Summer adventures: Did you know Illinois had a geyser?
I'm an East St. Louis native, so I fancy myself an expert on all things St. Louis.
I spent the first 18 years of my life, and four summers and several years after college, living in the region, and we still get there 8 to 10 times a year to see family.
We have our favorite spots we like to visit, but one place we hadn't made it to until last week was Malcom W. Martin Memorial Park in East St. Louis, which boasts the Gateway Geyser, the world's second-tallest water fountain.
Designed to complement the Gateway Arch across the Mississippi, it's still a somewhat hidden gem. The directions aren't complicated, but access to the 34-acre park is obscured by the giant Casino Queen, which (unfortunately) sits right next door.
It's a nice setting otherwise, with an open field providing unparalleled views of the Arch, an overlook platform at one end and a small manmade lake with the fountain at the other. The geyser goes off at noon, 3, 6 and 9 p.m. each day and lasts about 10 minutes.
When we arrived just before noon, four smaller fountains were already shooting sprays of water toward the middle of the lake like mini-arches. They're designed to represent the four rivers in the region - the Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois and Meramec.
Then, precisely at noon, the central fountain erupted. At first it was just a little higher than the others, and I thought, "Oh, that's nice." Then the power revved up, and the water shot more than 500 feet in the air. It's designed to reach 600 feet, equal to the Arch, but on this day the water drifted sideways a bit in the wind, seeming to meld into the clouds at the top of the column. It was pretty spectacular.
The day was hot (typical July-August day in St. Louis), and we were the only people there at that moment, except for the two park staffers who turned it on. There are few trees, presumably to keep the view of the Arch unobstructed, but there's a pleasant gazebo next to the lake where you can sit and watch under some shade.
And on a nicer day, you could walk (or drive) back and park near the casino, then take the Metro-Link train or a pedestrian walkway across the historic Eads Bridge, with its beautiful iron arches, to the Missouri side for a trip to the Gateway Arch. (It might be a bit long for young children, however.)
Given the 95-degree heat, we opted to drive across and park closer to the Arch, hoping we could score a ticket on a tram to the top before we had to head back home. There's often a long wait for tram tickets, and advance reservations are a good idea, but on this day we got right in. Unfortunately, we left the Arch around 2:30 p.m., just before the geyser went off again at 3. Ideally, you'd want to see it from the top.
The Arch, of course, is one of the must-see attractions in St. Louis The views from up top are worth the $10 ticket ($5 for kids), and the funky, space-ace tram cars are a hoot in themselves -- unless you are claustrophobic. (My kids think the seats look like toilets.) But it beats walking up the 1,072 steps (we asked).
We never tire of standing underneath, getting different views of the soaring steel legs as they rise into a seemingly endless highway in the sky. I was a child when the Arch was built, and I vaguely remember driving across the bridge to St. Louis and seeing the legs inch ever-closer until the famous topping-out ceremony, when the last triangular piece of steel was fitted into place.
I'd recommend paying the extra $4 ($2.50 for kids) to see the movie about the Arch's construction, which is cool and gives you something to do while you wait for your tram. There's also a free Museum of Westward Expansion underneath with artifacts from the days of Lewis and Clark, who set off from St. Louis in 1804 to find a route to the Pacific Ocean.
Directions to the Gateway Geyser: From Champaign, take Interstate 57 south to Interstate 70 west, and follow it all the way to Metro-East until you get to Exit 2A (Third Street) in East St. Louis (a left-hand exit). Follow that a couple of blocks to Broadway Avenue/Riverpark Drive and turn right (you'll see signs for the casino). Follow Broadway past the entrance to the Eads Bridge and turn left onto Front Street. The park will be on your left, just past the Casino Queen.
Julie Wurth writes and blogs about family issues, social services and the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Her column appears in the paper every other Tuesday. Leave a comment below, contact Julie at 351-5226 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jawurth.
Photos: The Gateway Geyser shoots into the sky (top). The park offers spectacular views of the Arch across the Mississippi River in St. Louis (bottom). Julie Wurth
Summer adventures: the drive-in (Aug. 2, 2011)
Summer adventures: a low-key summer (June 27, 2011)