Photographing Gateway Arch National Park

The Gateway Arch rises majestically 630 feet over St. Louis and the Mississippi River in Gateway Arch National Park, MO.
The Gateway Arch rises majestically 630 feet over St. Louis and the Mississippi River in Gateway Arch National Park, MO.

Story and photos by Jerry Ginsberg

One of the nation’s newest National Parks is a tiny speck of land on the west bank of the mighty Mississippi River. At a mere 91 acres, Gateway Arch National Park is by far the smallest of our sixty-one National Parks.

Classically simple and elegant, the 630 foot high Gateway Arch is indeed a majestic and even inspiring sculpture. While this very graceful shining steel arch has more than enough beauty and drama to really wow any visitor, when I realize that Congress elevated its status from national memorial to national park, I have to ask, “What were they thinking?”

Gateway Arch
Gateway Arch

Until now, the only national park created to protect the works of man, rather than those of Nature, has been Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado with its hundreds of historic pre-Columbian structures. Gateway Arch now joins these ranks with its elegant towering steel form.

The former Jefferson Expansion Memorial is laden with fascinating history and has much to teach us, but seems to now be a bit out of its league when compared to a group of such lofty names that includes Yellowstone, Yosemite the Grand Canyon and fifty-seven others.

With its tiny size, this park would fit into Death Valley National Park more than 36,000 times!

Over time, the definition of just what makes a National Park has certainly evolved. The Gateway Arch is magnificent and commemorates an important part of our history: the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the ensuing westward expansion that that historic transaction triggered. However, when contrasted with what has traditionally been the national park ideal, awarding it the status of a national monument or national historic park might well have been more appropriate. Gateway and a couple of other places that have been elevated to national park status may fairly be seen as a bit over-rated. Conversely, it might be argued that there are some spectacular, but virtually unknown places in states such as Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Alaska that are well deserving of NPS protection.

The view from the top of Gateway Arch.
The view from the top of Gateway Arch.

This Gateway Arch is a very imposing sculpture. After an exhaustive design competition, the architect Eero Saarinen was awarded the commission. Sadly, he didn’t live to see his creation built. Since its 1965 dedication, this structure that rises 630 feet above the Mississippi River has been the tallest arch in the world. Its symmetrically curving form makes a wonderful reflection in adjacent ponds, shines brilliantly in the sunlight and glows brightly under the full moon.

While the original 13 colonies were just a narrow strip of land hugging the Atlantic Coast, then distant St. Louis has long been seen as the gateway to the great American West. When Lewis & Clark headed out in 1804 to explore the vast unknown territory suddenly brought into the United States with the Louisiana Purchase, they set sail up river from the fledgling town of St. Louis. When courageous settlers seeking a better life journeyed into the enormous western wilderness, they trudged westward from right here in St. Louis.

Gateway Arch reflections.
Gateway Arch reflections.

It is the stories of these and other milestones in the opening of the West that are told here and in the wonderful visitor facilities located directly beneath the Gateway Arch.

You’ll want to enter the subterranean visitor center from the west side of the arch. There you’ll find excellent exhibits showcasing the growth of America, an interesting 30 minute movie on the construction of the Gateway Arch and the all-important access to the tram described below.. These indoor features are timely when the sun is high and the light is poorly suited to outdoor shooting.

An excellent museum directly beneath the Gateway Arch exhibits the history of St. Louis and westward expansion in Gateway Arch National Park, St. Louis, MO.
An excellent museum directly beneath the Gateway Arch exhibits the history of St. Louis and westward expansion in Gateway Arch National Park, St. Louis, MO.

A word about the light: The broad sides of the Gateway Arch face due east and west. Sunrise and morning light strikes the arch from the Illinois side just across the Mississippi. In East St. Louis, IL you’ll find a perfectly positioned observation tower that offers a great vantage point.

Late afternoon and sunset light is best photographed from both in front and behind the Old Courthouse.

Perhaps the highlight of any visit to this imposing structure is the ride to the top. Yes, you can actually go to the very top of this remarkable arch. Board one of the small ferris wheel-like tram cars for the ride up through its entire height. When your tiny compartment reaches the very top, get out and take in the panoramic views through the east and west facing windows.

After your eyes enjoy the close-by features of the historic Old Courthouse and Busch Stadium, look farther afield. At this height over the flat plain, the visibility goes on for miles.

Courtroom in the historic Old Courthouse of St. Louis, MO where the Dred Scott case was first heard in Gateway Arch National Park, MO.
Courtroom in the historic Old Courthouse of St. Louis, MO where the Dred Scott case was first heard in Gateway Arch National Park, MO.

In addition to the arch itself, make sure to visit the historic, green-domed nineteenth century Georgian ‘Old Courthouse’. It was within these very walls that Dred and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom in 1846, kicking off their famed case that was eventually decided against them in the Supreme Court eleven years later. Regardless of your faith, the Catholic basilica, just steps from the arch, should also be included in your visit. Both are within the park boundary.

While it is unlikely that most photographers will plan a photo trip around a visit to the Gateway Arch, its central location makes it very accessible to the many millions of people living within a day’s drive of St. Louis. It might make sense to combine a visit to Gateway Arch National Park with another location in that part of the country such as Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas or the newest addition to the National Parks roster, Indiana Dunes National Park just east of Chicago.

The varied transportation, lodging and dining choices of St. Louis cover a wide gamut and are much the same as you might expect in any major city. The downtown neighborhood of the national park includes several A-list hotels. Their close proximity will allow you to shuttle to and from St. Louis Lambert airport, walk the immaculate downtown area and completely skip renting a car.

Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published photographer whose landscape, Nature and travel images have graced the covers pages of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 61 National Parks with medium format cameras.

Jerry has been awarded Artist Residencies in several National Parks and has appeared on ABC TV speaking about the parks. His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards. Jerry’s body of work spans virtually all of both North and South America.

More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com. Or e mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.