I have a certain fascination with and interest in exploring abandoned manmade things. There’s a surrealness that comes with being in a place that is in between urban and wild, developed and natural. Rusty metal, crumbling concrete, smashed windows. The ruin, decay, and nature taking over, perhaps as it should have been all along.
I love to wander through old, dilapidated buildings and ride decrepit stretches of road, though oftentimes, these places aren’t open to the public and perhaps that adds to the fun. But there’s something to be said for getting to enjoy them without worrying about consequences.
One such opportunity to do this is on an abandoned stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Breezewood. Thirteen miles of the road was bypassed in 1968 in favor of a newer route that did not require the use of tunnels, which had been causing a lot of bottlenecked traffic issues on the old road. In 2001, the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy, an organization that seeks to preserve natural, cultural and historic resources in south-central Pennsylvania, bought the property and it is now open for hikers and cyclists to explore.
Plans to convert this section of road into a multi-use trail called the Pike 2 Bike are underway, but for now, the cracked and crumbling roadway exists in a very raw and untouched way (except by graffiti artists) that is reminiscent of apocalyptic times. In fact, scenes from the post-apocalyptic film “The Road” were filmed there.
The section of former highway includes two tunnels, one of which is almost two miles long – long enough and sloped enough that you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel until you get halfway through. The first time I ever rode through these tunnels I did so without lights (by choice) because the friend I was riding with convinced me that would be a good idea (he’s very persuasive and I’m easily convinced to do slightly crazy things).
Despite the nagging fear that I might hit a giant hunk of concrete that had fallen off the ceiling or dead body in the darkness, riding without lights in the pitch black was really fun and provided an interesting perspective on trusting other senses besides sight. I felt as though I was weaving in the darkness without a point of reference to guide me forward, but I never crashed into a wall or anything else. It was as if I could somehow sense if I was getting too close to the side of the tunnel and I would naturally and almost unconsciously drift back towards the center.
Luckily, there was no debris or dead bodies to hit – just some trash here and there – and we made it out of both tunnels unscathed but pumped with adrenaline.
Above each tunnel, there are rooms that house giant fans that were used to provide ventilation via a channel running above the ceiling of the actual roadway. Holes in the ceiling allowed air flow from the tunnel itself to and from this channel. There are also remnants of other infrastructure in this secret raised cavity, such as a rail line that was presumably used to transport building or repair materials into the depths of the tunnel. It’s worth it to take a moment to get off your bike and check out all the little rooms above and beside the road itself; it’s pretty interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing.
The bikeable section of abandoned road ends at a second parking area and back road that makes for an excellent connector if you want to do a longer ride in the area that includes B-roads and gravel as well as the Pike 2 Bike. Or you can turn around and ride the nine miles back for a total of 18 miles and it’s still a fun ride that is relatively flat and easy. It’s a great ride for families or people who might not ride a lot, and the extra element of history and exploration add to the fun factor for those who might need a little extra incentive to jump on a bike. Though be warned, some of the graffiti in the tunnels is not exactly family-friendly, so just be aware and be prepared if you’re sensitive to that.
The abandoned turnpike also passes through Buchanan State Forest, which offers singletrack and snowmobile trails open to mountain biking that connect directly to the Pike 2 Bike, so opportunities for continued exploration abound even if roads aren’t your thing.
If you go:
- Parking is available on either end of the Pike 2 Bike. One parking area is just off Rt. 30 east of Breezewood on Tannery Road (it’s just a gravel pull-off). The other is off of Pump Station Road in Waterfall, PA.
- The surface of the abandoned turnpike is a bit rough and crumbling in a lot of spots. I wouldn’t recommend taking a true road bike with 23c tires on it. Gravel/cross bikes, hybrids and even mountain bikes will offer a more comfortable and enjoyable ride. Basically, anything you’d ride on gravel would be fine.
- While I enjoyed by lightless tunnel experience, make sure you bring a front light. I’d recommend using it for your first pass through the tunnel and then try going without once you make sure it’s clear from debris.
- As always, be respectful of the land and other users, and be safe and use common sense.
Everyday Adventure is a monthly column penned by Bicycle Times web editor Helena Kotala about the amazing experiences that can be found close to home.
Earlier this year I wrote an article about adventure and the fact that it is whatever you want it to be. Or rather, it is what you make it.
What defines an adventure is not where you are, how far you ride, how hard it is or how close to peril you might come. Instead, it is your attitude toward what you are doing that determines if it’s mundane or exciting.
I am the first to admit that I can get a bit envious of the lives of perpetual travelers exploring the world by bike, living an existence that offers a continuous stream of new experiences, places and people. As I wrote in my previous article, the age of social media has only exacerbated the issue. The ability to easily follow the lives of fellow bike enthusiasts who may be doing things that seem more exciting than my own life can certainly generate an urge to sell everything and hit the road. But what the pretty pictures don’t show is that that life has its own hardships and drawbacks. Truth be told, despite that occasional desire to adopt the nomadic life, recent years have shown me that while I do love to travel, I also love having a home, a family and a community to come back to.
Luckily, a life full of adventure and being home are not mutually exclusive. You do not need to go far to explore. I’m willing to bet there are plenty of places in your backyard that are yet to be discovered. It’s also possible to see very familiar places in a whole new way by simply changing your perspective or the circumstances. Riding a well-known trail on a different bike or at a different time of day or year can change the experience entirely. Showing friends or family the joys of cycling can make prosaic rides fun again. Embarking on a challenge or trying something new like bikepacking can spice up the same old routine without taking too much time away from other activities and life responsibilities.
I’ve been trying to fill my life with more everyday adventures. I travel a lot for work, which makes me even more appreciative of the time I’m home and boosts my fervor for exploring my own backyard. As a writer, I also love to share my experiences, so the idea for a regular column was born out of the desire to inspire others to find their own everyday adventures.
Stay tuned for monthly musings and explorations from the woods and back roads of central Pennsylvania!
What’s YOUR everyday adventure? Tell us in the comments! OR if you’re feeling ambitious and want to submit a full story, send words and at least one photo to [email protected] for consideration. We’ll publish our favorites on the web!Tweet Print
Pennsylvania’s first nationally designated bicycle route – U.S. Bicycle Route 50 – was officially approved in May by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and makes Pennsylvania the 25th state to join the developing U.S. Bicycle Route System (USBRS). The 163-mile route mostly follows off-road trails, including the popular Great Allegheny Passage, Montour Trail, and the Panhandle Trail. Cyclists can now ride 538 miles on U.S. Bicycle Route 50 from Washington, DC, to the Indiana/Illinois border. Once completed, the route will connect all the way to San Francisco.
“We are very proud to have, along with our partners, developed more than 160 miles of trails and roadway for U.S. Bicycle Route 50,” said Leslie S. Richards, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) Secretary. “We expect the designation of U.S. Bicycle Route 50 to result in significant transportation, health, and economic benefits to the region.”
The USBRS is a developing national network of officially recognized, numbered, and signed bicycle routes. The new USBR 50 designation brings the total mileage of the system up to 11,726. More than 40 states are working on designating and implementing official U.S. Bicycle Routes.
“The U.S. Bicycle Route System is an important link in America’s interconnected multimodal transportation network” said Bud Wright, executive director of AASHTO. “From highways, transit, pedestrian trails, bridges, waterways, and bicycle routes – state departments of transportation are committed to giving travelers and tourists as many options as possible, to get where they want to go, how they want to get there.”
Adventure Cycling Association, a nonprofit that provides national coordination for the U.S. Bicycle Route System, partners with AASHTO to ensure states have the resources and expertise needed for successful route designation. Executive director Jim Sayer said, “It is really exciting to have half the states in America plus Washington, DC with designated U.S. Bicycle Routes. We think that USBR 50 is going to be very attractive to cyclists around the world, with the route’s combination of trails and low traffic volume roads.”
Pennsylvania’s portion of U.S. Bicycle Route 50 connects Maryland to West Virginia through a variety of natural and agricultural landscapes, historical sites, thriving small towns, and recreational hot spots. Cyclists can visit restored rail stations; Ohiopyle State Park, which has some of the best white water rafting on the East Coast; Point State Park in Pittsburgh; and the nearby Fort Pitt Museum. Additionally, Amtrak’s Capitol Limited route parallels U.S. Bicycle Route 50 between DC and Pittsburgh and offers the opportunity for cyclists to carry their bikes on or off the train at any station. This multimodal option allows for more flexibility to plan bicycle trips without a car.
More information about U.S. Bicycle Route 50 will be available on the PennDOT website at www.penndot.gov/TravelInPA/Rid