What is a good route to avoid Pennsylvania mountain roads?
August 19, 2009 6:49 PM   Subscribe

What is a good route to avoid Pennsylvania mountain roads?

I recently got a job in Illinois, far west from my home state of New Jersey. I still like to drive home for special occasions and have usually used I-80 to do so. With each trip, however, I get more and more anxious about traveling this road in Pennsylvania, where there are large drops barricaded with only the merest suggestion of a guard rail for protection, and in some spots where they are doing work the guardrail has been removed. I am worried enough about this road in fair weather, but now each new trip seems to be adding to the ante (thunderstorms, icy roads, white-out conditions, no guardrails)....

There was a post here last year about avoiding icy, mountain roads in a trip from NY to NV, and someone suggested I-78. I think the OP was talking about avoiding the mountains in CO, so I am wondering if I-78 will help me avoid mountains on the east coast, too. I don't mind mountains per se, I just want a route that is a little less stressful, other mountain roads with higher, sturdier guardrails would be okay.

Thanks in advance!
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth to Travel & Transportation around Pennsylvania (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Why not just take the turnpike?
posted by Loto at 6:52 PM on August 19, 2009

Here is what I am talking about

If you are normally taking 80, you'll have to shoot south first to pick up 76 in Philly. You'll pick up 80 again as soon as you cross into Ohio but at that point it is all flat.
posted by Loto at 6:56 PM on August 19, 2009

Why not just take the turnpike?

I love roadtrips. I love driving. I love high-stakes, mountainous, curvy driving.

I fucking hatehatehatehate the PA Turnpike. Even thinking about it right now, my hands and feet went clammy and my heartrate shot up. Why? Because it goes through the mountains with nothing but the barest whisper of a guard rail. And everybody driving through the mountains on the PA Turnpike thinks that they should continue traveling at the 70mph they maintained through Pennsyltucky. And there's so much congestion that you don't have any choice over your own speed. It's the most stressful driving in all the hundreds of thousands of miles I've driven--the only thing that comes close is I5 around Seattle, but there I'm just concerned for my car, not my life.

OP: Get off the interstates. The back roads don't grow any more guardrails, but they're far less crowded, meaning that you can slow down far enough to feel safe.

If you were headed farther west, I'd tell you to take the Southern route. But, I think it'll take you too far out of the way to be worth it. Basically, you go down and go through Maryland and West Virginia, bypassing PA altogether.
posted by Netzapper at 7:13 PM on August 19, 2009

Loto -

That is one of the alternate routes I was considering, but I wasn't sure if it would be any better or worse mountains-wise, so thanks for your input. After I got the job I received a GPS navigation unit so it usually just sends me on the shortest route. I will try to figure out how to set it to take rte 76 instead.

Thanks so much!
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 7:25 PM on August 19, 2009

I don't think you've been on the same turnpike I have. Barest whisper of a guard rail? It's more than adequate to prevent you from careening off unless you decide to ram the fucking thing head on at 80mph. The turnpike is also pretty straight with gradual turns, nothing that sharp. I've taken it clear across the state during winter more often than I can remember and I have no idea what the hell you are talking about.

Most importantly, when you compare it to I-80 it's like a fucking unicorn shit a road out of gold for you to take to the Care Bear Palace.
posted by Loto at 7:30 PM on August 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

80 is probably the best road in the state, it's at least well paved and maintained. The turnpike is awful: narrow, twisty and crowded. In my experience it's many times worse than 80. Back roads in PA are going to be far worse in the winter, they're usually even more mountainous and twisty than the interstates with the bonus of on-coming traffic.

Have you ever looked at the topography of PA? It's all ridges and valleys cutting diagonally across the state, there's no flat spots.
posted by octothorpe at 7:32 PM on August 19, 2009

Seriously Netzapper?....I've driven the PA Turnpike from Philly to Pittsburgh numerous times, and aside from a bunch of tunnels, it's pretty easy going. The thing you have to watch for, in winter, is going into a tunnel where everything's clear, and coming out in a snowy blizzard. I experienced that for the first time last New Years eve. A bit freaky...
posted by pilibeen at 7:43 PM on August 19, 2009

I-80 is as good as it gets my friend. It's well maintained, wide, mostly gentle grades, and frequently policed. Really, I've driven it dozens of times in very bad winter conditions and there are only a few places that are really that dangerous in bad weather (a few more that look scarier than they are). Where you really need to be careful is the 50-or-so mile stretch coming out of State College, PA (around Snowshoe, PA) to just past Clearfield headed west.

Just remember two things, because the idiot SUV driver thinks that they can go 75 MPH doesn't mean that you should too. Second, don't let the trucks bully you into going faster than you feel comfortable. Maintain your speed and get over when it's safe.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:44 PM on August 19, 2009

Also, most of those missing guardrails come from semi-trucks that demolish them and end up wrapped around trees at the bottom of a ravine. If you don't want that to be you, see my two suggestions above and you'll be fine.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:48 PM on August 19, 2009

Ok, I'll admit it's been a good 6 or 7 years since I've been on the PA turnpike, but I have to agree with Loto here. I used to drive across the state quite often, in all seasons, and I always thought the PA turnpike was just fine. You go through the big mountains, which helps.

You don't say where in Illinois, but if you're anywhere other than Chicago, you could get off the turnpike when I-70W splits off. You can take I-70 across to Indianapolis, then you have to decide which way to go (I always took I-74W to Champaign, where I lived at the time).

Seriously, most stressful driving ever? It doesn't even rank in my top 5, and I too have driven extensively all over the country.
posted by cabingirl at 7:52 PM on August 19, 2009

Well, there is no I-78 out west, but that is beside the point.

I'm from Illinois, now living in the DC area, and am not a fan of mountain roads either.

When I've gone back, I've taken I-70 once (the turnpike) and I-68 five times (this may be the southern route Netzapper suggests) but never I-80 (too far north for me).

I don't remember the I-70 part of the turnpike being anything like Netzapper describes. I remember guard rails, gradual curves, and gradual grade changes also. No congestion, either (I was driving late at night though).

Compared to I-70, I-68 has steeper grade changes (my car downshifted to get up some hills), runaway truck ramps, truck lanes, views off cliffs, and other various weird shit to someone from the Midwest who expects interstates to be straight and flat. The only reason I take I-68 instead of I-70 is because I don't want to pay a toll and I've gotten used to I-68.

Sorry I can't compare to I-80, but I think you should try the turnpike and see what you think for yourself. You can't really avoid going through the mountains, though, so hopefully you feel less anxious as you gain more experience. The interstates are generally your best options.
posted by mathlete at 7:53 PM on August 19, 2009

Thanks, octothorpe, I was about to try to find a topograph (?) of PA, but you just confirmed my suspicions. Like I said, I don't mind mountains themselves, even something going through mountains but with strong guardrails would be cool.

Netzapper, thanks for the input. I am getting better at slowing down to feel safe on Rte 80 but that's still got a 55mph minimum...I don't think I can go far south this time but I will try to leave allot enought time to try it next time.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 8:01 PM on August 19, 2009

So, I'm talking about I-76 to I-70 when I say "PA Turpike". It's just fine when it's I-76. I-70 heading for WV is horrific. Sticking on I-76 after Pittsburgh is roughly the same level of horrific.

While I know I've driven it, I don't specifically recall I-80.

But I do recall that every time I've gone through those damn mountains on the west side of PA, I've regretted not taking I-68 and its connecting highways ("the southern route", which is too far south for you).

And I'm not saying this is all due to the inherent conditions of the roads. Far from it. If I had them to myself, they'd all be totally acceptable. However, my problem (and it's my only real problem with east coast drivers) is that people do not slow down when they take a curve. It can be fucking snowing out, and people will take a 50mph curve at 70mph. And if you slow down, they'll ride your ass so close that they're fogging your rear window. It's like they have no idea that they're about 12 feet from certain death.
posted by Netzapper at 8:11 PM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I frequently (>3 times/month) drive most of I-80 and/or the turnpike for work/pleasure and I don't really see many areas "where there are large drops barricaded with only the merest suggestion of a guard rail". I would agree with the other posters that I-80 is probably the better of the two roads as its wider and has gentler grades. The worst section for driving is probably between Clearfield and State College and its overall its pretty safe.

The turnpike on the other hand could be considered over-protected. I once hydroplaned from wash from a truck coming out of the Allegheny Tunnel (I was only going 40mph as it was a heavy storm). My car spun around twice narrowly missing the jersey barriers on each side, ending up facing traffic in a downpour. Quickly getting the the shoulder I had to wait five minutes pinned against the barrier waiting to do a u-turn while trucks screamed past. A lot of this was caused by the solid concrete guardrails preventing water in this extreme storm event from exiting the road. Recently, another severe storm event flooded sections of the pike with two feet of water.

One thing to consider. Just because its a road, it doesn't mean you are guaranteed safe and always available travel on it. If you are not comfortable with the conditions of the road in unsafe weather, stop driving. Pull off the road at an exit or rest area, take a break, wait for conditions to improve. Its seriously not worth your life or the lives of others to push on. This was a big lesson I had to learn in my life.

Try taking Route 30 across the southern tier of the state and the other other routes will look relatively great.
posted by buttercup at 4:33 AM on August 20, 2009

Having driven them both, my vote goes for I-76. And as buttercup has said, either of them is a walk (drive?) in the park compared to Lincoln Highway (Route 30).

The downside to the Turnpike for you might be the cost - it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 dollars in tolls to drive from one end to the other, which if you are driving it even semi-frequently will quickly add up.

Also, to clarify some seeming confusion in terminology: I-76 is the road known as The Pennsylvania Turnpike (PA has other turnpikes, but I-76 is The Turnpike.) I-70 runs concurrent with the PA Turnpike from the New Stanton to Breezewood exits (exit 75 to exit 161).
posted by namewithoutwords at 4:41 AM on August 20, 2009

Why not try 76 next time, see how you like it?

I'm somewhere between Netzapper and Loto: the drivers on that road do seem to have a particularly happy-go-lucky attitude toward life -- theirs and mine -- but the road itself is well-banked and maintained.
posted by palliser at 5:24 AM on August 20, 2009

One thing more: I'm not sure you're supposed to slow down for a curve, unless it's marked at a lower speed, on an interstate, because the curves are banked. It feels weird to just shoot into a curve at top speed, but I personally don't like it when other drivers slow for banked curves, and anytime you're doing something other drivers will find unexpected (going a speed no one else is going, braking to take a banked curve) it can be dangerous.

I think maybe the best advice is buttercup's, to just not drive in the really bad conditions you describe in your question (really, wash-out, white-out precipitation is not safe on any road).
posted by palliser at 5:39 AM on August 20, 2009

I drive Philly to Pittsburgh fairly regularly on 70/76 with a FWD 4-cylinder car, and I've never had any problems. I haven't done 80 much, but I doubt you'll find much better than 70/76. You could always south through MD, though it seems like a waste.

The perspectives of the PA highways are amusing and ones I'd never experienced before.

But, then again I grew up with this mountainous terrain and awful winter weather. As teenagers we learned pretty quickly how to navigate our rapidly-moving vehicles through icy, white-out conditions.

Oh, and most of us are using winter snow tires.
posted by TheOtherSide at 7:06 AM on August 20, 2009

One thing more: I'm not sure you're supposed to slow down for a curve, unless it's marked at a lower speed, on an interstate, because the curves are banked.

In adverse winter conditions, you most certainly reduce (or at least check) your speed for unfamiliar curves. I can tell you that there is one curve on 80 eastbound just as you enter the Northfork bridge around marker 79 where if you are not slowing down in winter weather, you might be in trouble. The bank grade is messed up because the road and the bridge link do something funky. What you do not want to do is reduce your speed while in the curve. Always safely before.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:18 AM on August 20, 2009

Also, studded snow tires are also useful.

From Penn DOT:
Q. What are the dates when it is permissible to use studded snow tires?
A. Studded snow tires are permissible from November 1 until April 15.
posted by TheOtherSide at 7:20 AM on August 20, 2009

Sorry, mrmojoflying, meant "as a rule." I thought Netzapper was complaining that East Coast drivers don't slow down for curves as a rule (I probably overinterpreted what he said, since he mentioned snow in the next sentence), and my thought was, well, a lot of the time, you shouldn't. I am, however, always willing to concede the superiority of West Coast drivers.
posted by palliser at 11:41 AM on August 20, 2009

Also, studded snow tires are also useful.

But note that the Lt. is driving to Illinois, where they are prohibited.

Personally, I appreciate your fears but I think they're overblown. Literally hundreds of thousands of people safely cross Pennsylvania month in and month out. If you're leery of safety, stick to daylight and clear weather. You might be worried about trucks, but remember that they're the professionals and not you.

I've driven both the Turnpike and I-80 and found the latter much easier going in terms of hills and gentle curves (I-80 was built after the development of modern Interstate Highway standards). Then again, I think it's only the former that I've driven in winter, and when I drove it in summer at least once, it had huge, long construction zones of one lane with a jersey barrier. The radiator was more scared than I was. Some of the Turnpike has been rebuilt (narrow tunnels bypassed, for instance) but much of it still has the feel of an older road with tight curves and narrow shoulders.

The real no-(or at least fewer)-mountains alternative might be I-90 to Niagara, then across Ontario to Windsor-Detroit. But that's harder to do these days ID-wise, and if you do that you could as well just take the S shore of Lake Erie and stay on 90 the whole way.
posted by dhartung at 1:48 PM on August 20, 2009

Palliser, I like to complain about East Coast and West Coast drivers (having been both)! Something to remember about trucks in Pennsylvania in the winter. They are typically traveling loaded and have more traction than you do. They also desperately do not want to lose speed by getting stuck behind you as they approach a hill because it destroys their fuel efficiency as they have to chug back up a hill (not to mention lost time). Though professionals, they have a lot of incentive to act like dickheads to keep you out of their way and some of them do.
posted by mrmojoflying at 2:09 PM on August 20, 2009

mrmojoflying, possibly you're attributing dhartung's defense of truck-drivers on 76 to me? Myself, I am not so thrilled when they barrel down on the loaded carseats in the back and I have to move to the left lane to let them pass. I agree that it seems to be a strategy of building up as much speed as possible on the downhills, rather than a considered professional analysis that puts as much weight on the risk to the people in my car as I would.
posted by palliser at 7:29 PM on August 20, 2009

mrmojoflying, possibly you're attributing dhartung's defense of truck-drivers on 76 to me?

Nope. I was, though poorly worded, agreeing with you.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:26 PM on August 21, 2009

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