Explore the Times Beach Ghost Town at Route 66 State Park
Missouri’s Route 66 State Park has a complicated and unique history. The area that is now a state park was once the home of the community of Times Beach. In the early 1980s it was discovered that the oil used to control the dusty streets of the town was contaminated with the toxic chemical dioxin. The entire town was condemmed and the residents forced to evacuate. After an extensive environmental cleanup, the area opened as a state park to celebrate historic Route 66.
History of Route 66 State Park
Times Beach Beginnings
The area that is now part of the state park first began as a summer retreat. In 1925, the St. Louis Star-Times newspaper offered a special promotion where people could receive a property lot along the Meramec River as a bonus to ordering a paper subscription for only $67.50. The area was called Times Beach and became a popular recreation weekend and summer recreational area.
A new bridge was completed in 1932 which carried a rerouted Route 66 over the Meramec River at Times Beach. The Great Depression soon transitioned Times Beach from a recreation area into a more permanent working-class community.
An Environmental Disaster
In the 1970s, the town paid a waste hauler to spray oil on the streets to control the dust. The contractor mixed motor oil with waste he was hauling from a chemical company that produced Agent Orange. The oil that was sprayed contained high levels of dioxin. A flood in 1982 further spread the toxin throughout the town.
The EPA tested the soil in Times Beach and declared that the town was highly contaminated. The community of 2,000 residents were ordered to evacuate. In early 1983, the EPA bought out 800 homes and 300 businesses. An incinerator was constructed on the site and dioxin contaminated debris and soil from Times Beach and other areas in the state were destroyed and buried in a giant mound at the site.
Becoming a State Park
Once the EPA declared the site to be safe, the state of Missouri transformed the former town site into a state park. The park offers hiking, biking, and equestrian trail. It also includes a stretch of old Route 66 and the remains of a former Route 66 bridge.
How to Visit Route 66 State Park
Visiting all of Route 66 State Park is a little confusing due to the fact that you must exit the interstate in two different places. The old Route 66 Meramec River bridge was declared unsafe and the roadbed removed. This has blocked a direct connection between the Visitor Center on the east side of the park and the trails and picnic areas on the west side of the river. Here are the directions from the park website:
To reach the park from I-44 West:
To the visitor center: Take Exit 266/Lewis Road; follow the road to the right and then curve to the left. Continue past the West Tyson County Park entrance to the stop sign at Lewis Road. After crossing Lewis Road, you will see the visitor center on the left.
To the park: Take Exit 264/Hwy. 109; stay in the far left turn lane and enter onto I-44 east. Continue on I-44 east for 1/4-mile; take Exit 265/Williams Rd. Take the first left (east) on South Outer Road. Continue past the car dealership and you will be in the park.
To reach the park from I-44 East:
To the visitor center: Take Exit 266/Lewis Road; take a left after exiting and cross the highway overpass. Stay on the outer road which will curve to the left. Continue past the West Tyson County Park entrance to the stop sign at Lewis Road. After crossing Lewis Road, you will see the visitor center on the left.
To the park: Take Exit 265/Williams Road; take the first left (east) on the South Outer Road. Continue past the car dealership and you will be in the park.
Things to Do at Route 66 State Park
The one remaining structure left from the Times Beach days is the current Visitor Center. This building opened in 1935 as the Bridgehead Inn. The Inn served as a restaurant and roadhouse catering to Route 66 and Times Beach travelers.
Today the center offers restrooms, a nice display of Route 66 memorabilia, and an exhibit on the history of Times Beach. The center does close in winter, but will reopen in March through November.
If you are looking for a fun Route 66 souvenir, check out the gift shop.
The old Route 66 road ends next to the Visitor Center as the old bridge was declared unstable and the roadbed was removed. You can take a peek at what remains of the old bridge. There are plans and fundraising underway to rehabilitate the bridge as a pedestrian and biking route. This would provide a needed trail connection between both sides of the park.
Explore the Meramec River
The park offers a boat ramp for river access. Fishing in the river is allowed, but not in any of the ponds found on park property.
Have a Picnic or Visit the Playground
The park offers several shelters and a picnic area. There is also a playground located at the picnic area.
Hit the Trails
The park offers over 7 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and equestrian use. Most of the trails follow old Times Beach roads and many are paved or crushed gravel. While the scenery isn’t spectacular, they provide a good option for kids, strollers, bikes, or anyone that just wants a pleasant and easy walk. More detailed trail information is found below.
Route 66 State Park Trails
The park offers four different trails, all of which are flat. The trails almost all connect to one another and there are several connector paths to make various route options. We combined parts of the inner and outer loop to make a nice hike that started and ended near the picnic area and playground.
Outer Loop Trail
The Outer Loop trail travels the outer boundary of the section of the park that is located north of I-44. The path follows several of Times Beach’s old roads and is flat gravel or paved surfaces. If you hike the entire loop, it is about 3.2 miles.
You can start the loop at several locations as there are many trailheads and parking areas. The first parking area upon entering this area of the park is located near the old Meramec River bridge. The path parallels the bridge before reaching the river and turning left on to the old Riverside Road.
We opted to to start the hike a little further down by parking near the playground and using one of the gravel connector paths.
The connector then ended at the Outer Loop trail along old Riverside Drive which is paved. The route isn’t fully shaded, but does offer a little relief from direct sun.
There are several benches along the route, including one that overlooks the river.
The path passes a couple more connectors before turning left and running parallel to the railroad tracks. The trail passes through a wetland and wooded area before reaching a wooden gate and intersection the inner loop along the park road.
We opted to turn left and walk back along the inner loop. If you wish to complete the outer loop, keep going straight. This path will lead to another gate that provides access to trails and parks in Eureka. The Outer Trail makes two more left turns at the state park boundary to run parallel to I-44 back towards the parking area.
Inner Loop Trail
The Inner Loop Trail is actually part of the roadway. The trail travels along the shoulder of a section of one-way roadway along with a stretch of two-way traffic. However, since the park roads do not connect to anything else, car traffic is fairly light. This a good trail for biking although it is only a 2 mile loop.
We walked a portion of the inner loop after we compled part of the outer loop.
The trail passes by several ponds and wetlands.
Most of this trail is in full sun, with a few shaded areas and benches along the way.
We walked the inner loop back to the picnic area by the playground where we started the hike. The kids always like a playground as a reward for a good hike! The rest of the inner loop shares the same path as the western and southern sections of the outer loop.
The W Trail is a 0.5 mile one way path. You could make a loop out of it by following a section of the outer trail to return to the trailhead.
This gravel path passes through a wooded area. A capped monitoring well and the ‘Town Mound’ where the remains of the structures of Times Beach are buried can be seen along the trail.
South Loop Trail
The South Loop Trail is the only trail in the park on the south side of Interstate 44. The trailhead for this 1.4 mile loop trail is located by the Equestrian Area.
If you hike counter clockwise, the first 0.6 mile of the trail is the paved South Outer Road that once served as access to Times Beach. The trail then turns left onto a natural surface trail with open fields and wooded areas. We did not hike this trail but will check it out next time.
Things to Know Before You Go
- The park is open 7 a.m. to one half hour past sunset, year-round
- The Visitor Center is closed November-February. Hours vary spring-fall.
- You can print a park map HERE.
- Check the Missouri State Park site status map for any closures before visiting.
- Seasonal flush restrooms are located near the picnic areas. Vault restrooms are located at several other locations throughout the park.
- Always remember to pack out what you bring in.