The Abandoned Snowpike

As the official representative* of Pennsylvania’s Abandoned Turnpike, I decided to take advantage of the recent snowfall, chilly temperatures, and “low” gas prices to make another trek out to Breezewood.  In typical fashion, my plans to leave at 8am wound up becoming my plans to leave at 11am, which means I left around 12:30pm.  But despite the declining light, and with the help of a family of dogs, I managed to pull off a few decent shots.  Click any picture to enlarge, or view the full album here.

As I mentioned, I left Harrisburg just after noon.  After a quick jaunt down I-81 and through that tractor-trailer clusterfark known as “Carlisle”, I made it onto the Turnpike.  For westbound travel, the Carlisle interchange saves a few bucks on tolls compared to using any of the Harrisburg interchanges.  And as an added historical bonus, you’re getting on at the original western terminus; the Turnpike wasn’t extended to Philly until 1950.

PROTIP:  If you’re a gas station around the massive interchange of 76 / 81 / 11, and it’s winter, consider stocking washer fluid.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike is a peculiar road for so many reasons.  Most Pennsylvania highways are unlikely to have more than three or four miles of straight road in a single shot.  The Turnpike has a 12-mile stretch of straightaway from Carlisle to Blue Mountain.  While this may not sound impressive to any non-Pennsylvania residents, believe me when I say that any road with more vertical deviation than horizontal is truly a rarity in this state.

As you drive the ‘pike today, you can easily tell which tunnels were built in the 1880s (finished in the 1930s) and which were built in the 1960s.  In this picture, the westbound tunnel (on the right) is the original; note the differences in the curved facade above the tunnel.  The change in building materials is also clearly visible above the right-hand edge of the current garage door (which was also added, or at least moved and modified, in the 1960s).  Also, the left tunnel lacks the distinctive “stepped” appearance common to all the original tunnels.  Finally, although all the tunnels were refinished and tiled in the 1960s, the original ceilings remain throughout the system.  Careful observers will be able to see the circular holes in the ceiling for the original above-tunnel lighting.

I actually do enjoy driving the Turnpike.  It’s easily the most scenic Interstate in Pennsylvania.  The stretch just east of Sideling Hill gets especially hilly, twisty, and rural.  Yet thanks to concepts such as banked turns and maximum grades (both laughably futuristic in the 1930s), it’s an exceptionally well-designed road.  For comparison, look at 581 through Camp Hill or I-83 around Harrisburg; both of them were built in the 1960s, and they’re terrible.

This is the eastern end of the abandoned segment, looking west.  Route 30 is directly behind me.  The cutaway in the top of this photo is the current Turnpike as it bypasses the Rays Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels, as well as the old Cove Plaza service station.  The concrete barracades exist to keep vehicular traffic off, as the weight of anything more complex than a mountain bike will cause undue wear on the 40-year-old pavement beneath.

This is just awesome.  I’m standing in the westbound lane, looking east.  Note the tiny, tiny size of the median (barely a lane) compared with modern Interstates; say, I-81 north of Harrisburg.  You’re looking at four lanes of history, people.  If it weren’t for the PA Turnpike, there’s a very reasonable chance that our Interstate system would not look the way it does today.

The snow was completely virginal, dotted only by the occasional deer and coyote prints.  I debated using a flash to help correct the brightness, but I chose not to.  Picture the scenario, and you’ll understand why:  The sky was overcast.  A fresh blanket of snow lay on the ground.  All I could see were trees and fields.  And the only sound was the muted, distant rumble of Turnpike traffic climbing Sideling Hill.  Yet despite the gray, bleak environment, life — the trees, the grass, the animals — relentlessly presses on.

As I walked down the abandoned snow-covered macadam, my thoughts turned to The Road.  It’s a Pulitzer-Prize-winning book by the same guy who wrote No Country for Old Men.  It follows the story of two people (unnamed) trekking southeast across the northeastern United States (presumably Pennsylvania, though that’s never specified) after an apocalyptic event (unspecified) wipes out modern civilization as we know it.  In the book, the sky is grey, snow is falling, and their encounters with other humans are fortunately rare.  The book has been turned into a film slated for a 2009 release, and a significant part of it was filmed along the abandoned turnpike.  Having read the book shortly before our original Turnpike excursion (but before I knew it was being made into a film), I wanted to see how the abandoned segment felt on a cold, dark, grey winter day.  The lack of evidence of humanity made the experience all the more desolate and depressing.

But that’s all fine, because a family of puppies showed up.  I don’t know where they came from, but given their tags and apparent good health, I assume they were off exploring from a nearby house.  It’s funny; as I rounded a corner, I saw the pups playing off in the distance.  Unsure if they were coyote pups — having just seen a number of fairly-fresh coyote tracks — I crouched down and observed from about 50 yards away. After a few minutes, I rose and started slowly moving forward.  As I got closer, their coloration gave them away as canis lupus familiaris.

It appeared to be a mother and her two pups.  As I approached, she started barking constantly and maintained a good 20-foot distance at all times.  Her pups were much more friendly, though, and immediately ran over and started “kicking” snow around me with their noses.  At first I wasn’t too crazy about having the little yappers following me around, but they had no intention of leaving their new-found person.

The more I thought about it, I figured it might not be a terrible idea to let the little guys follow me around.  At worst, their constant barking might help discourage any black bears that had awakened from their hibernation.  Since my destination was the Rays Hill tunnel — which makes a perfect hibernation environment due to its constant 50-something temperature, shelter, and relative isolation from humanity — I decided to let them tag along.  That’s their mother in the background, by the way; she never came closer than that.

Right about the time I decided to carry on (puppies in tow), I realized I had already gone another few hundred feet and was now just around the bend from the tunnel entrance.  Every time I’ve hiked the abandoned turnpike, the act of coming around a corner and seeing the long-forgotten tunnel entrance beckoning has been stunning.  Today it started to snow.

My camera started giving me the low-battery indicator, so I snapped off as many pics of the entrance with the falling snowflakes as I could.  This is my favorite.  For comparison, here’s the same tunnel in the summer:

By the time I actually reached the tunnel, my batteries had died.  I did bring a spare set — two spare sets, in fact — but true to form, I left them all back in the car.  Sigh.  The rest of these pictures came from my camera phone, so the quality isn’t as good.

About an inch of day-old snow was already covering the road, the structures, the trees, and everything else.  I find it interesting that the snow started coming down as I approached the tunnel, then let up as I left.

This picture best sums up the abandoned turnpike in the winter.  It’s grey, cold, isolated, and very, very quiet.  The only sound is the distant, muffled rumble of traffic climbing the Turnpike above.  It’s a far cry from the summer visit, where everything was warm and vivid.  They couldn’t have picked a better location to shoot the film.

To get to the abandoned turnpike, take I-76 (the current PA Turnpike) to the Breezewood exit (161).  Take Route 30 east.  The easiest place to park is the triangular gravel area on your left, just over the hill past the Quality Inn.  The best place to park is the midway point — see my map of the abandoned turnpike for details — though this may be inaccessible if it’s snowy and/or you don’t have four-wheel drive.

The full set of pics from this visit can be found here:  If you want to see the summer pics from last summer, which includes many shots from inside the tunnels, check out this album:  

Remember that the area is “in development” as a bike trail and as such is “officially closed” (though all the warning signs go on to state that “helmets and lights are required” and you can visit “at your own risk”).  The land is owned by the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy, who has made it clear that the land is intended for public use — you are in no way trespassing if you visit and stick to the roads.  However, there are two nearby areas — west of Route 30 and east of Pumping Station Road — still owned by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and regularly patrolled by the PA State Police.  You can be cited for trespassing in those areas, so avoid them (again, see the map for details).

Finally, if you choose to go exploring, you are doing so at your own risk.  The roadway isn’t so bad, but the tunnels carry a risk of serious (if not fatal) injury.


* – this is not true

3 thoughts on “The Abandoned Snowpike”

  1. Isn’t 581 waaaay more recent than the 1960’s? And that just proves your point even more. LOL

    Awesome post. I’m not gonna lie – I won’t miss making that turnpike trip so often. It is a nice road, though.

  2. Thanks all. And honestly, I’m not sure exactly how old 581 is. I assumed it was built with the Interstate system, which was mostly done in the 1960s.

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