Exploring the Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage

A Top Hiking/Biking Destination in the Laurel Highlands

The well-lit and refurbished Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage in Somerset County PA.
The well-lit and refurbished Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage in Somerset County PA.

Located near mile marker 23 on what is now the Great Allegheny Passage hiking/biking trail lies the structural marvel which is the Big Savage Tunnel.

History of the Big Savage Tunnel

In the early 1900s coal and steel were king, and seeking to connect Cumberland, Maryland (and ultimately Baltimore, MD) to Connellsville, PA (and ultimately Pittsburgh, PA and Lake Erie) the Western Maryland Railway sought a piece of that lucrative pie.

In April of 1910 the 87 mile long “Connellsville Extension” construction project was begun, and 4 tunnels would be needed to make the rail line connection possible. The longest of these 4 tunnels would be the Big Savage Tunnel (the other 3 tunnels were the Borden, Brush, and Pinkerton tunnels).

The southeastern entrance to the Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage.
The southeastern entrance to the Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage.

The Big Savage Tunnel and the Connellsville Extension opened in 1912. The 3,294 foot long tunnel was a critical link in that rail line, until the entire line was abandoned in 1975.

The tunnel fell into a state of disrepair until the late 1990s when the Allegheny Trail Alliance stepped in to restore the tunnel as part of a greater rails-to-trails initiative. A new liner and drainage system were installed, as well as lighting.

Trains from the Western Maryland Railroad once passed through the Big Savage Tunnel, now part of the Great Allegheny Passage.
Trains from the Western Maryland Railroad once passed through the Big Savage Tunnel, now part of the Great Allegheny Passage.

How to Find the Big Savage Tunnel

For the purposes of the article I am going to describe a relatively short out and back hiking/biking excursion for those that want to do a simple day trip specifically to see the Big Savage Tunnel.

If you are biking the entire Great Allegheny Passage, you don’t really need directions as you are going to pass through the tunnel near mile marker 23 no matter which end of the GAP you start at.

A map to the Deal trail head and Eastern Continental Divide along the Great Allegheny Passage in Somerset County, PA
A map to the Deal trail head and Eastern Continental Divide along the Great Allegheny Passage in Somerset County, PA

The closest official trail head to the Big Savage Tunnel is located at Deal, with plenty of parking spots and restroom facilities located there.

GPS Coordinates for the Deal Trail Head

39.761106, -78.931217

From the Deal trail head you would ride southeast roughly .94 miles to the Eastern Continental Divide (more on that in a minute), and then another 1.2 miles to the mouth of the Big Savage Tunnel.

Sometimes I choose to hike to the tunnel, rather than ride my bike. On those occasions I usually park in the “unofficial” parking spots located at the Eastern Continental Divide itself. The bridge over the GAP along McKenzie Hollow Road (see map above) is where the Divide is located, and several obvious parking spots are located on either end of the bridge. On an out and back hike this saves you nearly 2 miles, compared to hiking from the Deal trail head.

A map to the Eastern Continental Divide and the Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage in Somerset County, PA.
A map to the Eastern Continental Divide and the Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage in Somerset County, PA.

GPS Coordinates for the Eastern Continental Divide

39.753452, -78.916026

In either event, it is 1.2 miles of hiking/biking from the Eastern Continental Divide to the Big Savage Tunnel.

The Eastern Continental Divide along the Great Allegheny Passage in Somerset County, PA.
The Eastern Continental Divide along the Great Allegheny Passage in Somerset County, PA.

The Eastern Continental Divide is a raised divide in the terrain of the eastern United States that separates the Atlantic Seaboard Watershed from the Gulf of Mexico watershed. Snowfall, rain, streams, and rivers on the eastern/southern side of the divide flows to the Atlantic Ocean, whereas water on the western/northern side of the divide drains into the Gulf of Mexico.

Standing inside the Eastern Continental Divide tunnel, facing the Big Savage Tunnel 1.2 miles away, along the Great Allegheny Passage.
Standing inside the Eastern Continental Divide tunnel, facing the Big Savage Tunnel 1.2 miles away, along the Great Allegheny Passage.

At 2,390 feet above sea level, this is also the highest point on the Great Allegheny Passage. An elevation chart inside the Divide tunnel illustrates that (see image above).

In the summer butterflies are plentiful along the Great Allegheny Passage as it winds through Somerset County, PA.
In the summer butterflies are plentiful along the Great Allegheny Passage as it winds through Somerset County, PA.

Moving on from the Eastern Continental Divide towards the Big Savage Tunnel, be on the lookout for wildlife great and small. In the summer months I consistently see as many butterflies on that stretch of the trail as just about anywhere else in Pennsylvania.

Deer are plentiful along the Great Allegheny Passage near the Big Savage Tunnel in Somerset County, PA.
Deer are plentiful along the Great Allegheny Passage near the Big Savage Tunnel in Somerset County, PA.

Deer are also a frequent sight on and along the Great Allegheny Passage (see above), especially early or late in the day.

Approaching the Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage in Somerset County, PA.
Approaching the Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage in Somerset County, PA.

The approach to the Big Savage Tunnel is like something out of a Tolkien novel, with the long tunnel disappearing into the massive mountain like the hall of a Dwarven King.

Origin of the Savage Name

The Savage name, incidentally, is not a reference to Native Americans, but rather an 18th century surveyor named John Savage, who led a surveying expedition in that area in 1736-1737.

During the winter of 1736 his survey team ran out of food and nearly starved to death in the cold and snow. In an act of almost unbelievable selflessness, John Savage offered to become the “provisions” his team needed to survive. But as luck would have it they were rescued before this drastic measure was taken.

In honor of his heroic gesture, several nearby mountains, streams, and even a village bear the Savage name, as does the tunnel.

A self-portrait inside the Big Savage Tunnel, Somerset County, PA.
A self-portrait inside the Big Savage Tunnel, Somerset County, PA.

The tunnel is illuminated, but a headlamp and tail light are still good ideas from a safety standpoint.

Fall foliage sets the ridges ablaze with color just south of the Big Savage Tunnel, along the Great Allegheny Passage.
Fall foliage sets the ridges ablaze with color just south of the Big Savage Tunnel, along the Great Allegheny Passage.

Emerging on the southeastern end of the tunnel you are treated to majestic views of western Maryland.

Spectacular views from the Great Allegheny Passage, just south of the Big Savage Tunnel.
Spectacular views from the Great Allegheny Passage, just south of the Big Savage Tunnel.

It is little wonder that this section of the Great Allegheny Passage is especially busy in the month of October, as the mountain ridges are ablaze with color.

Several deer grazing near the restrooms just south of the Big Savage Tunnel, along the Great Allegheny Passage.
Several deer grazing near the restrooms just south of the Big Savage Tunnel, along the Great Allegheny Passage.

Just south of the tunnel is a restroom and picnic pavillion, also popular with the local deer population.

A man on a recumbent bicycle prepares to travel the 3,294 foot Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage.
A man on a recumbent bicycle prepares to travel the 3,294 foot Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage.

My Final Thoughts on the Big Savage Tunnel

The Big Savage Tunnel is a remarkable construction feat, and makes for a superb day hike/bike trip. Between the fascinating history, abundant wildlife, and the exquisite views, it packs a lot of punch into a relatively short excursion.

Important Note: The Big Savage Tunnel is closed over the winter, typically from the first week of December until the first week of April. This is to help maintain a constant temperature inside the tunnel and prevent freeze/thaw damage to the tunnel liner. You can find out more specific dates for the opening/closing of the tunnel by visiting the “Trail Alerts” section on the GAP Trail’s official website.

We should all be grateful that the rails-to-trails movement has preserved and repurposed so many of these historic structures. For anyone who enjoys discovering remnants of Pennsylvania’s railroading past, I’d highly recommend adding a trip to the Big Savage Tunnel to your PA Bucket List!

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