Mia Cristallino , 12, (front) paddleboards with her sister Allie, 12, and brother Adam, 10, on a tour with SurfSUP Adventures at Moraine State Park. Photo Sebastian Foltz.

When you think of Butler County, an outdoor recreation destination might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but maybe it should be. 

From paddleboarding, cross-country skiing and sailing to mountain biking and hiking, there’s no shortage of things to do in the backyard of Pittsburgh’s neighbor to the north. And the city of Butler may be the rebounding former industrial town poised to capitalize. 

“A lot of folks just don’t know.” says Bob McCafferty, owner of Slippery Rock-based North Country Brewing Company. “There are so many hidden gems.”

Named after the 4,800-mile North Country Trail, which passes through the northern end of Butler County, the brewery and its owner embrace an emphasis on the outdoors. It’s part of the reason McCafferty settled down in Slippery Rock after college and opened his original brewpub — which has since grown to include multiple locations. 

“I didn’t realize how lucky I was growing up here,” he says. “Literally 10 minutes and you can be in the middle of the woods.”

He says he’s frequently in conversations with patrons, even longtime residents, who are surprised to learn of the county’s outdoor offerings. 

Cyclists ride the Butler-Freeport Community Trail. Photo by Sebastian Foltz for the Butler Eagle.

It’s an idea longtime Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau President Jack Cohen shares.

“People don’t realize what they have in their own backyard,” Cohen says. “I grew up in Pittsburgh. I had no idea what was out here.” 

A county full of green spaces 

The 16,725 acres of Moraine State Park and its man-made Lake Arthur are a central feature of the region’s outdoor recreation opportunities, along with McConnell’s Mill State Park (2,500 acres) just over the county line in neighboring Lawrence County and the lesser-known 300 wooded acres of Jennings Environmental Education Center on the edge of Moraine near Slippery Rock. 

Along with hiking trails and a creek that is home to beaver, Jennings has a fantastic birdwatching setup and a 20-acre protected prairie ecosystem that features seasonal wildflowers and a healthy butterfly population. 

Fall foliage at McConnells Mill State Park, located 20 minutes outside of Butler across the Lawrence County line. Photo by Sebastian Foltz courtesy of the Butler Eagle.

Each park presents its own diverse terrain. McConnells Mill is highlighted by its mid-1800s era mill recently featured in the Netflix movie, “The Pale Blue Eye,” a deep gorge with hiking trails, waterfalls and even whitewater kayaking on Slippery Rock Creek. 

With its rolling hills crafted from glacial melt, Moraine hosts an abundance of flatwater recreation opportunities on Lake Arthur, along with extensive trails and bike paths. The semi-developed South Shore includes a family-friendly beach and play area, while the North Shore offers a paved biking trail, a few rental cabins and some more remote backcountry-style hiking. 

The North Country Trail cuts through the north end of the park and Jennings. The full trail runs from North Dakota to Vermont, heading north toward the Allegheny National Forest after leaving Butler County. 

In addition to the state parks, the county is home to a number of county parks and conservation areas, including Succop Nature Park, run by the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. Closer to the Allegheny County line off Route 8, you’ll also find the Glade Run Lake Conservancy, a 150-acre wooded park with a 50-acre lake. Drained in 2011 due to a crack in the dam, the park’s lake was restored in 2017, a credit to grassroots efforts and funding measures. It makes for a quick escape from the city for kayaking and walking with a diverse population of birds, including the occasional bald eagle.

Downtown Butler and Connoquenessing Creek seen from the Hansen Ave Bridge. Photo by Sebastian Foltz courtesy of the Butler Eagle.

Once rated one of the most polluted waterways in the nation, Connoquenessing Creek is now another kayaking option flowing from the city of Butler through Zelienople. In the summertime, it’s become a popular float for all ages and skill levels.

“It’s beautiful,” Cohen says, commending volunteer efforts to keep the waterway clean. “They’ve pulled so much trash out.” 

Biking opportunities also abound in the county with mountain biking at Moraine and the county’s Alameda Park trail network, as well as rail-trail riding along the 21-mile Butler-Freeport Community Trail. Connecting its two namesake regions, the Butler-Freeport Trail celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.  

Towns on the rebound 

At the center of it all is the city of Butler. Once home to a booming industry that included railcar manufacturing, steel production and a host of other industrial businesses — the American Bantam Car Company invented the Jeep in Butler during World War II — the city saw a decline similar to many industrial parts of Pennsylvania. It went through its share of population loss and empty Main Street storefronts. 

But Butler appears on the verge of its own renaissance, much like other Rust Belt towns such as like Franklin and Warren that have seized on surrounding recreation opportunities. 

Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival participants drive down Main Street in Butler. The city is the birthplace of the original Jeep built by Bantam during World War II. Photo by Sebastian Foltz courtesy of the Butler Eagle.

Butler is just a 10- to 25-minute drive to outdoor amenities. The city stands to benefit from a renewed emphasis on its Main Street, like some of its smaller neighbors in the area such as Zelienople and Slippery Rock. In recent years it’s seen a number of new restaurants and businesses, including the centrally located Butler Brew Works and the local favorite Chop Shop restaurant. 

“It has rebounded from a bad situation,” says Butler County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jordan Grady. “There’s real opportunity here to continue to grow in the county.”

According to Grady, Butler County is one of only a few counties in the state gaining population, in large part due to the rapid growth of the Pittsburgh suburbs of Cranberry and Mars in southern Butler County. 

While the city of Butler has yet to see the kind of growth experienced in Cranberry, local officials and residents are optimistic.

“It’s not the Butler it was before, and it’s not going to be in the future,” says Butler Mayor Bob Dandoy, a longtime resident. “There’s a lot happening in the city.” 

Audrianna Bly, vice president of Butler Downtown — a nonprofit revitalization group — and Butler SpringHill Suites general manager, agrees. 

“I love being able to look out my window and see people walking up and down Main Street,” she says. “I don’t think that was happening 10 years ago.” 

Brett and Kelly Stawiarski (left) kayak with Kelly’s parents Patty and Eric Munie (right) on Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Among developments, the city and county — along with a private investor — are in the process of repurposing a long-abandoned steel manufacturing property at the edge of the city. Elsewhere, another commercial group is looking to renovate a historic middle school in downtown Butler that the Butler Area School District closed and sold last year. Long-vacant on Main Street, the Penn Theater was also recently purchased and the property’s new owner is reportedly looking to preserve it as an entertainment venue. 

“There’s optimism that hasn’t been here in a while,” says Dandoy. 

Each of the sources we spoke with also credits the increase in events in the city and county for the growing enthusiasm. Among them, the county’s Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival — celebrating the invention of the iconic vehicle in Butler. Celebrating its 12th anniversary this year on June 9-11, the festival has grown to a massive event that attracts Jeep owners from across the country for a weekend of events including a Main Street parade featuring hundreds of Jeeps from all eras. From spring through fall, the city hosts a weekly farmers’ market and a host of additional events. 

Surrounding small towns of Slippery Rock, Zelienople, Harmony, Mars and Saxonburg also boast their respective small-town charms with a renewed vitality. Each is host to its own local shops, breweries, restaurants and seasonal festivals. 

“More people come because we have all these events,” says Cohen, explaining them as a means of introducing people to all the county has to offer. He said there’s been a noticeable rise in visitation to the county since Covid, noting that more and more people are finding the outdoors. 

“There are a lot of mom-and-pop shops,” says Grady, of the genuine small-town feel of the county’s population centers, “Those locally owned places are awesome.”

Among the businesses, the county now boasts somewhere around 15 breweries, great stops after any outdoor adventure. 

“We’re all about the outdoors,” Cohen says. 

For more information on things to do and places to see in Butler, the tourism bureau’s website is a good place to start, offering a number of county highlights and events.

The Outdoor Guide Series is underwritten by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council as part of its effort to promote the outdoor recreation economy in Pennsylvania and neighboring areas.

Sebastian Foltz

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.