But now Paint Creek, named for ancient trees once painted blood-red by Native American warriors, is gaining ground as a destination for fishing, paddling, and back-road travel.
Despite its accessibility, the rocky stream of little waterfalls and laurel glens remains relatively unknown for now, though state and local officials continue to look toward managing its growth.
William Hughes, the mayor of the Town of Pax, through which the Paint Creek wanders, is a chief proponent of careful development along the stream.
"If there's one thing that Pax has been known for, it's that it has a trout stream, and that's something not every town can claim," Hughes says. "People have always come to Pax to fish."
A longtime fan on the stream, photographer Molly Wolff has begun kayaking it as well and has found it even more attractive since.
"My family and I live just outside of Oak Hill, in Scarbro, and Paint Creek is one of our favorite family spots. Before having kids, Dave and I would explore along the river, hike, and fish. With kids, we love to do the same. They enjoy the falls, throwing rocks in the creek, and exploring," Wolff said.
"It's wonderful to have a road that continues along such beautiful stretch of water with fantastic spots to get out and enjoy, though now, after getting into whitewater kayaking, I love and appreciate Paint Creek even more. I get to fully experience it."
Wolff and several friends recently paddled 15 miles of the Paint below the community of Mossy, located at one of four expressway exits that provide interstate access along the route.
"We start off slow and meandering, pass beautiful rock walls, a few giant boulders, and then run the creek wide falls. From there, the creek starts to pick up even more and provides for plenty of fun and technical Class-III whitewater."
The stream is well known among anglers, many of whom fish during their commutes to and from work. Curtis Massie, of Fayetteville, stops often on his way home from Charleston.
"I come through here often after work instead of taking the turnpike," Massie says. "Or I stop at Dunloup Creek. There are so many excellent places to trout-fish here in southern West Virginia."
Despite the number of anglers who fish Paint Creek, the stream is among the best in the state, according to Mark T. Scott, assistant chief of fisheries for the state Division of Natural Resources.
"Parts of the stream hold trout year-round, though it's heavily fished," Scott said. "It's an amazing stream and one of the best in West Virginia."
The Paint between the Pax and Mossy interstate exits and below Mahan is stocked twice monthly in February, March, and April and once in May, and the stream's catch-and-release section between Mossy and Mahan is stocked once annually.
Much of the reason the creek is such an amazing fishery is because of the work of residents of the watershed, says Jim Reed, a retired state fisheries biologist and former coordinator of the Paint Creek Scenic Trail Association.
Residents and former residents worked with many state organizations to clean and tend the creek, which was heavily polluted with mine drainage in the 1970s when, Reed said, he first began to work in the area.
"The creek was running orange when I started, but it's a far different stream now," he said.
Tons of solid waste were removed from old homesites where coal-mining towns once stood, and dams were installed on tributary streams to improve fish habitat. Limestone sands were added on one of the most polluted streams to remediate acid mine drainage.
Picnic areas were opened, and shelters were raised. Historic markers and interpretive waysides were installed where mines and towns had been located. Walking trails were established, and oral history interviews were collected.
An audio driving tour was created and can be downloaded and played by motorists based on GPS locations.
The work of the trail association and watershed groups was so successful that it became a model for other organizations.
Reed says he hopes some of the economic development initiatives the association had proposed might come to fruition. Gift shops, guest cabins, campgrounds, restaurants, and tourist attractions could all do well along the route.
"If a business could pull in only one percent of traffic off the turnpike, it would succeed," he said, alluding to the 30,000 vehicles that travel that stretch of the turnpike daily, which between Beckley and Charleton carries both Interstates 77 and 64.
The backroad route along the stream has become popular with bikers, cyclists, and motorists looking for an alternative to the heavily trafficked turnpike. Much of the backroad route is two-lane, though the stretch between Mahan and Mossy is a wide, paved single lane on which snow-removal is not provided in winter.
For more information on traveling the Paint Creek, contact the New River Gorge Convention and Visitors Bureau.