The Abandoned Turnpike: Pike-to-Bike
The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike hasn’t seen car traffic since 1968 – but it’s experiencing new life as a pike-to-bike trail. The 13-mile stretch of road runs parallel to the modern turnpike, from Breezewood stretching east, and has a fascinating history as “America’s Only Abandoned Superhighway.”
Officially the road isn’t open, and ATVs, dirt bikes, and other motorized vehicles are prohibited. But unofficially, hundreds of cyclists have discovered it. The four-lane road is mostly level, so beginners and experts alike can use it at their own risk. Helmets and flashlights are strongly encouraged – the abandoned turnpike features two unlighted tunnels, Ray’s Hill Tunnel (2/3-mile) and Sidling Hill Tunnel (1.2 miles).
“While you ride there are no signs of modern civilization. Grass and weeds grow through the cracks of the pavement and trees grow in the median. What you see is very familiar and very wrong,” says Murray Schrotenboer, chairman of Pike 2 Bike, a group that promotes the trail. “You are on a four lane superhighway, but the pavement is broken and the forest crushes in on both sides, then you get to the tunnels. Dark for 46 years, they are a wonder. This is unlike any other ride you will ever do.”
In fact, those tunnels are the reason this section of the turnpike was abandoned. The four-lane Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940 as the nation’s first toll highway, and with its seven tunnels quickly became known as “Tunnel Highway.” But all the tunnels only had two lanes each, creating bottlenecks as turnpike usage increased.
In the 1950s the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission began evaluating the problem, and in the 1960s four of the tunnels were “twinned” by the construction of a matching tunnel allowing for four lanes of traffic. The remaining three were bypassed in 1968, including Ray’s Hill Tunnel and the Sidling Hill Tunnel, a massive project that was still less expensive than boring new twin tunnels.
The Turnpike Commission used the 13-mile stretch of abandoned turnpike to test rumble strips and reflective paint, train snowplow drivers, and perform road sign visibility tests. But as the turnpike’s potential as a recreational asset began to be recognized, the commission sold the abandoned turnpike to the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy (SAC) for $1. Today, a “Friends of the Pike 2 Bike” group is working to help fund, maintain, and promote the trail.
Remaining bridges to the abandoned turnpike were dismantled in 2001, further restricting access by motorized traffic. In the early 2000s, the abandoned turnpike was used as a training area for soldiers about to be deployed to Iraq. Later, it was even used as a location for the 2008 Viggo Mortensen movie “The Road,” based on the Cormac McCarthy Pulitzer Prize-winning book set in a post-apocalyptic America.
Currently, officials are working to find a way to transfer ownership of the property from SAC to Fulton and Bedford Counties in order to facilitate fundraising through grants. In 2006, a Master Plan for development of the project was completed, and estimated costs of $3 million. Don Schwartz, director of the Bedford County Planning Commission, says the first step in developing the turnpike as a recreational asset is to update that plan, but that the economic impact could be as much as 200,000 visitors annually, according to a recent feasibility study.
“This corridor is one of the most unique and fascinating places you will ever see. Having first been on it three years ago, I can guarantee it will blow you away. There is simply nothing else like it in the U.S and probably the world,” Schwartz explains. “This could be a tremendous addition to recreation in our region, and provide a significant boost for the local economy.”
For now, the best access point is in Bedford County, at the intersection of Tannery Road and US 30 in Breezewood. Located near the western end of the turnpike, the abandoned turnpike can be reached by climbing a small hill. Parking is available.
Visit Pike2Bike’s website for more information (also, the abandoned turnpike’s Wikipedia page has a good map). If you’d like help experiencing the abandoned turnpike, guided tours are available through Grouseland Touring that also include access to areas not open to the public, including a tunnel control room.