Even the drive to Franklin from Pittsburgh feels a little like an escape. From the turn off of Interstate 80 onto Route 8, farms and highways give way to endless acres of trees. The road hints at what’s to come without revealing any of the National Wild and Scenic stretch of the Allegheny River.

Franklin and the northern Allegheny River valley sneak up on you. After a long descent down a hill steep enough to merit a runaway truck ramp, you turn a corner and there you are, in the middle of a small town steeped in history and fit for a postcard. 

Brick-and-mortar shops line Liberty Street, its main street. Victorian homes surround them, echoing a different era. Throughout most of the year, cars with bike and kayak racks park outside of the restaurants and coffee shops. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing Franklin on one of those lists of Best Outdoor Towns soon. 

It’s an identity the town is now seizing on 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 now serves as a gateway to recreation in Pennsylvania’s Oil Region, and beyond that, the area of northern central Pennsylvania now branded as the Pennsylvania Wilds.

Every year in early October, thousands descend on the small town for Franklin’s Applefest, a three-day celebration that kicks off the fall season. What started in the 1980s as a small-town pie-baking competition has grown into an event with more than 300 arts, crafts and food vendors, live music, kid-friendly activities and a car show that spans the entire main street. Organizers estimate it brings as many as 100,000 people to the area and credit it as a major economic benefit to the town.

“Small business owners will tell you this is what gets them through the year,” says Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Jodi Lewis. 

People gather in the square for Applefest in Franklin.
Visitors to 2022 Franklin Applefest walk down Liberty Street in front of the county courthouse. The October festival brings thousands of visitors and boosts the economy. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Trails to Ales Brewery co-owner Dave Ballard echoes the sentiment: “It’s phenomenal for us. It’s our biggest three days of the year by far.”

More than that, Lewis says the event, along with other smaller festivals (such as Light Up Night on Nov. 19), helps draw attention to Franklin and its range of outdoor activities. Trail usage and river recreation reflect a growth trend that’s similar to the festival. 

“People come to our events and they say, ‘I didn’t know this was here,’” Lewis says, adding that some even move to town afterward because of its small-town charm and outdoor recreation opportunities.

Located at the confluence of French Creek and the Allegheny River, the area was once a strategic outpost for both French and British forces around the time of the French and Indian War. It was also once home to John Wilkes Booth and the real-life Johnny Appleseed, John Chapman. 

Now it boasts 55 miles of rails-to-trails paths along with multiple canoe and kayaking options, plus hiking, mountain biking, camping, hunting and fishing.

“I believe it’s the perfect outdoor recreation venue,” says Bill Weller, president of the Allegheny Valley Trails Association, the group largely responsible for the area’s rail trails. “We’ve got everything out here.”

A woman hands a customer her change at Applefest in Franklin.
Cindy Brozeski of Barber’s Orchard sells apple cider at the 2022 Franklin Applefest. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.
Cindy Brozeski of Barber’s Orchard sells apple cider at the 2022 Franklin Applefest. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

But it wasn’t always that way. 

The rails-to-trails system was a hard-fought effort that started in the 1990s, according to Weller, 68, who has been a part of the initiative since its early days.

Lewis, also a former mayor and city council member, remembers a time when the city tried to disguise empty storefronts on Liberty Street. “We were trying to put wallpaper on storefront windows so they didn’t look empty to people driving by.”

It was a strategy she learned from another civic leader at a tourism conference.

But now storefronts are full; Lewis says there’s even a waitlist.

Beyond events, the rise in emphasis on recreation has been key to the town’s success and increased visitation.  

“The bike trail was monumental for us,” Lewis says. “The festivals did the same thing.”

The 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 to Pittsburgh Trail. It includes an offshoot trail at Sandy Creek and there’s also the Oil Creek Trail outside of Oil City in Oil Creek State Park

The town has also received recognition for its rivers. French Creek and the Wild and Scenic section of the Allegheny River both pass along the edge of town, each recent winners of Pennsylvania 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, wildlife diversity and recreation opportunities. The French Creek Water Trail just received the honor in 2022, the Allegheny in 2017.

A man fishes in Oil Creek near Franklin.
Patrick Murphy of Ohio fishing in Oil Creek in October 2022. Oil Creek State Park offers 13 miles of trails along the creek. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Residents and city officials agree that visitation for recreation has seen a big boost in recent years. 

“I’ve lived here all my life and the last four or five years have really seen a big uptick in recreation of all kinds,” Ballard, 60, says.

He and his business partners opened Trails to Ales Brewery in 2018, in large part to have a place where they and other bikers and boaters could have a beer after a ride or paddle. His business is not alone in seizing on what in Pennsylvania has become a $46 billion tourism industry according to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and Department of Tourism.

“Franklin’s downtown has really come around in the last five or 10 years,” Ballard says, “a lot of new shops, a lot of new restaurants.”

“We have a bike shop,” Lewis adds, “We didn’t have a bike shop until three years ago.” 

The trend extends to lodging as well. “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,” Lewis says. “It’s been fun. I’ve been able to watch this area embrace the tourism industry.” 

Statewide the PA Tourism Office estimates that Pennsylvania now sees 211 million visitors annually. Recreational activities account for an estimated $8 billion in spending alone.

Oil Creek State Park in October 2022. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

If you visit Franklin

A walking tour down Liberty Street, Franklin’s main street, is a must. In addition to the Trails to Ales Brewery, there are a handful of restaurants, coffee shops and small businesses. The street passes two large parks and the historic county courthouse building. 

Allegheny River Trail access includes trailheads right outside of town. The paved rail-trail follows some of the least developed stretches of the Allegheny, with an interesting offshoot at Sandy Creek. 

Oil Creek State Park’s 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’s also no shortage of canoe, kayaking and hiking options. Oil Creek and French Creek are best in the spring and early summer, as they become much shallower in the later summer. 

VisitPA, the Allegheny Valley Trails Association, the Oil Region Alliance and the Franklin Chamber of Commerce are good places to start planning a visit. Looking for something a little closer to home? Find 10 unusual small towns to visit in Western Pennsylvania.

This story is part of the new Outdoor Guide series for NEXTpittsburgh focusing on outdoor recreation within a roughly three-hour drive from Pittsburgh.

Sebastian Foltz is a Pittsburgh-based freelance photographer and writer with contributions to newspapers and magazines in Pittsburgh, Oregon and Colorado. An avid whitewater kayaker, mountain biker and skier, Sebastian has a background in news, sports and outdoor journalism.