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These days, it seems America is infatuated with abandoned places. A whole genre of urban decay tourism has sprung up in Rust Belt cities from Detroit to Gary, Indiana. The Keystone State has its own monuments to change. Recently I set out with a few friends to see the Rays Hill Tunnel on the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike is a marvel of engineering and political achievement that traverses the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And although it doesn’t actually enter either of the two largest cities in the state (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), its arteries serve both of those communities. And those cities could not be more different.
But the Pennsylvania Turnpike is the lifeline that literally holds the state together. Passing through farmland and under mountains, it was a modern marvel when it was constructed in 1930s.
In fact, the Pennsylvania Turnpike was the first limited-access highway in the United States. It’s the model that all other highway systems have followed, both in the United States and in other countries.
But in 1968, a decision was made to widen the highway, including the tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Unfortunately, there was a section that was unable to be widened due to issues at the Rays Hill Tunnel and Sideling Hill Tunnel. The result is a 13-mile section called the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. Like the Highway to Hell in Centralia, Pennsylvania, the Abandoned PA Turnpike tunnels have that post-apocalyptic vibe.
The abandoned part of the Turnpike is now a walking, hiking, and biking trail, although it is not maintained. After 50 years of neglect, the asphalt has cracked and the ground is being reclaimed by grasses and trees.
On a Friday morning in the summer, we saw several other groups of walkers and many other cars parked in the small lot outside of Breezewood, PA. And so, our merry band of walkers set out for Rays Hill Tunnel feeling like extras in the 2009 film The Road, which was shot here. Unlike the movie, we did not encounter any cannibals on our hike.
The hike from the parking lot to Rays Hill Tunnel is a gentle uphill walk. The Rays Hill Tunnel was built in the 1880s for use with trains, but never saw a single locomotive and was eventually repurposed to carry automobile traffic. At just over 3,500 feet, it’s a long way through the tunnel.
The entrance to the abandoned turnpike tunnel is fairly overgrown and doesn’t make a very nice picture (the view on the other side is better). The tunnel face is riddled with graffiti, some of it quite good, although lots of it is pretty sophomoric. And compared to other abandoned places (particularly other Pennsylvania abandoned places), the area is relatively free of trash and drug paraphernalia.
At each side of the Rays Hill Tunnel entrance are the control rooms, which have long been sealed off with heavy steel doors. We could only imagine what treasures those rooms might hold.
As we walked through the tunnel, we noticed that above our heads was a secondary passage that had openings every few feet. It was probably some kind of air duct above the main tunnel shaft.
Pigeons and other birds have taken up residence in the duct. We had to carefully dodge their fecal bombs. But, we also came on a sad young chick that had fallen or been pushed from the nest. It chirped endlessly at our presence. Even in the darkness of the abandoned tunnels there is life.
I don’t know what we expected from the Pennsylvania Abandoned Turnpike, but it didn’t feel like other abandoned places (like Pennsylvania’s abandoned resorts). The tunnel wasn’t as spooky as we expected and the road was just some gravel and asphalt. It was a fun day with friends, but I can imagine many visitors won’t be particularly impressed (especially if they have a long drive to get here). As abandoned places go, this was pretty unremarkable.
Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike Information
Directions from the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76)
Proceed to Exit 161 in Breezewood. Getting off the Turnpike, the highway number will turn to I-70. Take this short spur into town. If you look to your right, you’ll see a second section of the PA Abandoned Turnpike, which is used by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation as a maintenance yard (it is not accessible).
Once the spur gets into Breezewood, make your first right onto US-30 and head east of town (you’ll pass the Quality Inn Breezewood hotel on your left). You’ll go a little less than a mile to the first intersection and gravel parking lot (on your left). This is the parking lot for the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. GPS Coordinates: 39.999976, -78.228025.
Directions from I-70
If you are coming North on I-70, take it until the road dead-ends in Breezewood. Make a right on US-30 in town and head east past a couple of gas stations and fast food establishments. You’ll pass the Breezewood Quality Inn hotel on your left. Head less than mile to gravel parking lot Abandoned PA Turnpike bike trail. GPS Coordinates: 39.999976, -78.228025.
Parking Lot at the Rays Hill Tunnel
There is a small parking lot that can hold about eight cars at the trailhead. It’s unlikely there will be more vehicles than that. However, visitors should note that parking is not allowed on the roadside.
Abandoned Turnpike Trailhead
Hike up the steep dirt and gravel hill to the trailhead and the start of the Old Pennsylvania Turnpike bike trail. You’ll notice several signs that explain the rules. There are no motorized vehicles. The trail is not maintained, but is occasionally patrolled. Visitors are not trespassing. Don’t litter, don’t be stupid, and be respectful.
What to Bring to the Abandoned Tunnels
You’ll need a good flashlight for going through the Rays Hill Tunnel or any of the other PA Abandoned Turnpike tunnels. Also, the tunnel interiors can be quite cool, so a lightweight jacket is a good idea, even in summer.
More Information on the Abandoned PA Turnpike
There is a plan to turn the highway into a trail called the Pike 2 Bike. The local government has been securing funding and there signs announcing Pike2Bike is coming. However, like most things in Pennsylvania, it takes a long time. Stay tuned for additional details.
The stoplights in Breezewood are terribly timed. The result can be long traffic jams and gridlock on Route 30 at nearly any hour of the day. Be sure to bring your patience.