22, 2018, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial became Gateway Arch National Park.

At 91 acres in downtown St. Louis, Gateway Arch National Park does not fit the definition of National Park Service’s own designation of National Parks.  According to National Park Service:

“Generally, a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources.”

“The title national memorial is most often used for areas that are primarily commemorative. “

There is nothing natural about Gateway Arch National Park.  It doesn’t have a “variety of resources.”  There is no resource to protect.  It is in the middle of a large city, with a modern man-made object as its focal point.  The park consists of the Gateway Arch park and the Old Courthouse where the Dred Scott case was heard.  That’s it.  It does not encompass large land or water areas.

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The title National Memorial was perfectly fine for this wonderful testament to the spirit of America, the crucial role the Louisiana Purchase and the westward expansion played in building the United States, in both physical and cultural terms.

Why did it become a National Park?  We’ll get to that later, but first, let’s talk about the park itself and our visit to it.

National symbol

SSC_3597-1024x576 Gateway Arch National Park:  The Third Newest but does it belong?The arch, completed in 1965, commemorates the role Thomas Jefferson played in the westward expansion of the United States.  It is 630 feet tall and wide on 91 acres of land between an interstate and the Mississippi River.  Gateway Arch is the tallest structure in Missouri.  The arch is one of the iconic symbols of the United States that embodies the adventurous spirit of America.

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Old Courthouse

The Old Courthouse, a short walk from the riverfront park, is one of the oldest structures in St. Louis.  This is where the Dred Scott case was heard.  He filed suit to free himself from slavery in 1846.  There were several trials with mixed results.  Ultimately, it went to the United States Supreme Court in 1857 and his freedom was denied.  That laid the foundation for the civil war.

The park

SSC_3595-200x300 Gateway Arch National Park:  The Third Newest but does it belong?The arch dominates the riverfront landscape and St. Louis.  It is the most recognizable structure in St. Louis and at 630 feet, towers into the sky.  The park itself is very nice, right on the Mississippi river, on par with other nice riverfront city parks, but nothing too special.  The constant traffic noise from the nearby interstate distracts from the tranquility of the riverfront.

Multiple trails surround the arch itself.  A recently completed overpass over the interstate made it easier to walk from the park to the Old Courthouse, part of the Gateway Arch National Park, now only a 7 minute 0.3 mile walk away.

The museum

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Display in the museum

Under the arch, in between the two legs, is the recently renovated museum that re-opened in 2018 as part of the dedication of the new national park designation.  The museum has exhibits of Jefferson’s vision for westward expansion, life in colonial St. Louis, the new frontiers, and the story of the arch itself.  There is a film on how the arch was built that was very interesting to watch.

This is an excellent museum for the spirit of the west, the important role of Jefferson and St. Louis played, and the history of the arch itself.

The arch

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St. Louis view from the top of the arch

The arch is beautiful in its simplicity.  It naturally draws the eyes to the sky.  The top of the arch is a room with small windows that holds 160 people.  There are two “trams” that go between the base and the top, one on each leg.  Eight capsules with five seats each form the tram.  The capsules are cramped, only five feet in diameter and the only view from the tram is the dark interior of the arch.  Most of the time, the view is the staircase for maintenance and emergencies.

The trip

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Tram loading area

The trip to the top takes four minutes.  The capsule stays horizontal as it moves up, rotating a total of 155 degrees.  The trip down takes three minutes.  At the top, there are small windows on both sides, one overlooks the Mississippi River and Illinois while the other side overlooks the city of St. Louis with Busch Stadium and downtown in clear view.  It’s like looking from an airplane, not a skyscraper.  You have to crouch down to look out the window but you can stay as long as you want.  The space is pretty small so you’ll have to wait your turn at the window.  It can feel cramped and few stay more than 15 minutes at the top.

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A view of Illinois side of Mississippi River from the top of the arch

The view from the top is fantastic, especially the St. Louis side.  It’s the St. Louis’ version of an observation tower.  East St. Louis, across the river in Illinois, is more industrial and has many factories and docks while the St. Louis side is all city.

Old Courthouse

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Reflection of the Old Courthouse from the nearby modern building

The original room where the Dred Scott court case was heard is no longer there because they discovered a structural problem shortly after the court case and had to renovate it by dividing the room with a hallway to shore up the structure.  The tour today shows some courtrooms and the history of this very important case that ended in the United States Supreme Court and the bloody civil war.  It has a lot of historical significance.

Does it fit the definition of a national park?

For all the symbolism and historical significance, Gateway Arch should not be a National Park.  It was perfectly fine as a National Memorial.  There are three other official National Parks that have historical significance as part of their emphasis but all of them also have resources to protect.  They also have a much larger area that requires preservation.

Mesa Verde National Park celebrates the strange cliff side dwellings of the ancient Pueblo Indians in a beautiful natural setting of 52,000 acres that requires preservation.  Dry Tortugas is a historical fort in an area of 64,000 acres that protects marine life.  The smallest national park before Gateway Arch is Hot Springs National Park, also in an urban setting but has 5,500 acres with two mountains that preserves the natural hot springs that spew out water from thousands of years ago.  While all three has historical significance as part of its attraction, even the smallest previous park – Hot Springs National Park – is 60 times bigger!

Gateway Arch National Park does not have any natural component.  It’s more like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, both are National Memorials.  It’s 100% man-made.  It does not fit National Park Services’ own definition of the flagship National Park status.

Why did it become a national park?

In one word: dollars.  This was a cynical ploy to attract more tourism to St. Louis.  Don’t get me wrong, the arch is a nice place to visit and does celebrate a key part of American history but by making this an official National Park, it really dilutes the brand of National Park.  The press release for the grand opening of this newest National Park made no mention of the reason for the name change, just the process of congressional approval and the President signing the bill.  None of the rangers I talked to at other national parks tried to defend it.  Most just shrug their shoulders and avoid the topic!

We actually visited this park in 2017, before it became an official National Park.  We have a stamp for it as a National Memorial.  Do you think this counts as part of our visit to all official National Parks?  Do we have to visit it again?  Maybe we’ll go back just for the great BBQ in Missouri!

Impressions of Gateway Arch National Park:

Gateway Arch National Park is unlike any other official National Park.  It is fundamentally a National Memorial, like the Lincoln Memorial or Mount Rushmore.  It’s nice enough to visit and it’s fun to ride the tram to the top for a bird’s eye view of St. Louis.  The Old Courthouse is interesting from a historical perspective.  The museum is nice enough but none of this rises to National Park status.

Have you visited Gateway Arch National Park?  Leave a comment below on your experience.   

Gateway Arch National Park Rating:

(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5-star ratings as 1-star ratings.  All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)

Element Rating (out of 5 Stars)
Accessibility ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Touring ⭐⭐⭐

Guide to Gateway Arch National Park:

Top Attractions at Gateway Arch National Park:

  • Gateway Arch and tram to the top
  • Gateway Arch museum
  • Old Courthouse

One Day Visit Plan:

One day is more than enough to visit this park.  Get your tour tickets early.  Visit the museum, watch the film on the construction of the arch, take the tram to the top, linger for 15 minutes, come back down, walk to the Old Courthouse and take the ranger-guided tour.  If you have the interest, take the riverboat tour on the Mississippi.  All of this would take much less than a full day.

Practical Info for Visiting Gateway Arch National Park:

  • Get your tour tickets early, especially in the summer, at
  • Tickets are available for the tram to the top, the riverboat cruise, and the movie.
  • Combination ticket for all three attractions is $34 per person.
  • Show up at least 30 minutes for your tram time to get through the security check.
  • Take the ranger-led tour at the Old Courthouse.
  • Take the picture of the arch from the St. Louis (west) in the afternoon so the sun is not behind the arch.

Gateway Arch National Park Facts:

  • Size: 91 acres, ranked 60th
  • Visitors: 1,398,188 in 2017 while it was a national memorial.  Would have ranked 19th if it was a national park.  The record was 3,649,308 visitors in 1996
  • Peak Month in 2017: 245,532 visitors in July
  • Low Month in 2017: 30,163 visitors in January
  • Entrance Fee: None, but tours costs up to $34 per person.

Date Visited: October 1, 2017

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  1. With all due respect to the Gateway Arch, giving in National Park status rather corrupts the whole system. It undervalues the National Park designation.

    1. I absolutely agree. Even the National Park Service didn’t want it but politicians do what politicians do.

  2. Yes, the re-designation of Gateway Arch was inappropriate according to NPS guidelines, and common sense. Having said that, it is understandable yet unfortunate that people think of the sixty-two national parks as designated by Congress as superior or a higher level of park. Per the mission of the park service, our national park system encompasses both our human and natural history. How does one compare Yellowstone NP with the National Mall, Gettysburg NMP or Tuskegee Airmen NHS? We really can’t. The National Park Service doesn’t think of the sixty-two as “the flagship.” If we are splitting hairs on natural versus historical, remarkable natural places with significant resources remain protected by the other twenty plus designations in the system.

    1. Each NPS Unit has specific purpose and value. All of them are interesting and the designation is important to know what you are visiting. The definition of the designations make sense and should be followed.

  3. Thanks for this article – I’m glad to know I’m not alone in my thoughts about this! I’m in the process of visiting all the U.S. national parks. I visited the arch in middle school, LONG before it was designated a national “park”, and I can’t decide if I “need” to revisit it now that it’s officially a park! I have no desire to go back – been there, done that – but…I’m missing a picture of myself posing with the sign (which is what I take at every NP I visit.) I also stopped by Indiana Sand Dunes before it was a national park – at least there are trails there, so I wouldn’t mind stopping by next time I’m in Chicago.

    I also agree with another comment that Cuyahoga should probably be a state park instead of a national park, but (not quite relevant) I have to say that the Ledges trail is really fun.

    1. I went to Gateway Arch in 2017 and then again in 2020 (before the pandemic). I went in 2020 because I happen to be in St. Louis for business and couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The big difference is the museum which was very nicely done but questionable if that alone is worth a special trip. My wife would go just to get the ribs in St. Louis and BBQ in Kansas City across the state!
      How far along are you in visiting all the parks?

  4. I am in Saint Louis as I write this comment. We came to visit the Gateway Arch because it is now a NP. There is no doubt it is an iconic monument and should be protected by the State, but I agree wholeheartedly with all the comments above. It is shameful to classify the Arch as a NP. I have been to 45 of the National Parks and throughout my trip to Saint Louis I have been grumbling about the NP designation. I will ask my congressman and senators to reverse the decision. From what little we saw of Saint Louis, the downtown area is in desperate need of revitalization, but doing it by this means is wrong.

  5. I work as a National Park Service (NPS) employee at Gateway Arch National Park and wanted to un-officially address your comment about the name change. Please note that what I write here is my own personal opinion and not that of the National Park Service or the federal government. The reason why NPS rangers who you spoke with about the name change skirted your question or just shrugged their shoulders was because we as federal employees (in uniform or not) don’t have an official opinion and we are not allowed to comment on some official matters. Before the change of the name of the park from Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to Gateway Arch National Park officially happened, the acting director of the NPS appeared before a committee in congress regarding the name change and recommended a change to Gateway Arch National Monument or Gateway Arch National Memorial. Ultimately, the recommendation by the NPS was not followed and through a vote in both branches of Congress and presidential signature Jefferson National Expansion Memorial became Gateway Arch National Park. Neither upper NPS management in Washington, DC, nor the management of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, had any control over this as it was spearheaded by groups outside the park. Similar situations happened when Cuyahoga National Recreation Area in Ohio became Cuyahoga National Park and when Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in Indiana became Indiana Dunes National Park. Recently in New Mexico legislation was introduced to change White Sands National Monument to White Sands National Park. Although I would agree that Gateway Arch National Park does not belong in the same category as Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite, Acadia, or Everglades National Park, the name change has helped attract more visitors to the park. Many people when first visiting Gateway Arch National Park don’t realize that we have been a UNIT of the national park system since 1935 when Jefferson National Expansion Memorial National Historic Site (national historic site was later dropped from our name) was created by FDR and we were the first national historic site created after the passage of the National Historic Sites Act. Now when visitors come to visit the Gateway Arch they will know that it’s neither owned and operated by the City of St. Louis or the State of Missouri, but it is owned by all citizens of the United States and protected and preserved by the National Park Service.
    It is true that the Gateway Arch (and the other cultural institutions & attractions) bring in tourism dollars to the City of St. Louis and the St. Louis Region. But the same could be said of many other popular national parks/sites and the communities that surround them.
    (FYI – The national park system currently has 419 “units”, not 417)

    1. I suspected the NPS management was not the initiator of the name change. The National Park designation didn’t meet NPS’s own criteria for a National Park and it’s done for tourist $$ reasons. The net result is it “cheapens” the National Park brand. The change to Gateway Arch National Monument or Memorial are both perfectly fine and made sense. I also agree Cuyahoga does not rise to the level of National Park and I think it was done to help with the clean up of an environmental mess. Cuyahoga would be a wonderful state park or a national recreation area. I have not been to Indiana Dunes (on my list) or White Sands (almost went when we were at Carlsbad) so I can’t comment on those two.

      By the way, I completely understand the reaction of NPS employees when I asked about Gateway Arch, even those in Alaska tried to avoid the question. Even if they agree that it shouldn’t be a National Park, I can understand why they don’t want to talk about it with the public while they are on duty.

      Thanks for taking time to write the comment!

      1. I’m a little late to this conversation but wanted to give my perspective — we went on a tour of 7 National Parks in the southwest last year, including White Sands. I wasn’t aware at the time that it had just recently received designation as a NP, but I don’t think I would have questioned it either – a beautiful wide open expanse of natural terrain, unique features, and wildlife. In my opinion, it fit right in with the other parks we went to last year (Saguaro, Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mtns., Mesa Verde, Arches, and Death Valley). On the other hand, it would never cross my mind that Gateway Arch WOULD be a NP.

        1. 100% agree. We can’t wait to see White Sands – going in October this year. Hopefully, it won’t be too hot.

  6. I agree completely – the Arch is cool but does not meet any of the criteria of National Park. The categories for national park units need to be defined and Congress needs to abide by them. This needs to get fixed.

  7. You are wrong about the US Supreme court granting Scott his freedom. The court ruled against Scott. He and his family were sold to Taylor Blow in 1857, son of Scotts original owner, but also close friend, who supported Scott throughout the trials. Blow immediately freed the Scott family. The government process of recognizing that freedom was held in the Old Courthouse’s 2nd floor eastern courtroom.

    1. Edward, Thanks for pointing that out. I corrected it. The circuit court actually freed him but the state supreme court over turned it and the US supreme court denied his freedom as well.

  8. I was born and raised in the St Louis area. I was alive when the arch was built. Have always thought it was awesome! Love the renovation of it too. However, after reading the definition of a National Park, don’t think it falls into that category. National monument, yes. When I think of a national park, I think of the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley – which were created by God – not man. The Gateway Arch is a great place to visit and the grounds are beautiful!

    1. Thanks for the comment. Each “segment” of the National Park system (417 at last count) have their unique “brand”. Gateway Arch is a great place to visit, beautiful to look at and just a real nice park in the middle of the city on the riverfront, but it’s not protecting any natural resources. I thought it was perfectly fine as a national memorial or monument.

    2. Agree wholeheartedly. If any area deserves National Park status, it would be Monument Valley. I wonder if there’s a way that it could be designated as a National Park while still recognizing it as a Navajo Tribal Park; I’d imagine the red tape and negotiations would probably make it next to impossible, but if merely slapping the National Park label on the Gateway Arch increased tourism, imagine what it could do for majestic Monument Valley.

      1. Indian land and national park issues are complicated. National Park has lots of restrictions that Navajos may not want but it would certainly raise the profile of Monument Valley!

  9. Yes, it should have been kept a National Memorial and not upgraded to National Park status. And for the reason you speculated is spot on, money is always at the root of most things related to man. It seems like a nice place to visit, and since I’ve seen it in many pictures I would like to see it for myself.

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