Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (Gateway Arch) – St. Louis, Missouri

Gateway Arch

Sandwiched between downtown St. Louis to the west, and the Mississippi River to the east lies the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.  The 91 acres of the Memorial are home to the Gateway Arch, the Museum of Westward Expansion, and the Old [St. Louis County] Courthouse.  The links provided above provide plenty of details about the Memorial, but briefly, the park was created to commemorate:

  • The Louisana Purchase, and the subsequent westward exploration and expansion of the United States.
  • The first civil government west of the Mississippi River.
  • The debate over slavery raised by the Dred Scott case.

Approaching the Arch on foot from the north, one immediately notices the similarity to the Washington Monument, althought the illusion soon disappears as you move to the side of the towering arch.

The actual size of the arch cannot be fully appreciated until you approach the very base and gaze in an upward direction.  You soon find yourself jockeying for a suitable position to view the entire arch at one time.

Alas, the dimensions of the arch are so vast, and the field of vision of our eyes so comparatively narrow, we come to realize that from this close proximity we can only view a portion of the arch with each gaze.

The height of the arch measures 630 feet, which exactly matches the 630 foot width of the arch at its base.  It is quite an experience to stand directly underneath the apex of the arch and look up – the top of the arch seems far, far away!  It occurs to me that this might be the only time in my life that I have stood directly underneath any structure this tall!  So help me out – if you can think of any example of a structure that a person can stand under that exceeds the height of the Gateway Arch, please leave a comment explaining where.

After standing underneath the arch, you might decide to ride the tram to the top of the Gateway Arch.  After purchasing your tickets for the tram, you will make your way to the tram loading station, where you will enter a tram pod for the ride up the inside of the arch.  There are eight tram pods on the north leg of the arch, and eight pods on the south leg.  Each of the pods can hold up to five people.  As you can see from the photo above, the loading zone for the tram is fairly level on the horizontal plane. Yet the tram must travel up an arch leg that is almost straight up on the vertical plane.  How is this accomplished?

The tram, consisting of eight pods, is not a single structure, but rather a row of eight independently suspended units, as seen above.  The pods are in lateral alignment along the horizontal parts of the journey, and stack up, one above the other on the vertical portion of the ascent.

This is what the interior of the tram pod looks like.  In the off-season, you may end up with a pod to yourself, but each pod holds up to five passengers, albeit snugly.  The trip to the top of the Gateway Arch takes four minutes – the trip down, three minutes.

Once at the top of the arch, the tram lets you off at the observation area, where rows of windows allow you to see the surrounding countryside for many miles in each direction.

Upon gazing out of the observation windows, one is immediately struck with the realization of how high the arch towers above the St. Louis skyline.  To get a sense of size, the enclosed football stadium on the right-hand side of the photo above is the Edward Jones Dome, the home of the NFL’s St.Louis Rams.

Directly to the west is the Old Courthouse, which is also part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.  Most notably, this was the court of original jurisdiction in the historic Dred Scott v. Sandford case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that Africans brought to the United States as slaves (or their descendants) were not protected by the United States Constitution, and could never be citizens.

To the southwest one can see Busch Stadium III, completed in 2006 and home of MLB’s St. Louis Cardinals.

To the east one can see the mighty Mississippi River.  The color of the Mississippi River is not as blue as this photo would suggest.  This is simply a reflection of the blue sky above; from a land-based perspective, the river is typically brown.

Looking directly below the arch to the northwest, lies the first of two large reflecting pools.

The second reflecting pool lies immediately below the arch to the southwest.

Housed below the arch in an underground facility is the Museum of Westward Expansion, documenting the growth of the United States, from inception to the present, with an impressive collection of artifacts and exhibits.

There are two theaters located within the monument.  One theater shows a documentary film in which you learn how the Gateway Arch was constructed.  The second theater shows an IMAX large screen format film chronicling the expedition by Lewis and Clark to document the western territories of the United States.  Both films are very well done, and worth the time to see.

All-in-all, the time spend exploring the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is time well-spent. If I didn’t think this was worth visiting, I wouldn’t have posted about it!

Petrified Forest National Park

I have a goal of visiting every major attraction along (or close to) the famous Route 66 within my lifetime.  Why this is, I couldn’t tell you.  Never-the-less, I plug away at it.  So here is yet another Route 66 attraction that is well worth taking the time to see if you happen to be traveling along Interstate 40 in northern Arizona.  I’m referring to the Petrified Forest National Park located within the beautiful Painted Desert of Arizona.

This map shows the outline of the park, along with the major features contained therein.  You may notice that visiting the park, and driving along the main park road will not add a major amount of time to your east or west-bound travel along the interstate.  There is a lot to see within the park, however, so you may want to allocate sufficient time for hiking and sightseeing during your visit.  If you are west-bound on the Interstate, the first thing you will encounter as you divert off the main road is the visitors center, where you can obtain information about the park.  The visitors center is exactly what you might expect, so I have not included any photos of it in this post.

After paying the entrance fee at the park entry kiosk, the first thing you encounter along the park road are overlooks from which you have excellent vantage points of the spectacular Painted Desert.

If you happen along this route at the right time of the year, wildflowers abound, adding a colorful touch to the already beautiful scenery.

As you continue driving, you are rewarded with views of the desert in all directions, each view seeming more spectacular than the previous one.

The clean desert air, combined with the elevated vantage point afforded by the turnouts allow you to see the hills and valleys for what seems a hundred miles.

There are hiking trails along the way that will allow you to explore the area much more thoroughly than if you simply stayed in your automobile.

Soon you will arrive at the Painted Desert Inn National Historical Landmark, which is well worth exploring.

Across the road from the Inn are additional service buildings, built in the same Pueblo style as the Painted Desert Inn.

Visitors are welcome to enter the Inn, where you can see the wonderful architecture and decorating that make this such a special place.

It is worth the effort to search for the little details that make this place unique, such as this hand-crafted light fixture in the bar area.

This mural depicts the dance and ceremonial costumes of the Native Americans from the region.  You will find similar artwork throughout the Painted Desert Inn.

Back on the road heading south, you find yourself within an area of badlands.  Take the time to enjoy the scenery, as these types of geological formations occur only in a few areas of the United States

The starkness of the landscape contrasts nicely with the beauty and colors of the barren, rocky hills.  I can only imaging what this entire area must look like in the evening alpenglow.  Even in the flat, monochromatic lighting of the mid-day sun, the colors pop out at you, daring you to take photograph after photograph.

The jagged landscape appears as if someone had picked it up and crumpled it in their hands.  Can you imagine early travelers attempting to traverse this region?

The perceptive tourist will notice the varied and unusual rock formations that seem to occur whichever way one looks.  Combined with the wildflowers, they make excellent photographic subjects.

Besides the isolated rock outcroppings, there are many examples of cacti and desert vegetation managing to eke out an existence in the hot, arid desert climate.

This area of badlands has a nice paved pathway that makes for pretty easy hiking.  It is a great way to stretch your legs from all the driving you might have been doing along Interstate 40, and allows you to see the details that make up this terrain from close-up.

The colors in these badlands seem to change minute-by-minute, particularly when the clouds dance along in the sky above.

The trail through the badland canyons is paved, as you can see here.  This is the only section of the trail the really causes physical exertion, so take it slow and easy here.  The rest of the trail is relatively flat, making it easy to hike.  I witnessed tourists of all ages and conditioning walking along the trail, so don’t be hesitant to give it a try.

One thing you notice as you walk the badlands trail is that the scenery looks entirely different from the bottom looking up, as opposed to looking down on the badlands from above.

As you can see, I wasn’t pulling your leg when I stated that the badlands trail flattens out at the bottom.  The views along this section of trail are great, and you can enjoy a leisurely stroll as you partake of the picturesque scenery before you.

From this vantage point near the top of the trail you can see how the paved path wends its’ way through the canyon.

After returning to your automobile and heading south again along the park road, you will finally arrive at areas that contain the stars of the park, namely the petrified wood (interchangably called petrified rock).

These photographs were taken in a section of the park called the Crystal Forest.

As you amble along the paved trail you will come across hundreds of pieces of petrified wood.  Although it is called petrified wood, it is not wood at all, but actually stone.  It once was wood, as these were formed by the permineralization of toppled trees.  In an amazing process, the wood morphs into stone, leaving the rock in a shape that is exactly the same as the host tree that allowed it to form.

In this piece you can even see how the structure of the bark is apparent in the rock.

The photograph above clearly shows the host tree trunk that turned into stone long ago.  It almost looks as if someone segmented the trunk with a stone-cutting chain saw.

Again, a clear example of a tree-turned-to-stone.

And another.

When the desert flora and cacti grow in proximity to one another, it creates a magnificent sight, as well as a great photo-op.

These pieces of petrified rock reveal the rings that existed within the tree trunk, and which have been preserved in the permineralization process.

This segment evidences both the rings of the former tree, as well as the bark on the outer surface.

The sections of petrified rock above and below show the coloration that the stone takes on as it morphs.  In the gift shops outside the park, one can purchase pieces of petrified wood that have been harvested from private land outside the park.  The pieces that are for sale are usually cut smooth and polished, creating a shiny, colorful piece that makes a beautiful display in ones’ home, and becomes a wonderful momento to remind you of your visit to Petrified Forest National Park.

In closing, I would whole-heartedly recommend a visit to the park, preferably with enough free time to hike along at least one of its’ many trails, and to savor the spectacular scenery that only occurs here.

The Land of Fire and Ice

Not long ago, while traveling in northwestern New Mexico and looking for scenic alternatives to Interstate 40, I picked up an informational pamphlet extolling the virtues of New Mexico’s Scenic Route 53, also known as the Ancient Way – a traditional route between the Pueblos of Zuni and Acoma.  Examining my map, I saw that this route passed many interesting locations, far more than I could take the time to explore on this particular trip.  But I did manage to devote a few hours at one worthwhile destination – the Land of Fire and Ice.

The Fire

El Malpais National Monument is situated along Scenic Route 53.  As a land feature, El Malpais – “the badlands”- is used locally to refer to lava flows.  Within El Malpais National Monument are many volcano craters, onetime sources of the area’s lava flows.  One such crater, Bandera Volcano, lies on the Continental Divide, and hiking to the site is an easy mornings stroll through the clean mountain air.

The trail to Bandera Volcano begins near the parking lot of this old trading post, built in the 1930’s, when the Zuni Mountain Railroad was operational and logging operations were underway in the area.  Today, the trading post sells jewelry, pottery and artwork of the local tribes.

Scattered around the grounds of the old trading post are various outbuildings, visitor facilities, and relics, such as this old wagon seen at the trail head.

Soon, the trail leads up the side of the crater,  passing beneath the limbs of ancient trees, which include Ponderosa and Piñon Pines, Douglas Fir, and Alligator Juniper.

There are many spots along the trail to Bandera Crater where the vista overlooks much of El Malpais, the Cibola National Forest, and the Chain of Craters Backcountry Byway, as exemplified in the photograph above.

Because of the hard, rocky terrain, trees cannot establish a deep root system.  This results in trees that mature to be twisted and gnarled.  Trees such as this can be seen in many places along the trail.

The trail eventually passes a rest stop, where the breeze blows cool, and the scenery is delightful to view as one relaxes for a momentary breather.

Continuing along the path, the trail rounds a bend, and you are suddenly presented with your first glimpse of the Bandera Volcano crater.

Further along, the trail ends at a viewing overlook, where the cinder cone crater can be seen in it’s entirety.

The Ice

From the old trading post, another trails heads off in the opposite direction from the Bandera Volcano.  This one leads to a feature called the Ice Cave. 

The trail to the Ice Cave passes several more examples of the twisted, gnarly root systems exhibited by the local trees, as seen in the photograph above. 

After a short stroll, the trail leads to the entrance to the Ice Cave.  And what is this Ice Cave?  It is part of an old lava tube that was formed in the eruptive stage of the nearby volcanic crater.  As the surface lava cools and crusts over, the lava beneath continues to flow.  This creates a pipeline known as a lava tube.  The Bandera lava tube is considered to be the longest lava tube in North America, at 17.5 miles in length.

The entrance to the Ice Cave begins by descending steeply into the cave via this initial set of covered stairs.

Once you reach the bottom of the initial set of stairs, you still have to negotiate the second flight of stairs.  This second flight is uncovered, as you can see above.

Finally, you can descend to the viewing platform located at the bottom of this third set of stairs, in order to view the ice at the bottom of the cave from a close distance.

This is what the ice at the bottom of the Ice Cave looks like.  It is a sheet of ice 20 feet thick.  The temperature of this cave never rises above 31 degrees Fahrenheit.  Rain water and snow melt seep into the cave, adding to the ice each year.   The deepest (and oldest) ice in the sheet dates back 3400 years.

The Ice Cave can be considered a perfect natural icebox – 20 feet of ice contained in a well insulated cave shaped to trap frigid air.

Hmmm…… I wonder if I could build something like this back at the ranch?