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Paintbrush Canyon/Cascade Canyon
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

     Grand Teton National Park, located in northwestern Wyoming, is home to a landscape beyond compare—abundant wildlife, pristine lakes, waterfalls, and majestic mountains round out the incredible vistas. The focus for most visitors is, of course, the jagged Teton Range that rises abruptly above the sage-covered valley, creating a panorama known around the world. Despite the miles of spectacular backcountry destinations, many visitors spend only a few hours touring the park, gazing at the fantastic mountains from their car or at the many scenic turnouts, but the best way to truly appreciate the park is on foot. There are many beautiful and easy hikes in the park, but we wanted something truly exceptional—cue the premier Grand Teton hiking trail —the 21.4 mile Paintbrush Canyon/Cascade Canyon Loop.

  The Paintbrush Canyon/Cascade Canyon Loop begins at the Leigh Lake Trailhead, climbs up Paintbrush Canyon—the steeper of the two canyons—on its way to Paintbrush Divide and then descends via Cascade Canyon. Hiking the loop in this counterclockwise direction—you can hike up Cascade Canyon if you choose—is usually preferred, because for most people it is easier to ascend a steep canyon than to descend it, and by descending Cascade Canyon, you get the benefit of terrific front-on views of the Cathedral Group.

     Early in the predawn hours of August 30, 2007 we stepped onto the dusty trail that skirts the eastern shore of String Lake, and as we made our way towards the mouth of Paintbrush Canyon we were treated to a breath-taking sunrise—the pink sunlit peaks of the Teton Range reflecting in the calm waters of the lake. A bald eagle even made an appearance, soaring silently above the magnificent alpenglow and adding a regal air to an already unbelievably majestic scene. Awe inspired, we continued to the north end of String Lake—now 0.9 miles into our long day hike, we crossed the inlet of the lake via a long footbridge and headed for the Paintbrush Canyon Trail.

     Immediately upon entering the mature forest, we felt at home and eager to accomplish one of the country’s best day hiking loops—0.7 miles later, and 1.6 miles from the trailhead, we began the gradual—for now— ascent up Paintbrush Canyon. As we climbed, the forest gradually thinned out, granting us nice down-canyon views of Leigh Lake and Jenny Lake—don’t forget to pause and turn around as you climb or you will miss this view. Another highlight along this section of the trail, approximately 3 miles into the hike, is a great view of Paintbrush Creek as it crashes its way down the canyon—as you explore the creek, be sure to look for Lewis Monkeyflowers, a pink blooming flower, which thrives near the water’s edge.

     As we left the towering grandeur of the lodgepole pines, Englemann spruce and Douglas fir and entered the high-walled canyon the views became progressively more spectacular—lichen covered boulders, wildflowers, and seasonal waterfalls combined for a dramatic landscape. Continuing up canyon, crossing several tributary streams from Mount Woodring, we zigzagged our way up a series of switchbacks to the Holly Lake Trail junction—the junction is located 5.8 miles into the hike. If you wish to see Holly Lake, which we highly recommend, take a right at the junction for a fairly steep 0.5-mile climb to the beautiful waters of Holly Lake nestled within the shadow of Mount Woodring. When you reach the south end of Holly Lake, grab a comfy spot to sit and enjoy the view—this is also the perfect place to eat some lunch—we made ourselves at home on a large lakeside boulder, ditched the backpacks for a while and soaked in the sunshine as we snacked on trail goodies.

     Shortly after reaching Holly Lake, a few ominous clouds began rolling in from the west—not what we wanted to see, especially since we were now almost above timberline and exposed to the full force of the elements. After a brief 15-minute rest at the lake, we continued climbing along the Holly Lake Trail for another 0.3 miles to rejoin the Paintbrush Canyon Trail—ever vigilant of the approaching weather system. Once back on the Paintbrush Canyon Trail proper, it started to rain, nothing threatening, just a slight shower—nonetheless, in preparation for what might come, we broke out the rain jackets and backpack covers. Thankfully, after a few minutes the storm clouds passed, the rain stopped and the blue skies reappeared—relieved, we happily trekked on to 10,700 foot Paintbrush Divide, now just 1.3 miles away.

     Admittedly, the climb up Paintbrush Canyon to Paintbrush Divide is a strenuous endeavor, but the grand—did someone say Teton?—scenery is beyond compare, truly breathtaking. Indeed, the climb above timberline through meadows surrounded by high, jagged peaks and craggy, barren cliffs along well-built switchbacks that lead through scree and snow patches to the windswept high altitude divide is one of the most scenic portions of the entire loop—we loved it!

     From the divide, the views are incredible—a 360-degree panorama is your reward for climbing 8 miles along rocky terrain—take your time and enjoy the pay-off.

     After enjoying the pristine mountain scenery from the divide, begin descending into Cascade Canyon—an equally scenic path traverses the glacially carved canyon walls leading 2.4 miles and 1,700 feet down to Solitude Lake. Almost the entire way down the talus slope switchbacks, you have perfect views of Lake Solitude, the smaller Mica Lake and the jewel of the park, Grand Teton, off to the southeast—go ahead, just try to find a more scenic hike.

     Lake Solitude, at an elevation of 9,035 feet, is a gorgeous high mountain lake at the head of the North Fork of Cascade Canyon. It is the largest lake in the park that is accessible by trail and the views from its shores of the backs of Grand Teton, Mount Owen, and Teewinot Mountain—collectively known as the Cathedral Group—are classic Rocky Mountain scenery. The lake sits behind a glacial moraine in a large cirque where trees are sparse, but alpine wildflowers are abundant—unfortunately, we missed the peak bloom by a few weeks, but the scenery was brilliant nonetheless. Skirting the eastern shore of the lake, we followed the trail towards the headwaters of Cascade Creek and then began our descent of Cascade Canyon.

     Cascade Canyon is a classic U-shaped, glacially carved canyon with a wide, expansive floor that gives it an open airy feel, and all the while the peaks of the Tetons loom overhead—as you descend, Grand Teton is right in your face, if you did this hike clockwise you would miss this postcard perfect view. To the south rise the peaks of the Cathedral Group and to the north are views of Storm Point and Mount St. John—no wonder this is one of the most popular trails in the park.

     The scenery remains fantastic for the remainder of the descent—mountains interspersed with the white water of Cascade Creek and wayside wildflowers such as Monkshood, fleabane, fireweed, Lewis’ monkeyflower, and Indian Paintbrush carpet the canyon.

     Soon, you reach the Canyon Fork—the junction of the North and South Fork of the Cascade Canyon Trail—take a left here and continue towards Jenny Lake. After the trail forks, you will cross the creek twice on secure footbridges. As you hike further down the trail and out of the canyon, the steep-sloped mountains tower a mile above, offering spectacular views of Valhalla Canyon—nestled between Mount Owen and Grand Teton—where a long, narrow waterfall tumbles down the south wall. Just past this point, the trail levels out, passing through open meadows, boulder fields, and pine forests complete with thimbleberry lined paths.

     Nearly 12 hours after we began our hike, we reached the shore of Jenny Lake—a welcome sight that meant we were nearing the end of our long day and rest for our weary bodies, not to mention the promise of a hot meal, an ice-cold beverage and a refreshing shower. Just another two miles and we would be back to our car—two miles that felt like they would never end. Thankfully, the serene views of the lake, a nesting Osprey, and a colorful black and yellow banded caterpillar known as the spotted tussock moth, helped to take our mind off our end of day fatigue.

     Nearly 12 hours after we began our hike, we reached the shore of Jenny Lake—a welcome sight that meant we were nearing the end of our long day and rest for our weary bodies, not to mention the promise of a hot meal, an ice-cold beverage and a refreshing shower. Just another two miles and we would be back to our car—two miles that felt like they would never end. Thankfully, the serene views of the lake, a nesting Osprey, and a colorful black and yellow banded caterpillar known as the spotted tussock moth, helped to take our mind off our end of day fatigue.

 
 
 
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