When you think of the towns of Freeport and Kittanning, images of their industrial past may come to mind, rail lines shuffling coal and lumber along the Allegheny Valley, churning factories and loaded barges exporting goods. Or maybe it’s images of Rust Belt towns that industry left behind, empty storefronts, aging housing. But take a closer look and you’ll see communities embracing a new direction.
Don’t be surprised if, in the next few years, you start to see those towns as yet another Western Pennsylvania outdoor recreation destination that’s turned a corner.
The region is on track to complete roughly 140 miles of connected rail trail by the end of 2024. That includes the existing 21-mile Butler-Freeport Community Trail, which connects Freeport to Butler city, the 36-mile Armstrong Trail along the Allegheny River – starting south of Kittanning and running to East Brady – and the 51-mile Redbank Valley and Sligo Spur trails that branch off from the Armstrong Trail near East Brady in Clarion County. In addition to biking and hiking, there are also a number of kayaking and boating options.
“For outdoor recreation, we’re probably the biggest kept secret in Western Pennsylvania at this point,” says 37-year-old Freeport Mayor Zach Gent.
“We’ve always talked about making Freeport a destination and that’s where it’s going. You’re going to see more small businesses. You’re going to see camping areas and Airbnbs.”
Gent was born and raised in Freeport, left for Pittsburgh’s southwestern suburbs and came back. He says outdoor recreation was there when he was a kid, but now it’s a community focus with expanding infrastructure.
“When I was growing up, when you went hiking, you were hiking on someone’s property,” he says, adding that the rivers also weren’t as big of a recreation focus. “Even 20 years ago, we still had a lot of barge traffic.”
Now there are one or two barges occasionally passing through, but ample paddling opportunities on the Allegheny and Kiski rivers as well as Redbank Creek to the north. The end of the Allegheny River’s wild and scenic stretch also concludes near East Brady. Paddlers should take note, Pittsburgh’s network of locks and dams start downriver from East Brady.
The Armstrong Trails group plans to open an additional 14 miles of rail trail connecting from Ford City – upriver from Freeport – to Leechburg along the Allegheny and Kiskiminetas (Kiski) rivers in late 2023. Construction of a bridge over existing train tracks is expected to fully connect the trail to Freeport and the Butler Freeport Trail later in 2024 using the existing Tredway Trail. When complete the trail will offer almost as many miles as the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trail, which spans 150 miles from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland.
Plans to connect the Armstrong Trail to the north and the 32-mile Allegheny River Trail between Franklin and Emlenton are also in the works. The only gaps along that stretch currently fall between Emlenton and East Brady. Both trail systems are part of what will be the 270-mile Erie Pittsburgh Trail – currently around 70 percent complete.
For Chris Ziegler, Armstrong Trails executive director and Butler Freeport Trail president, the connection efforts have been a labor of love years in the works.
“I don’t think we’ve seen growth like this since the rails to trails movement began,” Ziegler says.
Pennsylvania is currently number two in the country with miles of rail trail. When complete, she believes the trail network could attract as many users and tourism dollars as the GAP Trail.
“The potential is there. It’s just transitioning the locals to see it,” she says.
That’s a change that Gent believes is already well underway with new leadership and a younger generation bringing fresh ideas.
“There’s an energy in town,” he says. “It’s really contagious. People want to invest now.”
He says he’s seen his neighborhood near the Butler Freeport trailhead improve since he was a kid. And it’s now not uncommon to see cars with stickers from Fox Chapel, Montour, all over Allegheny County and beyond.
While each town may not yet have its own brewery, bike shop or coffee shop, Zeigler and Gent believe they are on their way.
Some have already started. Freeport added 1833 Coffee & Tea Company and Essential Fermentation Restaurant & Brewery in the last few years along with The Brickyard Cafe and Loch 5 Tavern, all good pre- or post-ride stops.
The Butler Freeport Trail has Derailers Bike Shop and Cafe close to halfway to Butler in Herman.
Neighboring Butler County has already seen a boom in breweries in recent years. Small towns like Saxonburg near the Butler-Freeport Trail have also developed quaint and vibrant main streets.
Speaking to the potential, Ziegler cites places like Connellsville and Ohiopyle along the GAP Trail as models for embracing recreation. A recent study estimated that the GAP trail has a roughly $121 million economic impact annually on the regions it passes through.
“It’s a generational change,” Zeigler says of the work already underway. “The businesses that are going to come for trail users will benefit locals as well. Cyclists love supporting small communities.”
There are already indications of the uptick. A trail use study showed a 450 percent increase in the usage of sections of the Butler-Freeport trail between 2019 and 2020.
If you go
Butler-Freeport Community Trail
Both the Butler-Freeport Trail and Armstrong trails have a number of access points. Located just under 30 minutes from Pittsburgh, on the edge of Freeport, the southern end of the Butler-Freeport trail is easily the wildest and most scenic. Right from the trailhead, the trail leaves roads and neighborhoods for an undeveloped wooded valley along Buffalo Creek. Some days you are as likely to run into a deer as you are another trail user.
The stretch offers a few creekside benches and picnic areas that afford a great opportunity to sit and just listen to birds.
“The scenery is beautiful,” says Ziegler. “There are wildflowers, there are waterfalls. It’s an important bird area.”
But for her, it’s as much about the community as it is about nature. She said she’s made lifelong biking friends along the trail.
A short 4-mile ride from the Freeport end will take you to the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania’s newly completed Buffalo Creek Nature Park, which offers a small store with light snacks and a covered pavilion, a great halfway point for an 8-mile out-and-back ride.
Further north the trail eventually becomes a mix of rural and semi-suburban landscapes before reaching Butler.
Derailleur’s Bike Shop Cafe in Herman is worth a stop, as well as the trail-side old railroad caboose at the Cabot trail access – 30 minutes from Cranberry Township. Renovated to preserve its original look, the caboose is open to visitors and also has a rest area.
If starting or finishing a ride in Cabot, the small town of Saxonburg is worth a stop. Its main street has a number of coffee shops, restaurants and other shops.
The Butler end of the trail also has a number of amenities with the city of Butler at the northern end of the trail. Butler Brew Works and the Chop Shop are local favorites.
The Armstrong Trail
At its northern end near East Brady, the Armstrong trail offers a step back in time, with relics from its industrial past. A short ride from the Phillipston access near East Brady will take you under an old railroad coaling tower, where trains would refill their coal supplies to power steam engines.
Further along the trail, you reach the Redbank Valley Trail offshoot along Redbank Creek. The northern end of the trail below East Brady runs along an unpopulated stretch of the Allegheny River and includes a number of other historical markers and resting points.
Consider starting or ending a ride with a stop at the riverside Dock 9 Bar and Grill in East Brady.
The trail also has a number of access points farther south also along the Allegheny. Its southern portion passes through the old industrial towns of Ford City and Kittanning.
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.