A Ride on the Road to Nowhere: The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike

Tim Wilson

A Ride on the Road to Nowhere: The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike

This past October I headed west with three friends for a cycling vacation on the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland.

It was a great trip that allowed us to enjoy a series of socially distant rides somewhere new before another winter closed in on the cycling season. We capped the vacation with a visit on bike to Gettysburg that was a highlight for our group of history buffs.

But the most memorable experience of the trip was the shortest stretch. The Pennsylvania native who planned our vacation had suggested a bucket list ride while we were in the area: The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened to traffic in 1940. But as was the case with many roadways around the U.S. after the Second World War, traffic outgrew the turnpike’s capacity, particularly in its tunnels. There were miles of backups caused by the tunnels where the four-lane highway became one lane in each direction. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission decided in 1968 to reroute a new section of the turnpike and abandon about 13 miles of the original road near Waterfall, in the south central part of the state.

In the more than 50 years since then, the roadway did not go to waste. It was used by the Turnpike Commission to train snowplow drivers, test prototype rumble strips, road reflectors and reflective paint, and even for military training. An abandoned turnpike and its tunnels also turned out to be ideal settings for movie scenes including some for the 2009 film, “The Road”, based on Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic book.

A conservation group bought a portion of the roadway in 2001 but nothing came of it. More recently, an organization known as "Friends of the Bike 2 Pike" envisioned making the Turnpike and tunnels part of the Bike PA Route. But for now, it’s a DIY cycling adventure route.

Being on vacation, we were up for something different that was off the beaten path. What we found was more like the sometimes badly beaten path.

None of us was quite sure what to expect. This sign at the entrance gave us a better idea:

With little running room in the small parking lot, we had to walk our bikes up a short, but pretty steep, somewhat gravelly road to the Turnpike itself. Once up there, we saw why this was a perfect setting for a movie about the world gone to hell in a handbasket. It was eerie. It was the familiar landscape of a highway but strangely silent and literally gone to seed with weeds everywhere.

One thing we knew for sure. Social distancing was not going to be a problem.

Early on, the road surface was deceivingly in good shape. What we really noticed, though, was that the turnpike had turned into a tagger’s dream. There was more asphalt with graffiti than without.

Most of the artworks were profane expressions in words and images of love and hate that would have earned a movie an R rating. We were surprised and thankful that if this crude creativity was fueled by alcohol, the artists had left relatively few containers behind.

Another surprise was the remains of road reflectors left behind from the previously mentioned testing. We knew they hadn’t been there since 1968.

About a mile and a half in we came to the Rays Hill tunnel. I made the mistake of assessing the entrance for a moment as my buddies headed in. There was a water-filled hole at the entrance that left me even further behind as I negotiated my way around it. After that I realized my bigger mistake – not having a headlight.

All I could do was focus on the blinking red light on the bike about 50 yards ahead while hollering, “Wait for me!” It didn’t help that I was on the wrong side of cataract surgery with dwindling night vision.

Thankfully, my friends waited, and we continued with me zeroed in on the taillight from about a bike’s distance behind.

Coming out of the tunnel the road headed downhill and the road surface followed. It got to the point where there was less road than cracks, holes and brush. Maybe this was where rookie drivers got their first crack at plowing a road with an emphasis on crack.  

At that point, I was toward the front of the group and started wondering if everyone was still on board with continuing. A sense of adventure was keeping me going but, in my head, I kept hearing a favorite expression of another cyclist friend: “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” So far, so good, but should we tempt fate?

I signaled everyone to stop and posed the question. Do you guys want to keep going? You can judge what is says about us, but the quick response was a unanimous yes. We kept rolling.

In a stretch of just two miles we had gone from a road ride to a gravel grinder. Next up was a little single track.

Making our way along this remnant roadway, the path we took on the former westbound lanes of the Turnpike was more squiggle than line. At some point, we realized the eastbound lanes across the median were looking relatively better. Throwing caution and good sense to the wind, we weaved our way through the overgrown median weeds and proceeded on the eastbound side.

Nine miles after exiting the Rays Hill tunnel, the Sideling Hill tunnel came into view. This time we were ready for a tunnel.

Two of us had lights. Two didn’t. We paired up with the lights in front and headed in.

In this tunnel, we could see quite a bit of graffiti on the walls. And we had our first sighting of some youngsters on foot who may or may not have been among the artists responsible for the splashes of color surrounding us.

We were lucky this turned out to be the warmest day of our trip and the coolness of the tunnel was almost welcome. The Sideling Hill tunnel is 1.3 miles long and eventually there’s no light at either end of the tunnel. An arc in the tunnel designed to keep water from ponding in the middle also keeps out the light.

Coming out of the tunnel we discovered that light wasn’t the only thing the tunnel blocked. GPS signals were lost as well and in both tunnels. Fortunately, getting lost was not a concern.

It was only about a mile beyond the Sideling Hill tunnel that the Abandoned Turnpike ended, and we reversed direction. As we headed back into the tunnel, we applied another learning from the first trip through in pairs. When the two of us in the rear kept our eyes on the blinking lights in front of us, we could follow just fine. The problem was that when staring at the blinking lights we couldn’t see much else. Switching to a steady light restored at least a little of our peripheral vision.

Our return trip was a lot less unnerving. We had mastered the trick of finding a good line on the pock-marked pavement and could pick up the pace. Riding into a setting sun, we made it back to our truck without incident.

It was only the next morning that we learned our excursion on the Turnpike had qualified as an adventure. Rolling out in the parking lot preparing to head for Gettysburg, I found my rear tire was going flat. It didn’t take long to discover I had been riding with a sizeable thorn planted in the tread from one of our median crossings.

So, it turned out something had gone wrong on our Turnpike trek. But thankfully, the cycling gods had chosen to smile on us this time.

If you want to learn more about the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike and see more photos, visit the Exploring the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike page on PAbucketlist.com here: https://pabucketlist.com/exploring-the-abandoned-pennsylvania-turnpike/

Photo Credits
Map Abandoned PA Turnpike Map, Only in Your State
Graffiti  Abandoned Turnpike artwork, PaBucketList
Light Light at the end of Sideling Hill tunnel, Jim Bradley
Tunnel Entrance to Rays Hill tunnel, UncoveringPA
Road back Heading out on the Turnpike, Jim Bradley