Open an outdoor gear outfitter and a microbrewery in an old riverside plastics factory, and you’re going to make a strong argument for earning “outdoor town” credentials. Add a bike shop, a climbing gym and a $3 million plan for a downtown boat launch and expanded riverfront development along a scenic stretch of river, and the case gets stronger.
Then there’s the neighboring 513,175-acre Allegheny National Forest, a 33-square-mile lake, world-class caliber mountain biking, plus canoeing, kayaking and fishing opportunities all on the edge of town.
Though it may sound like some Colorado or Oregon destination out of a travel magazine, it’s Warren, Pennsylvania.
While for many, Warren may still be off the radar, the town is making strides toward living up to its “Gateway to the Allegheny National Forest” nickname.
Located on the northern side of the forest, 2 1/2 hours driving time from Pittsburgh, Warren is not close to any interstate. The historic town with a rich oil and lumber history – reportedly once home to the most millionaires per capita in the state — feels a little off the grid. It’s also on the verge of a new identity.
“We’ve always been a well-kept secret,” says Jim Decker, president of the Warren County Chamber of Business & Industry.
The challenge, however, has been that visitors to the national forest paddle the river, hike and camp the forest, but don’t necessarily stop in town. With a new influx of ideas, small businesses and motivated leadership, that seems poised to change.
“Historically we haven’t done a lot to interact with visitors to the Allegheny National Forest,” says Decker. “We knew (the river) was out there, but we didn’t embrace it. Over the last 10 years, that has changed dramatically.”
Shifting the paradigm
One of the drivers of that change is Allegheny Outfitters owner Piper VanOrd. Originally smaller and on the edge of town, her canoe and kayak rental and outdoor store now calls the reinvented downtown former plastics factory home.
Since taking over two small canoe rental companies with dated equipment in 2006, her operations have gone from 2,000 river trips to around 12,000 annually. She also added the retail side.
In 2019, VanOrd moved her operations to what’s becoming the new heart of downtown Warren, and a focal point for redevelopment according to Decker. The riverfront facility is now also home to local microbrewery Bent Run Brewing Co., The Goat Fort indoor climbing gym and the Pennwild Outdoors hunting and fishing shop, all new since 2020.
“We’ve sort of started dubbing ourselves Outdoor Alley,” VanOrd says of the new part of town.
The riverside space near the building is also the site of a proposed $12 million city project to add a downtown boat launch and other riverfront amenities.
Decker says the project is still pursuing funding, but he is hopeful it will be completed by 2025.
“There’s a spark in Warren right now,” VanOrd says. “Right at the moment, we’re trying to fan those flames.”
“We want to use the river as a better advantage,” says Decker. The chamber was among advocates for the conversion of the old plastics factory into a more riverfront-friendly space.
“That’s coming to fruition,” he adds. “We have a really aggressive redevelopment plan.”
VanOrd says that the shift is already evident: “It is fascinating to sit in the shop (and at the brewery) and hear dozens of times, ‘Oh my gosh I’ve been coming for 20 years and I’ve never been downtown. It is so beautiful.’
“It’s uplifting. It’s very cool to see.”
Jakes Rocks brings a crowd
Another catalyst in the shift toward Warren’s outdoor emphasis are the mountain bike trails at Jakes Rocks, located 25 minutes from town in the hills overlooking the 33-square-mile Allegheny Reservoir and Kinzua Dam. Now a 35-mile mountain bike trail network, the project first opened in 2017 with just 5 miles of trail.
“It started with eight to 10 mountain bikers in a room at a public meeting during a snowstorm,” says Andy Georgakis, founding member of the Northern Allegheny Mountain Bike Association and store manager for the Warren Cycle Shop. “We’ve had some great partners to make this happen.”
Georgakis says Decker became big proponents of the project, a joint effort between Warren County, the U.S. Forest Service and the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) — the organization that helped plan the trails.
“I always looked at mountain biking and thought, ‘You guys are a little weird,'” Decker says. “I got sold. We now share our time between mountain biking and road biking.”
Officials estimate the trails now see upwards of 30,000 visitors annually.
“All of the projections we were given have been exceeded,” Decker says.
More importantly, the impact is reaching Warren.
“We’ve seen a lot more folks with bikes on racks coming into the community from the bike side of it,” Georgakis says. “It’s definitely added to the traffic in town and made it a destination. I’m optimistic it will continue.”
Decker says the vacation rental market has seen a boom as a result of the growing recreation interest, also a national trend.
Statewide recreational activities alone now generate an estimated $8 billion dollars in visitor spending, part of the $46 billion dollars spent by visitors and tourists annually in Pennsylvania, according to a 2019 report from the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development.
If you visit Warren
Any trip to the northern end of the Allegheny National Forest should start with a stop at Allegheny Outfitters in Warren, it’s a great jumping-off point to get a local’s insight on where to go and what to do.
They run canoe and kayak shuttles from the base of the Kinzua Dam and Allegheny Reservoir 107 miles downriver to Emlenton, at the edge of Butler County, and all stretches in between.
Bikers should pop into Warren Cycle Shop to get the lowdown on all things Jakes Rocks.
Bent Run Brewing‘s outdoor patio next to Allegheny Outfitters makes a great end to any adventure, with a view facing the Allegheny River. Warren also has a second brewery nearby, Wicked Warrens, along with coffee shops and an increasing number of stores, restaurants and lodging options.
Kinzua Dam and its 33-square-mile Allegheny Reservoir outside of Warren are worth a visit as well, whether for a drive or hike, camping, or boating on the reservoir — which stretches into southern New York. The Kinzua Wolf Run Marina offers pontoon boat rentals in the summer. Kinzua Beach and Docksiders Café bar and restaurant are adjacent to the marina.
“If you love being outside, you’re going to love Warren,” VanOrd says. “We’re not backcountry here, but we’re a great place to dabble. It’s a great place to learn and get comfortable being outside.”
This story is part of the new Outdoor Guide series for NEXTpittsburgh focusing on outdoor recreation within a roughly three-hour drive from Pittsburgh.
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.