This is not the Halloween spook-infested kind of ghost road, but rather the ghosts of the past, and the folly that resulted in its abandonment. Almost hidden by the forest, it’s not easy to find, and even harder to access. Bikers have to park their cars at a gravel lot, lift their bikes up onto their shoulders and climb a grassy knoll. But cyclists and hikers who have been there speak in awe of the “Ghost Road,” a nine-mile strip of abandoned turnpike in Southeastern Pennsylvania, south of Altoona.
Populated only by wildlife, the road runs by hidden gems like the ruins of a CCC barracks and a razed Howard Johnson’s at a deserted rest stop. At spots, trees grow through the road surface of the four lane highway which is complete with guard rails and reflector strips. When you reach the tunnels, the dim interiors echo with dripping water, whooshing breezes and perhaps the voices of long gone construction crews who never dreamed their road would someday become a phantom presence.
This stretch of road was originally a Native American footpath through the Alleghenies. In the 1800s, William Vanderbilt’s failed effort to establish a railroad to compete with the existing Pennsylvania Railroad resulted in miles of forest being leveled and graded and tunnels partially blasted through the hills. When the money ran out, construction stopped dead on “Vanderbilt’s Folly” in 1885. In the 1930s, when the automobile industry and the need for paved highways was growing, the federal government accepted Pennsylvania’s proposal for a toll road. Enlisting Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the first turnpike in the country was laid down on Vanderbilt’s original route, opening in 1940.
Unfortunately, the road lacked the capacity for the millions of cars that rushed to use it. The stretch between Bedford and Fulton counties was particularly disastrous. By the late 1950s, massive traffic jams resulted from four lanes of traffic being forced into two lanes at the seven tunnels. In 1962, construction on second tunnels began at Allegheny Mountain, Tuscarora, Kittatinny, and Blue Mountain. Laurel Hill, Ray’s Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels were bypassed, leaving 13 miles of desolate turnpike and three deserted tunnels. Visit this site for photos and data on the three tunnels. This site contains photos and locations of the highway and tunnels.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission sold most of the Abandoned Turnpike to the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy (SAC) in 2001 for a dollar. The road and Ray’s Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels are open to cyclists and hikers. Ray’s Hill tunnel was used in a scene for the 2009 movie, “The Road,” a post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his son heading south towards the sea, along a vacant highway through a desolate American landscape. Fourteen of 22 filming locations for the movie were in Pennsylvania. Here is a still clip of that scene. Laurel Hill tunnel is reportedly leased to a racing team and rumored to be used as a wind tunnel. SAC’s long-range goals are to turn the road into a Superhighway bike trail, repaving and restoring its 1940s look, repairing and relighting the tunnels and rebuilding the plaza at Cove Valley. It also hopes to connect it to the nearby BicyclePa Route S.
The entrance to the Turnpike is at the intersection of Route 30 and Tannery Road in Breezewood, Bedford County. Presently, bikers will find the surface paved but irregular, more amenable to a hybrid mountain bike. Those who’ve ridden it say a road bike can be used, but expect a few bumps. It’s not a hilly ride, but there is elevation and good lights are needed for riding through the tunnels. For the full experience, Murray Schrotenboer at Grouseland Tours runs guided bike tours. Schrotenboer, the chair of “Friends of Pike2Bike,” knows the detailed history and where the hidden treasures rest. Visit this page for more information on scheduling a guided tour.
A truly unique experience, this Abandoned Turnpike is testament to man’s ambition and folly and mother nature’s resilience.