Friday, March 4, 2011

The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike Trip

About a year and a half ago, I was passing through the Bedford/ Breezewood PA areas of the Pennsylvania turnpike and I remembered the stories I had heard about the abandoned 13 mile stretch of the  PA turnpike. I had the bike in the back of the truck as usual, and weather conditions were fine, so I took a short detour on the way back home.  It seems that during the late 1950's the PA turnpike proved even more popular then they thought it would be when it was built the decade earlier.  A bottle neck effect would occur at the tunnels as they were originally built as two lane tunnels, while the rest of the TP was 4 lanes wide.   In the late 50's, work began to "twin" the tunnels, that is, add another tunnel.  Since road building procedures had improved in this era, it was found that in some cases, it would be now easier to simply go over some of these outdated tunnels, then to bore new tunnels.    As most of you know, there are 4 "twin tunnels"  as you travel east/west on the turnpike.  This was not the case for the original TP.  7 tunnels used to carry us through the mountains of central PA up into the 1960's.   This series of pictures shows Rays Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels on this abandoned 13 mile stretch of PA turnpike.  There is another closer to Somerset, PA, the Laurel Tunnel, but it was not explored today.

View Larger Map

In the interactive map above, the abandoned section can be seen south of the marker at Valley-Hi, between the lake and the current 76, or PA TP.  Where the road seems to "disappear" to the west of the lake is the  Rays Hill tunnel, where it vanishes to the east is the  Sideling Hill tunnel.

     Construction of the turnpike began in 1937 and was built on the bed of the South Pennsylvania Railroad, a never completed east/west railroad that was started in the 1880's.  The turnpike utilized the tunnels bored for this failed railroad and as you drive west along the turnpike, about 100 yards west of the 106.3 mile marker, just outside of Somerset Pa, you will see this to your right....

This is the bypassed 
Quemahoning Tunnel that the current path of the turnpike passes nearby.

This is the trailhead.

Once, I heard this abandoned stretch was sold to the Pike 2 Bike folks in the sign above for a dollar.  I woulda bought it at that price, but hopes had been to develop it into a recreational, rails to trails like deal.  From what i have heard, these plans fell through, though you can still ride here.

Looking west.

That is the Sideling hill tunnel above, and to the right, a vintage shot of the tunnel.  The Sideling Hill tunnel is 6700 feet long, and unlike the Shorter Rays tunnel below, I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel as I stood  looking west into the tunnel.  I had no lights that day, save a small cell phone version, so I headed back at this point.

Interior shots.....of then and now.

Ventilation room of the Rays Hill tunnel.

I liked the still in good shape stencil on the road.

The above is Rays Hill tunnel approach, looking west.  The beginning part of the TP road surface is in fairly poor shape, and the PA DOT have done testing of various painting and safety features along this section.  You know those little rumble strip things on the side of the road that alert you as you drift off?  I was told they were invented here. 

The above and below pictures are of Rays Hill tunnel, facing east.  This is the first tunnel you encounter as you head east.  This tunnel was 3500 feet long and this one only had the vent fans on the western side.  As seen in the pictures, light could be seen from the other side, so despite me not having a lighting system save the cell phone app, I decided to trundle through anyway.  It was calm and cool inside, a nice change from the 85 degree day outside.  I thought maybe, just maybe, there might be a bear in here, but alas, none. I got nervous in the middle and started singing.  After getting through, I realized that in the middle, as it got incredibly dark, despite the light from ahead, I had more of a chance of running into stray concrete or debris.

A picture of the Rays Hill Tunnel in Fulton County, Pennsylvania during construction of the tunnel in the 1880s for the Southern Pennsylvania Railroad. This later became a tunnel for the Pennsylvania Turnpike and abandoned completely in 1968. Andrew Carnegie is seen here in the middle in front of the original railroad construction.

Rays Hill, facing west. Note the lack of ventilation fans on this side 

Gratuitous blogger shot, showing crumbling of the road.
The road in these two shots, seems to be holding up OK for being closed 40 years.  I found it hard to believe the closeness of the lanes.  Apparently, there were no guard rails or other current safety features.

Just out of Rays Hill tunnel, looking east.

A fun fact about the abandoned turn pike is that it was used for the major motion picture "THE ROAD", as seen in a few shots below.

Rays Hill tunnel, facing east.

For a spur of the moment trip, it was a good day even though I didn't go the entire 13 miles due to lack of light.  Had I went through the last tunnel, I would have traveled east for about another mile, passing the remains of the old Cove Rest Area (basically a pad of concrete now), and joined the current TP right to the east of the current Sideling Hill travel plaza.  As you pass the Sideling Hill plaza heading east, there is a pull of to the right where trucks often park.  This is where the original road continued.  I plan a return trip soon to the area to shoot some video, so stay tuned.


  1. I can't wait to do this trip!

  2. Its a great trip. Take a bike, take a light. Some people I've talked to take a small firearm in case of bears.... The tunnels get incredibly eerie inside.

  3. So this was done in the 50s? There's no chance I went through these as a kid? I'm 42 btw.

  4. 42?, well maybe, but you would have been a newborn, I believe these were closed in 1968.

  5. Thanks! I surely don't remember them then.

  6. I just rode this trail today with my husband and two friends. As we entered the second tunnel that is a mile long, we heard choir singing that grew louder as we appraoched the middle of the tunnel. With little light and no clue what was happening, we approached a group of bible school students singing their hearts out in the dark! They had been walking and just started singing. We honestly thought it may have been ghosts. What a special treat!

  7. Who knew?! I live practically in the shadow of all of this - - Thanks for great photos and your narrative

  8. Can you drive on it still? I know your not supposed to...but is there physical access at all that you can get a car in still..?

    1. It is illegal to drive on it. Don't be a jerk.