Distance: 20 miles (loop)
Best time of year: Summer, Fall
Last hiked: 2016 August
The Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop remains one of my all-time favorite Teton Mountain hikes. The loop brings you through extraordinary landscapes and diverse terrain throughout the 20-mile journey. It wanders past four dramatic glacial lakes and exceeds elevations of 10,700 feet above sea level. It can also be split up into an easy-going three day hike. Though the scenery is only a sampling that the Tetons have to offer, it is a tremendous representation of the magnificent mountain terrain. I most recently did this as a day-hike, which should only be attempted by those who have experience comfortably hiking that far in one day.
While there is no right or wrong direction around the Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop, most people prefer to ascend up Paintbrush Canyon. This allows for the most dramatic views of the Cathedral Group of Tetons to be in front of you while descending the North Fork of Cascade Canyon. It’s also less steep going down which many people find easier on their knees. In this case, park at the Leigh Lake Trailhead, doubling also as the String Lake Picnic Area. Access the String Lake Trail by following a walkway to String Lake in the northwest part of the parking lot, then begin heading northward.
To experience String Lake at its best, start early before the crowds arrive. This will give you immaculate reflections in the water and some peace and quiet in the area. A calmness in the area is something that fewer and fewer people are experiencing as it grows more popular. Continue northward for about a mile and a fork will branch off to Paintbrush Canyon by going left. In one-tenth of a mile after the junction, a wooden bridge will bring you across the runoff from Leigh Lake as it pours into String Lake. Here, open views of the Tetons rise above the rushing waters. The trail forks again on the other side of the bridge. Head left again to approach Paintbrush Canyon.
The trail meanders through a thick evergreen forest dotted with glacial boulders. A short distance through the woods and a moderate climb begins up the base of the Teton Mountains. A small pond lies below the first incline which some find to be a nice rest point if necessary. At about 1.6 miles in, you’ll reach a junction directing you to the right. The trail begins to skirt the northeastern base of Rockchuck Peak here as it winds around to the west and into Paintbrush Canyon. The trail remains densely forested for another couple of miles. Those with sharp eyes and good timing, though, will be able to enjoy some ripe huckleberries along the way!
Your first views of Paintbrush Canyon will be more intimate than dramatic. The mouth of the canyon remains heavily forested with beautiful gushing creeks to break up the lush vegetation. As more boulders begin to decorate the landscape though, views of Rockchuck Peak and higher elevations of the canyon begin to peek through the tops of the forest. The trail also levels off for a bit, giving you a short break from the climbing. You’ll come around a bend in this area where Paintbrush Creek can be seen along the trail rushing furiously past.
Views finally begin to broaden along the Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop as you enter the Lower Paintbrush Camping Zone. A large open meadow gives you your first real views of Paintbrush Canyon. Shooting up the south side of the canyon are enormous walls of layered gneiss. Incredible abstract patterns in the massive cliffs could delay anyone remotely interested in geology.
Beyond the meadow the canyon walls begin to close in through a narrow and lush section of the trail. Paintbrush Creek continues its steady downward journey over rocky constrictions as you begin a steady ascent up rockier terrain. After a bit of climbing over a short switchback, you’re presented with even grander canyon views. You’ll also notice a gorgeous waterfall pouring hundreds of feet down the opposite side of the canyon. It’s also in this area that you should begin to see more pica, if you haven’t already. You’ve most likely heard their calls by this point, but thanks to rockier terrain along the trail, you should be able to catch a good glimpse of them. They’ll be scurrying in and out of their dens, stockpiling grasses and plants for the long winter.
Soon you begin a steep ascent up a series of switchbacks. Along the way, views of Jackson Lake and northern Jackson Hole only get better and more dramatic. You may also notice the forest becoming thinner as you consistently gain elevation.
The trail finally levels out slightly as it begins a relatively straight path toward another junction. If you’re on a horse or you’d prefer to skip Holly Lake (not recommended), head left. Otherwise continue up the trail to the right where you’ll meander through high alpine conifers and meadows for another half-mile. Along the way a short spur trail will guide you to an immaculate high alpine lake surrounded by bold green grasses and amazing Teton peaks. Not far after that is Holly Lake, one of the Teton Mountains’ crowning jewels.
Holly Lake is a destination for many day-hikers, and for good reason. At 9,410 feet above sea level, it’s filled with crystal clear water below alpine tundra covered mountain cliffs. Whether you’re backpacking or day-hiking, the lake insists on visitors taking a break at its inviting shores.
Beyond Holly Lake, the Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop begins a steep ascent toward the Paintbrush Divide. Over 1,200 feet will be climbed over the course of a little less than two miles. Soon after leaving the lake, more and more whitebark pine and alpine tundra become common. With less vegetation comes even more astounding views. You’ll begin to see Mount Moran becoming visible to the north with extraordinary patterns of banded gneiss splattered over the canyon walls to the south. The tundra and pines are soon left behind. It’s not long before you’re immersed in a landscape composed entirely of scree and rock. Unfathomable views of northern Tetons can be seen as the landscape transforms around you into a massive granite cathedral. It’s not uncommon to encounter the occasional snow patch in late summer either, requiring a traverse across.
The climb continues up the scree where glacial lakes can be seen below in upper Leigh Canyon just to the north. A couple of small switchbacks continue the ascent until the trail flattens out once and for all, and a small sign ahead reads: Paintbrush Divide/El. 10,700. You’ve officially reached the top of the Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop.
The views down Paintbrush Canyon are unparalleled as Mount Woodring and Mount Moran explode into the northern horizon. To the west, the tops of the Teton Mountains flatten out as they begin their descent
toward Teton Valley, Idaho. Rockchuck Peak and Mount St. John create a jagged and awe-inspiring landscape off to the east. All around you are massive rocky cathedral walls that will humble even the most proud hiker.
Just beyond the small sign, a short spur trail leads out to a point that invites you to take it all in. If the chilly wind isn’t too much for you to take, it’s certainly worth a stop.
Heading down from the divide, the North Fork of Cascade Canyon isn’t visible at first. You first pass through a scree field, and then it all starts to slowly become apparent. The Cathedral Group of Teton Peaks pop out from behind the nearby peaks to the south. Then Mica Lake emerges to the west, its bright bold turquoise waters impossible to miss on the opposite side of the canyon. The views of the canyon slowly begin to open up, and then, the shimmering cap of the North Fork of Cascade Canyon appears: Lake Solitude.
As you descend down toward Lake Solitude, you’re greeted with enormous views down the North Fork. These also extend up into the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. A giant waterfall pours over an enormous rocky cliff miles away below the Grand Teton. Many smaller peaks break up the canyon around and between Table Mountain and the Grand Teton. Meanwhile, the farther you descend, the more obvious the glacial carving is in the North Fork. The canyon creates a nearly perfect U-shape, a textbook example of classic glacial carving.
After a couple of switchbacks the landscape begin to open up into sweeping panoramic views. The Cathedral Group of Tetons cap one side of the view, while Lake Solitude and Mica Lake cap the other. The whole way down the sound of rushing water fills the air. For the most part, this is the water pouring off of not just Lake Solitude, but also of the runoff from Mica Lake, creating a large waterfall nearby, both contributing to the North Fork of Cascade Creek.
You’re given one final view into the upper reaches of Leigh Canyon as a bit of alpine tundra grows along the trail. A couple of small lakes rest below an expanding view into the canyon, one that you know few people ever see. You can just sense that right there in front of you is a true mountain wilderness, and you’d be right.
The trail continues a steady descent heading straight for the calm peaceful waters of Lake Solitude. Wildflowers return to add color along the orange rocks of the trail as the vegetation begins to grow a bit thicker. Small evergreens defy their surroundings until finally, the trail flattens out and another break is demanded by the inviting surroundings of Lake Solitude. Spur trails lead to either a small rocky point on the lake where you’ll most likely encounter other hikers, or around the north side of the lake where you most likely will have actual solitude at Lake Solitude. Since the lake is also a popular day-hiking destination, you may notice a few more people here. Regardless, the lake itself, surrounded in nearly 180 degrees of rocky cliffs, is one of the best parts of the Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop that should certainly be properly enjoyed.
Beyond the lake, the trail begins its descent into the bottom of the North Fork of Cascade Canyon. Just beyond the lake, you’ll cross over its cascading runoff by means of a small wooden bridge. The waters below you shoot down into the massive grassy meadows far below. As you turn your attention back to the trail ahead, enormous views of the Cathedral Group of Tetons dominate the horizon for the next couple of miles. It’s here that you enter the North Fork Camping Zone. It’s a fantastic area to camp in, so if this is your destination, begin looking for a campsite. Otherwise, continue hiking along and enjoy noticing the pattern of passing through the occasional scree field, to forest, to meadow. The meadows themselves will have wildflowers flourishing in them thanks to a persistent flow of water throughout the canyon. Much of this water can be seen pouring down the majestic walls from the tops of the canyon.
Soon you pass over the North Fork of Cascade Creek, and then the landscape changes once again. You’ll now find yourself deep in a dense forest to enjoy more intimate views of the canyon. You can hear the creek rushing nearby before you cross over it once again where a beautiful photo unfolds of the creek passing through rocky crevices below the Grand Teton far in the distance. The trail leads you through the thick and quiet forest where you’re brought to the junction for Cascade Canyon and the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. To begin closing out the Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop, head left down Cascade Canyon.
The trail will begin a relatively steep descent before leveling off again after a short distance through the woods. You cross over the North Fork of Cascade Creek one final time as it makes its way to the confluence with the South Fork. You’ll begin to notice the Grand Teton popping out from behind the trees with Mount Owen and Teewinot rising sharply and steeply right in front of you. Cascade Creek is never far as the trail gradually meanders along through open meadows, scree fields, and forests. Waterfalls adorn the already magnificent canyon walls to the south as snow continues to melt late into the season.
As you gradually approach Inspiration Point, you’ll begin to encounter many more day-hikers exploring a bit farther back from their destination, and for good reason. Though hundreds of people visit Inspiration Point daily, only a small percentage explore the awe-inspiring canyon right behind it. After about three miles from the junction, you’ll reach another junction that allows you to either hike to the popular viewpoint, or bypass it completely. If your time isn’t limited and you’re visiting the area, it is recommended you make the short detour to both Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls. Though the crowds will be thicker, both will provide a wonderful climax to the Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop. Continue straight at the junction to reach Inspiration Point, then follow the trail and signage to Hidden Falls. Once back on the Jenny Lake Trail, head north to begin heading back to String Lake. To bypass Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls, make a left at the junction to proceed down the Horse Trail. This bypass will bring you through a dense forest with thick brush as switchback after switchback brings you down to the Jenny Lake Trail. It intersects just north of the Jenny Lake Shuttle boat launch.
Following the Jenny Lake Trail north around the lake, the expansive waters can be seen through the trees. You’ll cross over a few smaller creeks and runoffs before the views open up as a result of a forest fire many years ago. Farther up the trail, the Cathedral Group can be seen once again from a different perspective by looking back south. Here too, Jenny Lake can be seen wrapping around the horizon to the south.
The trail continues northward as it begins to traverse the uneven terrain around the north part of the lake. The runoff from String Lake soon joins the landscape as you begin to climb slightly upward along it. The burned area persists as you weave in and out of small hills. It ends at another wooden bridge that crosses the south end of String Lake. Looking back to the south on the bridge will yield an amazing view of the Grand Teton and company rising up beyond the early cascading waters of the runoff.
A junction just beyond the bridge will present the option to continue along the Jenny Lake Trail or to String Lake. Keep left to stick to the eastern shores of String Lake, which will ultimately bring you back to the original parking area. Along the way, extraordinary views of the Cathedral Group towering over String Lake can be enjoyed. Depending on when you return, the serene reflections for which the lake is known may or may not be there, along with the peace and quiet. From late morning to late afternoon, large crowds will be encountered at the lake during peak summer season. This potentially noisy return will be amplified by the extraordinary solitude and quiet you just experienced along the trail. Fortunately, the parking area is also very close. Continue up the trail to close out the Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop.
From the Craig Thomas Visitor Center, turn left onto the Teton Park Road, proceed through the entrance station, and follow the road for nearly 10 miles. Turn left at the North Jenny Lake Junction and follow that road 1.5 miles to another intersection. At the 4-way intersection, turn right and follow that road to the end. This will end at a large parking area which is the Leigh Lake Trailhead and String Lake Picnic Area. Find the trailhead at the northwest part of the parking area to begin the Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop.