The Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop

May 2, 2013
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A dramatic sunset casts a pink glow over the North Fork of Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (Mike Cavaroc)
A dramatic sunset casts a pink glow over the North Fork of Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Whenever planning a backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park, or any national park, always check with that park’s Visitor Center to inquire about any necessary permits. A free permit is required when backpacking in Grand Teton National Park.

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Distance (loop): 19.2 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Best time of year: Summer, Fall

For those with limited time, but want a true excursion into the Teton Mountains, there is no better journey than the Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop. Both canyons deliver tremendous views of both the backcountry of the mountains and overlooks of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Though the scenery is only a sampling that the Tetons have to offer, it is a tremendous representation of the magnificent mountain terrain.

There is no right or wrong way to proceed around the nearly 20-mile loop, but it is recommended that you start with Paintbrush Canyon and proceed over the Paintbrush Divide into the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, and of course, out Cascade Canyon, finishing the loop along String Lake. Paintbrush Canyon is a bit steeper than Cascade Canyon, so most people find it easier on their knees to follow that route, if not also for a dramatic reveal of the Cathedral Group and Lake Solitude as you descend into the North Fork of Cascade Canyon from the Paintbrush Divide.

A small tree grows above Holly Lake in Upper Paintbrush Canyon of Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (Mike Cavaroc)
Holly Lake and Tree

Park at the String Lake Trailhead and proceed north along the lake before crossing over it to begin heading up toward Paintbrush Canyon. The first miles beyond String Lake are thick, wooded, and where many black bears are spotted. As the canyon begins to narrow, the trees will become more and more sporadic as you climb higher and higher. Eight miles in, the scenery will really begin to become spectacular. The thick lodgepole pine forest of Lower Paintbrush Canyon below will have given way to Upper Paintbrush Canyon, a rocky mountainous landscape dotted by groves of whitebark pine trees scattered with marmots dashing in and out of boulder crevices. Provided you have chosen to camp in Upper Paintbrush Canyon, the highlight of the day complementing the view will be Holly Lake, a secluded glacial lake overlooking the canyon and Jackson Hole far below. Upper Paintbrush Canyon is an open camping zone, meaning you are free to camp in any spot that looks cozy to you. While it is certainly up to your judgment of your physical abilities, a good idea is to camp as far up into the zone as possible to minimize any extra mileage the next day. The vast majority is either fairly level or a gradual downhill, however the length does catch up with some people and Cascade Canyon is hardly the place you want to feel a readiness to be out of. Surrounded by peaks of the extraordinary Teton Mountains, you will now have a beautiful night sky glowing with stars and a Milky Way Galaxy above you as you rest before the next day. …weather permitting.

The ascent up the Paintbrush Divide can seem lengthy, but there is plenty of unusual and exciting alpine terrain to keep you interested as you climb over the sheer boulder fields. Along the way, you will get a peek into the far reaches of Leigh Canyon and Grizzly Bear Lake sitting atop it. Be careful when doing this stretch in July. There is typically still plenty of melting snow which can make traversing some of the boulder fields a little treacherous, though many hikers will have already traversed a well-packed trail across. Eventually, you reach the top of the Paintbrush Divide at 10,700 feet and are greeted with your first view of both the North and South Forks of Cascade Canyon. Despite a chilly breeze that is commonly found there, a couple of spur trails off of the main trail encourage you to sit for a moment and appreciate the views of what you just climbed, and what awaits on the other side.

A pika calls out from a boulder in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (Mike Cavaroc)
Calling Pika

On your way into the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, you may begin to hear a noise that you might have heard a few times in Paintbrush Canyon; a high-pitched squeal echoing out of the rocks lining the trail. Pika are an exciting species to behold in their natural habitat. Frantically scurrying to gather a stash of grass in their homes, they dart in and out of the rocks collecting food and bringing it back in, constantly warning others via their squeal of an intruder in the area. Move slowly and quietly enough though while in the vicinity, and you will get a great glimpse of one. A member of the rabbit family, most pika are only the size of pet hamsters and are very skittish. Regardless, anyone who appreciates being outside will relish even a short sighting of the small critter, though opportunities abound through the mouth of Cascade Canyon.

A short way down the North Fork, a bright, turquoise lake will come into view. The trail does not directly pass it, but the view of Mica Lake from the descent of the Paintbrush Divide is enough for most. After all, only a short distance more, Lake Solitude comes into view, capturing everyone’s attention for the duration of the descent down until the trail meets the shoreline, tempting you with a rest on a nearby boulder at its dramatic shores surrounded by Teton walls.

Teewinot glows in sunrise light as a storm lights up the surroundings over Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (Mike Cavaroc)
Teewinot in Sunrise Light

From Lake Solitude, quietly resting at the top of the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, you then follow the trail on a more gradual descent into a slightly widening North Fork, as the sporadic trees become increasingly denser, the trail occasionally crossing over Cascade Creek, fed primarily from the lake you left above. Of course from the open vastness of the North Fork, you see some of your best views of the Cathedral Group beyond: The Grand Teton, Mount Owen, and Teewinot, among others. As the trees grow thicker, you begin to approach the Cascade Canyon Junction where you have the option to proceed up the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, or head out Cascade Canyon toward Jenny Lake. Obviously, most people will want to head toward Jenny Lake.

Cascade Canyon is one of the main hiking destinations, and for good reason. The sheer cliffs dropping from the Cathedral Group, the Teton Mountains’ highest peaks, are a true sight to behold as dozens of waterfalls pour over ledge after ledge until joining Cascade Creek lining the trail for most of the way out. As a result, you can expect to begin to see more people along the trails. Also keep an eye out for more pika in the boulder fields, as well as marmots, deer, moose, and black bear.

After nearing three miles from the North Fork/South Fork Junction, you will find yourself at another junction. There is no right or wrong way so it is probably best to make the decision as you get there, deciding if you have the energy or patience for one way or the other. If you are ready to be back at your car, you will want to take the Horse Trail (which is signed), thereby bypassing Inspiration Point. It will not only save time, but since Inspiration Point is the primary hike that is recommended to most visitors, it is not uncommon to find a flood of people along the trail, many of whom are unfamiliar with general hiker etiquette. The Horse Trail will bypass this and bring you down to the main trail that you can follow along the shores of Jenny Lake and back to String Lake. If you are still feeling good however and want to see more, it is recommended that you take the jaunt to Inspiration Point. Though it will not compare to anything you have just seen, it is still a nice view and you will have plenty of people that will enjoy hearing about where you just came from. Along the way, you can also go just a few hundred yards on a spur trail to get a nice view of Hidden Falls, one of the few easily accessible waterfalls in Grand Teton National Park.

A marmot rests on a boulder in Cascade Canyon of Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (Mike Cavaroc)
Marmot on Boulder

Both trails will bring you north along Jenny Lake where you will travel through a somewhat recently burned forest before reaching the String Lake runoff into Jenny Lake. This is an excellent place to search for bald eagles and osprey since dead trees near water make for great hunting sights for them. You will reach one more junction that will point you in the direction of the String Lake Trailhead where you journey into the Teton Mountains will end. If you want to experience a local tradition, drive out the same way you came in and head north up the Inner Park Road to Signal Mountain Lodge. Once there, order their nachos and a margarita or two and experience a new level of satisfaction.

Getting there:From Jackson, take Highway 89 north into Grand Teton National Park and turn left at the Moose Junction. If you haven’t already, stop into the Visitor Center located there and pick up your backpacking permit. Continue up the Inner Park Road, go through the entrance station, continue north and then make a left onto the Jenny Lake Loop Road. At the following junction, make a right to pull into the String Lake Parking area, as the Visitor Center should have instructed you to do.

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