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Our Top 10 Geocaches – #2

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Hi again,

We started this series last year and have been working through it slowly but surely. Since then, our Top 10 have changed a bit as we have been to some really cool places.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook Cache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain Cache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands Cache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls Cache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs Geocache, Dragoon, AZ

#4 – Civil War Entrenchments Cache, Snake Springs, PA

#3 – Big Spring Cache , Guttenberg, IA

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might be distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #2 cache made the list because of the unique geocaching environment it is located in – an abandoned highway tunnel on an abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. From July, 2011 – the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache.

RaysHillGeocache

This is the eastern portal of the tunnel. The gold arrow points to the cache location. After you bike through the tunnel, it’s up and over. Footing can be treacherous. The small dot of light in the center of the blackness is the other end. Don’t let that fool you. The center 2/3 of the tunnel is pitch black and requires a strong bike light to negotiate safely. You’ll also experience a 20 degree temperature drop, which is welcome on a hot July day. At 3,532 feet, it was the shortest of the seven tunnels on the turnpike. It’s also the only portal to not have ventilation fans above the opening. All of these tunnels were dark and dingy, with cement lining and recessed lighting. Headlights were required even during the day. Believe it or not, 18 wheelers used to rumble through this tunnel in both directions. Before it was abandoned in 1968, my family had driven through it many times. The tunnel is part of an unofficial bike trail on a 13 mile stretch of weather-beaten asphalt called the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.

When people think of my native Pennsylvania, they usually think Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – urban areas. In fact, most of Pennsylvania is heavily wooded and mountainous. The Allegheny Mountains run northeast to southwest through the center half of the state. Part of these mountains run through Somerset and Westmoreland counties and are called the Laurel Highlands. This is the area where I grew up and it looks much as it did 250 years ago – trackless woods as far as the eye can see. From the earliest days of exploration to modern times, the Alleghenies have challenged those who tried to tame them with roads, canals and tracks.

RaysHill1885

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel in 1885 with the geocache location shown. The original turnpike followed the right-of-way for the Southern Pennsylvania Railroad. Over the course of 10 years, a lot of work was done on the railroad, including nine tunnels, and a lot of money was spent but the project was never completed. The line and its tunnels spent over 40 years in legal and financial limbo until the whole right-of-way was bought by the Turnpike Commission in 1937. Construction started in 1938 using the railroad bed and seven of the nine tunnels. The man at the center of the photo with his foot on the railroad tie is Andrew Carnegie, the principal financial backer of the doomed venture.

A year before Pearl Harbor, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania opened a four lane concrete toll road through these mountains that would eventually run east-west from border to border – the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Modeled after the German Autobahn, it was the first high speed limited access superhighway in the United States. Construction started in October 1938. The first 160 mile section from Carlisle to Irwin opened for business on October 1, 1940. Construction and expansion have been ongoing ever since. The original design envisioned speeds of up to 100 mph. The road was designed to maximize straightaways while minimizing curves and hills. This is where the tunnels came in, but that design parameter didn’t last long.

RaysHill1940

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel on September 30, 1940 – the day before the opening. The future geocache location is marked. The turnpike was a victim of its own success. In its first year of operation, two million cars traveled on it. The road was four lanes but the tunnels were two lanes and very narrow and dark. Within 10 years, traffic jams at the tunnels became a regular occurrence. By the late 1950’s, the flow of traffic was significantly inhibited and the Turnpike Commission embarked on an aggressive program to remedy the tunnel jams. Between 1964 and 1968, three of the tunnels were abandoned. Four others had second parallel tubes drilled. In fact, an entire 13 mile section of the roadway around Breezewood, PA was abandoned and reconstructed on a new right-of-way. This took the Rays Hill Tunnel and the nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel out of action. The entire abandoned section, along with its two tunnels, became the Pike2Bike Trail in 2001. The third abandoned tunnel, Laurel Hill, is 50 miles to the west. It has been off limits since it was taken out of service in 1964.

So here we are on a hot July day looking for tunnel geocaches compliments of Andrew Carnegie and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Although little has become of the Pike2Bike, the route is a popular and fairly easy 26 mile ride round trip. The road can get a bit nasty at points so a helmet is a must. Likewise, you’ll need a strong bike light to go through the tunnels. Actually, two is better. Mount a flamethrower on the handlebars. That will light the way ahead. Also wear a headlamp, so you see what you are looking at as you look around you. Tunnel biking can be challenging. There are pools of water everywhere, some torn up pavement and the occasional rock or branch in the way. There are about a dozen geocaches along the 13 mile route. Each tunnel has a virtual munzee. If you go to the eastern end, you’ll pass the parking apron of the old Cove Valley Travel Plaza. It was also bypassed and abandoned but everything was torn down. You can still see the foundations of the old Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. It has a geocache nicely tucked away in it.

RaysHillMap

This is a schematic of the western end of the Pike2Bike. The Sideling Hill Tunnel is five miles east of the Rays Hill Tunnel. There are a couple of trail heads and a service road called Oregon Road that allow access to the pike. Here’s a link with their description and location. The trail is safe from predators, both four legged and two legged, and is patrolled sporadically by state, county and local law enforcement. Families and groups of all ages and abilities bike on it, including the tunnels.

The nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel was the longest tunnel on the turnpike at almost 7,000 feet. You can’t see the other end because there’s a slight rise and fall built into the roadway. You’ll be biking in pitch black darkness for almost a mile. While not officially open to the public, the inner workings of the tunnels are accessible to the adventurous. Steps, passageways, ventilators, control rooms and other assorted man-made features are waiting for the curious. It’s a great introduction to the world of “urban exploration” or URBEX, which we dabble in occasionally. Take your light and wear your helmet. Slow and easy does it, both inside the tunnel and out.

There’s no water or facilities on the trail. Summers here are hot and muggy, so plan accordingly. In the fall, the colors are spectacular. A local bike shop does tours of the pike and the tunnels. Check out Grouseland Tours. There’s quite a bit of information about all this on the Internet. A couple of Google searches should get you what you need. The GPS coordinates of the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache are N40.02072 W78.19852. Click on the coordinates for a Google map.

Regardless of how or when you go, we think you’ll find this a unique off the beaten path experience. We sure did.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Back in the Saddle Again

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Hi again,

As you’ve no doubt noticed, I haven’t posted in a while.  I got to a point at the beginning of the summer where I was burned out with all this web and blog stuff.  I was trying to post too much too quickly about too many things. It wasn’t fun any more, so I walked away.  I really wasn’t sure if I’d be back.

We did a lot of cool stuff this summer. In addition to welcoming our new grand daughter, we cruised the back roads of my native Pennsylvania and just got back from exploring Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (where the yoopers live).  And of course, we criss-crossed Minnesota and Wisconsin in our never ending quest for geocaches, out-of-the-way places and non-chain restaurants.  I took lots of pictures with my new Nikon D3100 and constantly thought “This would be a great blog entry” but I never got around to it.

Sideling Hill Turnpike Tunnel

Here’s one of our excursions from the summer of 2012. This is the eastern end of the Sideling Hill Tunnel on an abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I grew up not far from here and remember driving on this stretch of road.  It finally got too congested and they bypassed it in the late 60’s.  The 22 mile track has two tunnels. The other one is Ray’s Hill about five miles west. The entire stretch is open for biking although it is not a formal bike trail. This was the longest tunnel built on the turnpike – 6,017 feet long. That’s why you can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. You need to have flamethrower headlights to negotiate this one. There were geocaches in, around and above the tunnels. We got some but not all.  They were tough and it was really hot.  The tunnel is nice and cool inside and a cool wind blows out of it constantly, much to Natasha’s delight.

I got the bug again a few weeks ago.  Since then, I’ve been busy getting my web house in order.   The main improvement here is a better sidebar.  After experimenting with widgets for a while, I came up with a combination I like.  It puts a lot more information at the reader’s fingertips and has clear, self-explanatory titles and buttons.  You can mouse over a link to get even more information about the content. 

Be sure to checkout the new Geocaching Storefront widget, where you can find most of the stuff we talk about in our instructional posts. BTW, I don’t get paid for anything. If you see something listed anywhere in this blog, it’s because we use it and like it.

You’ll also find a new keyword search widget based on the tag cloud.  It’s got a little introduction above it.  It resolves the dilemma I had about new material rapidly getting buried and good stuff essentially disappearing.  I think I’ve fixed that.  I’ve tested it and it works like a charm.

The blog content will be shorter, less involved stuff – instructions, reviews, pictures, etc.  No more long rambling posts .  I’ve got some catching up to do.  There are a couple of series I started like Top 10 Geocaches and Intro to Geocaching that I never completed.  They go to the head of the list.  I’ve also got a lot of new stuff from our summer travels.  Among our best finds – abandoned Civil War trenches in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania, a NASA rocket launch base at the  very tip of Michigan’s Keweenaw (Upper) Peninsula and a great tavern in Prescott, WI called The Brickyard.  We’ll let you in on all of it.

Outer stockade at Fort Ligonier

Another one of our excursions this summer – the fully restored Fort Ligonier in Ligonier, PA. A British fort during the French and Indian War, it guarded the Forbes Road to Pittsburgh and Fort Pitt. It was attacked twice but held both times. As you can see, it is a formidable position. What you don’t see is the inner walls, moat and redoubts behind the outer stockade. It also bristled with cannons, mortars and swivel guns. The Loyalhanna River ran right along the base of the rocks back then but was re-routed when Route 30 (the Lincoln Highway) was built almost 100 years ago.

Our companion website has a new URL – exploreoffthebeatenpath.com.  It will have the longer, more involved stuff.  My current project is the 1862 Dakota War here in Minnesota.  What?  You thought  Minnesota was settled by Micheal Landon and Melissa Gilbert during Little House on the Prairie? You didn’t know the largest Indian war in U.S. history was fought here? That’s alright.  Nobody else does either.  I’ll let you know when it’s published.

I’ll be moving up previous posts from the series I started and cross linking them so they don’t get lost. The four or five instructional posts on Introduction to Geocaching will be permanent pages linked at the top of the home screen.  That way, they’re always available and easy to find.    This housekeeping may take a few days, so bear with me.

Thanks to all who have commented, followed and liked.  There’s lots more to come.

Best ….. Dan

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