Day Tripper: ‘Journey to the Top’ enjoyable even with feet firmly planted on the ground

2012-03-17T07:30:00Z Day Tripper: ‘Journey to the Top’ enjoyable even with feet firmly planted on the groundBy Rob Stroud JG-TC.com
March 17, 2012 7:30 am  • 

Last month, my family rode a train to the Gateway Arch and a tram to the top of this 630-foot-tall monument during a weekend getaway to St. Louis.

My wife had long wanted to visit the Arch, but I had dragged my feet due to my fear of heights. Then, our daughter came along and demonstrated a fearlessness to heights and most other things as she reached her school-age years. The two of them were more than ready to make the “Journey to the Top” together.

The trip to the Arch, part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, also offered an opportunity for me to achieve a goal on my to-do list — riding the MetroLink commuter train from Illinois into St. Louis.

Being a fan of rail travel, I had always been eager to hear acquaintances’ accounts of using the MetroLink to go to Cardinals games at Busch Stadium. This got me thinking of using the train as a way to visit other Downtown St. Louis sites while avoiding the spider web of congested highways over the Mississippi River.

Fairview Heights was the station of choice for the MetroLink riders I know, so I followed their example. For my family, Fairview Heights has the added benefit of hosting a Drury Inn & Suites.

We like that Drury hotels offer complimentary hot breakfasts and “5:30 p.m. Kickback” meals, as well as swimming pools. The pools sometimes are partially inside the building and partially outside, requiring you to swim under a wall — a feature both my wife and daughter like. As the pool is heated, it allows them to swim outside comfortably, even in the middle of winter.

The Drury’s front-desk staff provided us with a coupon for the Arch and with printed directions to the MetroLink station, which was not far from the hotel. We headed out on a Sunday morning for this station along Illinois Route 161 and parked at no charge in one of the more than 850 Park & Ride spaces there.

At the station, we paid for our fare at an automated dispenser of tickets. The cost for one-way tickets was $2.25 per adult and $1.10 for our 6-year-old daughter, with our 1-year-old son riding for free.

We only had to wait a few minutes for the next westbound train to arrive. The Red and Blue Line trains follow the same route until they separate after the Forest Park station, well past the Arch, so it did not matter which westbound train we rode.

The train, both clean and comfortable, made brief stops at five other stations, including one by the Casino Queen, before reaching the Mississippi within minutes. The train offered an impressive view of the Arch and the river as we pulled into our station between the Arch’s parkland and Laclede’s Landing. Both of our children enjoyed the ride.

A short stroll through the grassy, tree-filled park took us to the Arch, where we cued up with many other tourists. We had to pass through metal detectors before entering (understandably, security is much tighter at the Arch than it was during my last visit as a youth), but the line moved steadily.

My son and I cordoned off part of a bench within the base of the Arch, where he napped on my lap while I read exhibit panels set up for the monument’s Museum of Westward Expansion. Meanwhile, my wife and daughter obtained tickets for their long-awaited “Journey to the Top.”

They rode in one of the Arch’s signature pod-like tram cars, a component of two sets of Arch trams that are part-elevator and part-Ferris wheel. One of these retro sci-fi looking cars is displayed at the museum, which is nice for those like me who want to see the pods while keeping their feet firmly on the ground.

The pods are quite small and my wife says you feel like you are inside an egg. You can hear the pod move and adjust up the curved arch, and when entering and exiting, you must watch your head and adjust to the small space both inside the pod and when making the small trek up the populated stairs after exiting the pod.

Once they arrived at the top, my wife and daughter joined other visitors in peering through the 16 small windows in the observation area. They had panoramic views of downtown St. Louis on one side and the eastern shore of the Mississippi on the other.

For some reason, my wife was disappointed that the wind did not gently rock the top of the arch that day, as she had heard that was a possibility. The thought gives me chills and makes me ever appreciative of the comfortable seating I occupied on the ground floor. Amusingly, our daughter exclaimed afterwards that she had seen “tiny little ant cars!”

Having worked up an appetite during our trip to the Arch, we headed back across the park to Laclede’s Landing in search of a late lunch. Billed as Downtown St. Louis’ oldest district, this riverfront hub of dining and entertainment is a home of many restaurants.

We opted to try Hannegan’s Restaurant & Pub, where we fueled up on a bacon cheeseburger, steak sandwich and chicken strips. Afterward, we peeked in the front windows of the St. Louis Wax Museum to see some of its superheroes and movie characters before heading back to the MetroLink station.

After buying our return tickets and settling into our seats, I was thankful that we did not have to navigate St. Louis traffic on the way home — instead, driving comfortably through Collinsville to stop at a Farm Fresh Dairy Store on the way home. Farm Fresh is a subject of a previous column and a favorite Stroud family destination.

We enjoyed our delightful, glass-bottled beverages and reminisced on the day during our drive home. I was already contemplating other destinations that we might be able to visit via the MetroLink trains, such as The St. Louis Zoo in Forest Park or The City Museum downtown.

One of our return trips to St. Louis will likely also include another visit to the Arch. I’m betting that our son, already showing the early signs of daring, will be eager to join his mom and sister on another “Journey to the Top.” I’ll kick back and watch our bags with my feet planted firmly 630 feet below theirs.

This column and previous entries in the series also can be read at www.facebook.com/RobStroud.DayTripper.

Rob Stroud is a staff writer for the JG-TC. Contact him at rstroud@jg-tc.com or 238-6861.

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