National Park Road Trip 2010: Return to the Beginning
Editor's note: David and Kay Scott this summer are living what many of us wish we could do: they're following a meandering path across the country to visit units of the National Park System. This installment of their trek comes from the end of the road in St. Louis, where the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail starts.
Greetings from St. Louis, Missouri. It is Wednesday morning and we are at Union Station, which at one time was the busiest train station in the world. This wonderful station has been preserved and now serves as an indoor shopping mall. An upscale Marriott serves the role once occupied by the Terminal Hotel that operated here during the station’s glory days. It appears that from half to two-thirds of the stores in the station are currently occupied.
St. Louis has long served as Gateway to the West, and it is generally recognized as the starting point for much of our country’s westward expansion. Pioneers on the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe Trails, and the men of the Lewis & Clark expedition, passed through here on their way west. It was just outside St. Louis where the Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1803-04 in preparation for its great journey up the Missouri River.
During Tuesday’s drive to St. Louis we visited St. Charles, a splendid river town where the Lewis and Clark Boathouse and Nature Center houses a keelboat and pirogues that are replicas of those used by the Corps of Discovery. Next we drove across the river into Illinois to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. This is the terminus of the Missouri River that we have been following from its Montana headwaters at Three Forks.
The Lewis & Clark visitor center is closed on Monday and Tuesday, so we weren’t able to visit. In any case it was hot and humid, almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and we were in a rush to get back to St. Louis and check in at the hotel.
Tuesday evening we visited the Gateway Arch that serves as the iconic symbol of the St. Louis riverfront. The Gateway Arch is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a unit of the National Park Service that includes an extensive underground hall filled with exhibits, theatres, and access to a tram that takes visitors to the top of the arch. The museum is extremely well done with exhibits covering the opening of the West. A large section is devoted to the journey of Lewis & Clark. Entrance to the museum is free, but a fee is charged to view the films or ride to the top of the arch.
Our last email was from Council Bluffs, Iowa. The following morning we visited the Western Historic Trails Interpretive Center operated by the National Park Service. The visitor center with exhibits for each of the trails including Lewis & Clark is excellent. Unfortunately, a trail that leads to the Missouri River was closed due to flooding.
Following our visit to the Park Service facility we drove across the Missouri River to see Omaha’s Union Station, one of America's great remaining Art Deco train stations. This magnificent building that opened in 1931 proved to be even better than we anticipated. The building is currently utilized as an art museum, but the interior is just magnificent. The waiting room has been restored to what it must have looked like during its glory years. Across the tracks is the deteriorating Burlington Station, that had once been equally elegant. Unfortunately, the interior has been stripped and the exterior appears to be beyond repair.
Driving south along the Nebraska side of the Missouri, we stopped in Nebraska City at the Missouri River Basin Lewis & Clark Interpretive Trail and Visitor Center. Perhaps a long name, but the exhibits made for a worthwhile visit. Especially interesting was a replica keel boat just outside the visitor center.
It was a hot day, but we decided to camp at a Missouri state park about 20 miles east of Kansas City. Not surprisingly, we were nearly by ourselves in the campground that night. The temperature had been in the high 90s, so it wasn’t surprising that others had more sense than to spend a miserably hot night in a tent. The next night we spent in a motel in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital. An impressive statute of Lewis & Clark is near the state capitol.
So, that’s it for this trip. We are now heading home and should be to South Georgia in a couple of days. It is mostly interstate, the type of road we have avoided for the last 8,000 miles. It has been a good trip, perhaps one of our best. We learned a lot and met some wonderful people. We visited a number of new places and enjoyed generally good weather. After getting some rest, we will try to put together a summary of our trip, including a comparison of following the Oregon Trail with our return along the route taken by the Corps of Discovery.
David and Kay Scott are regular contributors to the Traveler. Their book, The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges was first published by the Globe Pequot Press in 1997 and is now in its sixth edition.