Even the drive from Pittsburgh to Franklin feels a bit like an escape. From the Interstate 80 turnoff to Route 8, farms and highways give way to endless acres of trees. The road hints at what’s to come without revealing anything of the Allegheny River National Wild and Scenic route.
Franklin and the northern Allegheny River Valley creep up on you. After a long descent down a hill steep enough to merit a runaway truck ramp, you turn a corner and you’re in the middle of a small town steeped in history and postcard size.
Brick-and-mortar shops line Liberty Street, the main thoroughfare. You are surrounded by Victorian houses that reflect a different era. Cars with bike and kayak racks are parked outside the restaurants and cafes most of the year. Don’t be surprised when you start seeing Franklin soon to be on one of these lists of the best outdoor cities.
It’s an identity the city is now embracing while embracing Pennsylvania’s growing recreation and tourism economy with festivals, outdoor activities and an emphasis on its rich heritage. From frontier outpost to oil boom town, Franklin today serves as a gateway to recreation in Pennsylvania’s oil region and beyond into the area of north-central Pennsylvania now branded as the Pennsylvania wilderness.
Every year in early October, thousands flock to the small town for Franklin’s Applefest, a three-day celebration that kicks off the fall season. What started as a small-town pie-baking contest in the 1980s has grown into an event that spans Main Street with more than 300 arts, crafts and food vendors, live music, kid-friendly activities and a car show. Organizers estimate it will bring up to 100,000 people to the area and see it as a major economic benefit for the city.
“Small business owners will tell you they get this through the year,” says Jodi Lewis, executive director of the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce.
Visitors to the 2022 Franklin Applefest walk down Liberty Street in front of the District Courthouse. The Oktoberfest attracts thousands of visitors and boosts the economy. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.
Hiking trails to Ales Brewery Co-owner Dave Ballard agrees: “It’s phenomenal for us. These are by far our biggest three days of the year.”
More than that, says Lewis along with others smaller festivals (like Light Up Night on November 19) helps draw attention to Franklin and its range of outdoor activities. Trail use and river recreation reflect a similar growth trend as the festival.
“People come to our events and say, ‘I didn’t know this was here,'” says Lewis, adding that some even move to the city for the small-town charm and outdoor recreation opportunities.
Located at the confluence of the French Creek and Allegheny Rivers, the area was once a strategic outpost for French and British forces during the French and Indian Wars. It was also once the home of John Wilkes Booth and the real life Johnny Appleseed, John Chapman.
Now it offers 55 miles of rail-to-trails as well as multiple canoeing and kayaking opportunities, as well as hiking, mountain biking, camping, hunting and fishing.
“I think it’s the perfect outdoor retreat,” said Bill Weller, President of the Allegheny Valley Trails Association, the group primarily responsible for the region’s rail infrastructure. “We have everything out here.”
Cindy Brozeski of Barber’s Orchard selling cider at Franklin Applefest 2022. Photo by Sebastian Foltz. Cindy Brozeski of Barber’s Orchard selling cider at Franklin Applefest 2022. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.
But it wasn’t always like that.
The Rail-to-Trails system was a hard-fought attempt that began in the 1990s, according to Weller, 68, who has been with the initiative since its inception.
Lewis, also a former mayor and city councilman, recalls a time when the city tried to disguise empty storefronts on Liberty Street. “We tried to wallpaper shop windows so they didn’t look empty to passers-by.”
It was a strategy she learned from another citizen leader at a tourism conference.
But now the store fronts are full; Lewis says there’s even a waiting list.
Events aside, the increasing emphasis on recreation has been key to the city’s success and increased visitor numbers.
“The bike path was monumental for us,” says Lewis. “The festivals have done the same.”
That Allegheny River Trail follows the Allegheny for 32 miles from Oil City to Emlenton and is part of the larger effort to connect the Erie Trail to the Pittsburgh Trail. It includes a turning trail at Sandy Creek and there is also the Oil Creek Trail outside of Oil City in Oil Creek State Park.
The city has also received recognition for its rivers. French Creek and the Wild and Scenic section of the Allegheny River both run along the outskirts of town and are both Pennsylvania winners river of the year Honors from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers. The award is given for natural beauty, biodiversity and recreational opportunities. The French Creek Water Trail just got the honor in 2022, the Allegheny in 2017.
Patrick Murphy from Ohio fishing in Oil Creek in October 2022. Oil Creek State Park offers 13 miles of hiking trails along the creek. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.
Residents and city officials alike agree that recreational visits have seen a major upswing in recent years.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and in the last four or five years there’s been a really big increase in recreational activities of all kinds,” says Ballard, 60.
He and his business partners opened Trails to Ales Brewery in 2018, mainly to have a place where they and other bikers and boaters could have a beer after a ride or paddle. His business isn’t the only company grabbing a $46 billion Pennsylvania tourism industry, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and the Department of Tourism.
“Downtown Franklin has really evolved in the last five or 10 years,” says Ballard, “a lot of new businesses, a lot of new restaurants.”
“We have a bike shop,” Lewis adds, “until three years ago we didn’t have a bike shop.”
The trend also extends to housing. “Airbnbs (and traditional bed and breakfasts) have taken off. People have learned that you can live on the third floor and rent out the first and second,” says Lewis. “It was fun. Watching this area embrace the tourism industry.”
The PA Statewide Bureau of Tourism estimates that Pennsylvania now sees 211 million visitors annually. An estimated $8 billion is spent on leisure activities alone.
Oil Creek State Park in October 2022. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.
When you visit Franklin
A hike Liberty Street, Franklin’s main thoroughfare, is a must. In addition to Trails to Ales Brewery, there are a handful of restaurants, cafes, and small businesses. The street passes two large parks and the historic district courthouse.
Access to the Allegheny River Trail includes trailheads just outside of town. The paved railroad follows some of the most underdeveloped sections of the Allegheny, with an interesting offshoot at Sandy Creek.
of Oil Creek State Park Rail Trail north of nearby Oil City is also worth a look. It follows Oil Creek through what was once the epicenter of the oil boom. There is also no shortage of canoeing, kayaking and hiking opportunities. Oil Creek and French Creek are best in spring and early summer as they get much shallower in late summer.
Visit PAthe Allegheny Valley Trails Associationthe Alliance of Oil Regions and the Franklin Chamber of Commerce are good starting points for planning a visit. Looking for something a little bit closer to home? Find 10 unusual small towns in western Pennsylvania to visit.
This story is part of the new Outdoor Guide series for NEXTpittsburgh, which focuses on outdoor recreation and is about a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh.