Visiting the Abandoned PA Turnpike near Breezewood, Pennsylvania
Millions of people travel along the Pennsylvania Turnpike through Bedford and Fulton Counties each year. However, few realize that just a few hundred yards away from them is one of the state’s oddest attractions: The Abandoned PA Turnpike.
The Abandoned PA Turnpike was created by the rerouting of the highway in 1968. When it was originally built, the Pennsylvania Turnpike was a four-lane highway, but only had one-lane tunnels. Eventually, this created backups that had to be resolved.
In many areas, larger tunnels were dug next to the existing tunnels. However, for a stretch of the turnpike in Bedford and Fulton Counties, the turnpike was rerouted. Instead of going through the mountains, it went over them.
This rerouting created a 13-mile stretch of road that was no longer in use. Over the years, this section of abandoned turnpike in Pennsylvania had a variety or uses, including turnpike worker training and military training exercises. It was even featured prominently in the 2009 movie, “The Road”, starring Viggo Mortensen because it looked so post-apocalyptic.
In 2001, this 13-mile stretch of abandoned PA Turnpike was given to Southern Alleghenies Conservancy by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. Run by an organization called Pike2Bike, the ultimate goal is to turn the abandoned turnpike into an official biking and walking trail.
Today however, nearly 15 years after the transfer, little has been done to make this a reality. In fact, the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike is officially closed to visitors, as signs at the entrance tell you. However, the language on the signs lets you know that it’s not a no trespassing area, simply an area where you proceed at your own risk. If you do opt to visit, use common sense and be respectful of the area, so that there is no reason to actually restrict access to the area.
From the parking area in Breezewood, Pennsylvania, it’s 1.5 miles to Rays Hill tunnel. The hardest section of the hike is a steep hill right at the beginning. Once at the top, it’s a level walk or bike ride along the road all the way to the tunnel.
The road has concrete barriers in place near the beginning, wide enough for a bike or stroller, to prevent motorized vehicles from accessing the abandoned turnpike. While the rest of the road is relatively wheelchair friendly, I’m not sure if one could fit through the barriers.
In many ways, the walk along the abandoned PA Turnpike to Rays Hill Tunnel reminded me of the abandoned Route 61 in Centralia, Pennsylvania. Fortunately, though, the abandoned turnpike has a surprising lack of graffiti on the road itself, and most of what’s there is relatively tame compared to Centralia’s Graffiti Highway.
After about 30 minutes of walking, you’ll come to Rays Hill Tunnel, shortly after crossing the bridge over Mountain Chapel Road. The view of the tunnel from the turnpike is quite impressive, and it really does make you feel like you have survived some cataclysmic event that destroyed humanity.
The tunnel itself is heavily covered in graffiti, which does take away some of the beauty. Fortunately, though, the graffiti is relatively tame, though there are still some areas that are not family friendly, especially the further inside the tunnel you go.
Until a few years ago, it was possible to go inside Rays Hill Tunnel. Access is now blocked by large metal doors. However, it is possible to still see inside the first floor rooms, which feel very much like the set of a horror movie.
Construction began on Rays Hill Tunnel in 1881 for its use as a railroad tunnel. However, it was never used for that purpose and it was updated in 1938, opening to traffic along the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1940. The tunnel is 3,532-feet long, making it the shortest of the original turnpike tunnels.
When walking up to the tunnel, you can actually see a sliver of light from the far end. This might make you think that it’s not that far away. However, once inside the tunnel, it seems like you walk forever and the far opening is still just as far away.
I should note here that the interiors of the tunnels are very, very dark. While there is some ambient light from the entrance, it only lights up the first hundred yards or so. After that, you’ll definitely want to have a good flashlight or two with you. Along the way, notice the old sewer openings, the only real points of interest in the middle of the tunnels. (Updated 1/22/16: The Pennsylvania Game Commission has confirmed that the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike tunnels are home to protected hibernating bats. Please don’t enter the tunnels between October and April. Doing so can harm sensitive bat populations.)
Once a few hundred yards into the tunnels, make sure to give a shout. The echoes in the tunnels of the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike are awesome! I couldn’t believe how long my voice echoed, as it made its way through the tunnel. Really, it’s worth visiting the tunnels just for the echoes.
Once you are done checking out Rays Hill Tunnel, you have two options if you want to visit Sideling Hill Tunnel. The first is to walk through Rays Hill Tunnel and continue walking along the abandoned turnpike for another 3.8 miles until you reach the other tunnel. Conversely, you can do what I did, and drive to the other end for a 1.2 mile walk to the tunnel.
If you opt for this second route, walk the 1.5 miles back to your car in Breezewood, and drive 20 minutes to the other end of the abandoned turnpike.
Unlike the parking area in Breezewood, this side of the abandoned turnpike is in a very rural area of Fulton County. Despite this end being located in the town of Waterfall, Pennsylvania, there doesn’t appear to be any nearby waterfalls.
It’s pretty obvious that the 1.2 mile stretch of Abandoned PA turnpike between the parking area and Sideling Hill Tunnel is less frequented and less cared for than the section in Breezewood. The road here is a bit more overgrown, a bit more dilapidated, and there is a bit more trash. However, the walk along the abandoned turnpike is quite pleasant, even if it is uphill most of the way to the tunnel.
Along the way to Sideling Hill Tunnel, you’ll pass a long concrete area that used to be home to the Cove Valley Travel Plaza until the turnpike’s abandonment. While it’s interesting to see the open expanse, there’s nothing remaining of the plaza except a few manhole covers.
The western end of Sideling Hill Tunnel is located just downhill from the current Pennsylvania Turnpike, with the tunnel running directly under the road. Like Rays Hill Tunnel, it was originally built in 1881 for trains, opened to vehicular traffic in 1940, and was bypassed in 1968.
This tunnel’s more off-the-beaten-path setting means there isn’t as much graffiti here, and it was still possible to enter the ground level rooms on the tunnel’s western end, though entering any of the buildings is not recommended as they are very unsafe from what I’ve been told.
At 6,800-feet long, Sideling Hill Tunnel is significantly longer than Rays Hill Tunnel. From inside the tunnel, it is nearly impossible to make out any light at the other end. Should you decide to venture in more than a hundred yards or so, use extreme caution and bring a couple of flashlights with you. Of course, you might decide to turn back, as the inside of these tunnels have a very, very creepy quality to them.
Overall, a visit to the Abandoned PA Turnpike is a fascinating look into history and one of the oddest places you’ll find in Pennsylvania. I definitely recommend taking the time to visit this amazing destination. But, if you need even more convincing, check out this really cool video I came across, and then scroll down for directions to the abandoned Pennsylvania turnpike.
How to Get to the Abandoned PA Turnpike
There are two primary access points for the Abandoned PA Turnpike. The first, is less than a mile from the center of Breezewood, at the intersection of Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
To get there, head out of town going east, past the Quality Inn. As soon as you leave town, you’ll go down a big hill. Here, Tannery Road will fork off to your left, while Route 30 continues to the right. In between, there is a large, triangular-shaped area. This is the parking area for Rays Hill Tunnel and the southern end of the Abandoned PA Turnpike. The coordinates for this parking area are: 39.999881, -78.228380.
After parking, head up the hill along the dirt path. At the top, you will see the abandoned turnpike.
Many who visit ride their bikes along the roughly 8.5 miles of road between Breezewood and Waterfall, PA. (Note: There is not a waterfall in Waterfall, PA. Go figure.) This stretch of abandoned turnpike takes you through the two tunnels and along the old road in Bedford County and Fulton County.
However, if you are walking, I recommend not walking the 4.5 miles to Sideling Hill Tunnel from the western side of Rays Hill Tunnel. Instead, return to your car and drive 10 miles to the northwestern end of the road. From here, it’s only 1.2 miles to Sideling Hill Tunnel.
Here, parking is on the abandoned turnpike itself, accessed via a short road. The road does seem a bit like a private drive, but about 100 yards up is a parking area and access to the path. The parking area is located at the following coordinates: 40.048683, -78.095839. To access this parking area, you do not take the marked road that says it is for emergency vehicles. Instead, you take another road that is about 100 yards further down the road.
While both sections of the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike are worth visiting, if you only have time to visit one area, check out Rays Hill Tunnel in Breezewood. The walk is a few minutes longer, but this tunnel is easier to reach, the old roadway is in better shape, and the tunnel itself is cooler in my opinion.
However, if you have the time, I highly recommend visiting both tunnels along the Abandoned PA Turnpike.
Find a great places to stay near Breezewood and the abandoned PA Turnpike on Booking.com (affiliate link).
(Updated 1/22/16: The Pennsylvania Game Commission has confirmed that the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike tunnels are home to protected hibernating bats. Please don’t enter the tunnels between October and April. Doing so can harm sensitive bat populations.)
[Click here for information on how to use the coordinates in this article to find your destination.]