Exploring the Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage

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.

The Big Savage Tunnel is one of the structural marvels of Pennsylvania, located near mile marker 23 along what is now the Great Allegheny Passage hiking/biking trail in Somerset County.

Bicycle at the northern portal of the Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
Bicycle at the northern portal of the Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail in Somerset County.

History of the Big Savage Tunnel

In the early 1900s coal and steel were king in this region, and the Western Maryland Railway sought to connect Maryland to Pennsylvania and grab a slice of that lucrative pie.

A mural dedicated to the Western Maryland Railway, painted on the Eastern Continental Divide bridge abutment.
A mural dedicated to the Western Maryland Railway, painted on the Eastern Continental Divide bridge abutment just north of the Big Savage Tunnel.

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).

History of how the BIg Savage Tunnel was constructed, along what is now the Great Allegheny Passage Rail Trail in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
History of how the BIg Savage Tunnel was constructed, along what is now the Great Allegheny Passage Rail Trail in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

The Big Savage Tunnel and the Connellsville Extension opened in 1912.

Approaching the southern entrance to the Big Savage Tunnel just north of the Mason and Dixon Line Park along the Great Allegheny Passage.
Approaching the southern entrance to the Big Savage Tunnel, just north of the Mason and Dixon Line Park along the Great Allegheny Passage.

The 3,294 foot long tunnel was a critical link in that rail line, until the entire line was abandoned in 1975.

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 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.

Bicycle at the southern portal of the Big Savage Tunnel, just north of the Mason and Dixon Line Park.
Bicycle at the southern portal of the Big Savage Tunnel, just north of the Mason and Dixon Line Park.

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.

Approaching the northern portal of the Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage.
Approaching the northern portal of the Big Savage Tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage.

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 mileage marker at the Deal Trail Head of the Great Allegheny Passage.
A mileage marker at the Deal Trail Head of the Great Allegheny Passage.

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

The Deal Trail Head of the Great Allegheny Passage in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
The Deal Trail Head of the Great Allegheny Passage in Somerset County.

The Deal Trail Head is located at GPS coordinates 39.761106, -78.931217.

A map to the Mason and Dixon Line Park along the Great Allegheny Passage.
A map to the Mason and Dixon Line Park along the Great Allegheny Passage.

The Big Savage Tunnel is located 2 miles south of the Deal Trail Head.

The Great Allegheny Passage at Deal, facing south towards the Mason and Dixon Line Park.
The Great Allegheny Passage at Deal, facing south towards the Big Savage Tunnel and Mason and Dixon Line Park.

The Eastern Continental Divide

Halfway between Deal and the Big Savage Tunnel, you’ll cross the Eastern Continental Divide, at GPS coordinates 39.753452, -78.916026.

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.

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.

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.

The Eastern Continental Divide, just north of the Big Savage Tunnel and the Mason and Dixon Park, along the Great Allegheny Passage.
The Eastern Continental Divide, just north of the Big Savage Tunnel and the Mason and Dixon Park, along the Great Allegheny Passage.

At 2,390 feet above sea level, this is also the highest point on the Great Allegheny Passage.

Elevation chart inside at the Eastern Continental Divide along the Great Allegheny Passage.
Elevation chart inside at the Eastern Continental Divide along the Great Allegheny Passage.

Continuing On Towards the Tunnel

While traversing the remaining one mile between the Eastern Continental Divide and 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Big Savage Tunnel, just north of the Mason and Dixon Line Park along the Great Allegheny Passage.
The Big Savage Tunnel, named after surveyor John Savage.

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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!


Nearby Attractions

The Mason and Dixon Line Park is a small but educational park at the southernmost point of the Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania.

Granite monument at the Mason and Dixon Line Park along the Great Allegheny Passage.
The Mason and Dixon Line Park along the Great Allegheny Passage.

Surveyed to settle a land dispute between two prominent English colonial families (the Penns and the Calverts), the Mason-Dixon line later became famous as the line between free and slave states prior to the Civil War.

Granite monument showing the family crests of both the Penn and Calvert families at the Mason and Dixon Line Line Park along the Great Allegheny Passage.
Granite monument showing the family crests of both the Penn and Calvert families at the Mason and Dixon Line Line Park along the Great Allegheny Passage.

The Salisbury Viaduct is another amazing engineering marvel along the Great Allegheny Passage, and is roughly 10 miles north of the Big Savage Tunnel.

Rusty Glessner taking in the sunrise over the Salisbury Viaduct.
Sunrise over the Salisbury Viaduct along the Great Allegheny Passage.

The views from the Salisbury Viaduct are incredible, and for many folks this is one of the highlights of the entire 150 mile-long Great Allegheny Passage.

The eastern horizon as viewed from the Salisbury Viaduct.
The eastern horizon as viewed from the Salisbury Viaduct.

If mountain vistas are your thing, be sure to check out “The 14 Best Scenic Overlooks in the Laurel Highlands” for directions to ALL the best views in the area!

The author photographing an autumn sunrise at Baughman Rock Overlook.
The author photographing an autumn sunrise at Baughman Rock Overlook.

The Laurel Highlands are home to an incredible array of waterfalls – be sure to check out “23 Must-See Waterfalls in the Laurel Highlands” for directions to the best ones!

Selfie at Lower Jonathan Run Falls, Ohiopyle State Park
The author at Lower Jonathan Run Falls in the PA Laurel Highlands.

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Rusty Glessner is an award-winning photographer, lifelong Pennsylvanian, and creator of the PA Bucket List travel blog.

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