Distance: 6.2 miles (one way – to the end of Cascade Canyon)
Best time of year: Summer, Fall
Last hiked: 2016 June
On a normal summer day, I wouldn’t go anywhere near Cascade Canyon unless I were coming out from a larger, overnight trip. However in late July of this year, we received an unusual dusting of snow in the higher elevations. I probably would have gone backpacking to get a better view, but I had already made plans days earlier to be in town in the morning. However with those plans cancelled at the last minute, I decided to spend the morning getting some good views, and the closest views I could get in the shortest amount of time were in Cascade Canyon. I knew String Lake would look spectacular as well, so I started there at sunrise.
The String Lake trailhead itself has some spectacular views of the Tetons from several different vantage points. At the trailhead, the trail bends west, toward the Tetons, to wind around more of String Lake to ultimately fork to either head to Leigh Lake or up into Paintbrush Canyon. Another option even branches off to complete a loop around String Lake. To get to Cascade Canyon, I began heading south just 100 yards or so to the bridge that crosses the lake, where it begins to transition from less of a lake and more of a runoff of rapids, connecting String Lake to Jenny Lake.
The trail winds along the connector through a relatively recently burned forest from 1999. Along the way, great glimpses of the Tetons whet your appetite on one side, while on the other the water cascades down the rapids providing some peaceful natural white noise. You’ll soon come across a fork. Left will continue you along Jenny Lake and up toward Cascade Canyon for 1-1.5 miles, the other will bring you around to the other side of String Lake to make the loop toward Paintbrush Canyon. I continued left, and enjoyed having the trail to myself at such an early hour, taking pleasure in the little things that were all around. Soon enough, I found myself on the northwest side of Jenny Lake with tremendous views of the fog clearing off of the Cathedral Group of Tetons.
The trail continues along the burned area, skirting the lake and teasing views of the Tetons as they get closer and closer. As I got closer to the older, unburned forest, I noticed a healthy black bear near the trail, but as soon as he saw me, he was gone. Unfortunately it was one of the camera shy bears, otherwise known as "still wild." Once in the older forest, my views of the Tetons were blocked, so I quickened my pace to get up the Horse Trail access to Cascade Canyon, which is found just before (north) of the boat dock, which fortunately still hadn’t made its first trip yet for the day.
The Horse Trail climbs up the back side of Inspiration Point for about a mile or so, connecting with the Cascade Canyon Trail west of Inspiration Point. Most visitors head straight to Inspiration Point and tragically never see the tremendous beauty just a short distance up Cascade Canyon. I had no interest in seeing Inspiration Point that day, so I continued back into Cascade Canyon to get the great views of the tallest Teton Peaks with some new snow on them before it melted off.
The views throughout the canyon are impressive at any time of day, but in the (still relatively) early morning light with clouds and fog breaking up throughout the peaks, revealing the recent snow, the trail was simply euphoric to be on. Knowing I had it to myself gave it an extra layer of peace as well. Over the course of the 3.5 miles to the back of the canyon from the Horse Trail fork, waterfalls poured down the south side of the canyon from the highest reaches of the Grand Teton and Mount Owen, all the way down to Cascade Creek nearby, while pika constantly called out from the boulders. A couple of miles up the canyon, I was getting a shot of the peaks with the July snow on them and a local couple on their way toward Lake Solitude (or possibly farther at their pace) caught up with me and made a general comment about how nice of a morning it was. I mentioned, "Especially with the new snow on the peaks." They looked up at it apparently having not noticed it at all prior, nor apparently had they seen the weather alert about the storm the previous day. Even so, their pace never even slowed. They simply looked curiously up at the peaks and continued on their way. I personally was having plenty of fun soaking in the views on my way up the canyon until I had finally reached the fork to head into the South and North Forks.
I was hoping to make it as far as either Lake Solitude in the North Fork or Schoolroom Glacier in the South Fork, but checking the time, I had already eaten up half the morning and I unfortunately had plenty to do in the afternoon. They’d have to wait for another hike.
I had drunk a liter of water at breakfast, but since I hadn’t had any water to bring with me, I had filled up a liter earlier in the hike and was just now getting around to purifying it. The fork is also a good spot for a snack, so I went to grab one and knocked my bottle of freshly-purified water onto the ground. I couldn’t help but laugh that I had carried that liter of water for about 4-5 miles for no reason. I was able to fill up again though just a short distance back down the trail.
On my way out, the trail began to fill up with people. Backpackers coming out of the higher elevations caught up with me since I stopped frequently for photo ops. Other tourists that had gotten an early start were also out exploring the deeper reaches of the canyon. Between the growing number of people and the sun getting higher up in the sky, my motivation for photography began to wane and I started making my way out, but not before watching a cross fox run right past me on the trail! Unfortunately he was so quick I wasn’t able to get my camera ready in time for any decent shots, but I was delighted to have seen my first cross fox in Grand Teton National Park. The only other cross foxes I’ve ever seen have been in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.
Along the way, I took a little pleasure in seeing the diversity of people that were out on the trail. There was the large family decorated in Cabela’s gear who weren’t acknowledging a single other person, all of them looking like they were satisfying a requirement being back more there than actually enjoying it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there was an extremely friendly and excited Australian couple who couldn’t wait to tell me about a deer nearby. They were wearing different pieces of clothing that showed their support for predatory animals in the ecosystem, and were also very easy to strike up a conversation with.
Once I was back on the Horse Trail, there were significantly more people, many of them wondering how much more they’d have to climb and if this supposed great view was even worth the effort. Of course since Inspiration Point was their destination, many will never even see the best views just a short distance in the other direction. I always like to have a quicker pace going downhill to go with the momentum, but of course with so many people, I had to jump off the trail to let them by or dodge them completely. The crowds never did let up all the way back to the parking lot, so I was thankful that I had had that morning of solitude all to myself in such a typically populated area.
TIP: To avoid the crowds, try hiking these trails either at sunrise or in the fall after the Jenny Lake shuttles have stopped operating for the season.
From downtown Jackson, drive north 12.3 miles to the Moose Junction and turn left (west) and continue through the town toward the entrance gate of Grand Teton National Park. Once through the entrance gate, continue north approximately 10 more miles, until you reach the North Jenny Lake Junction. Take a left (west) there and follow that road for 1.5 miles until you reach an intersection. Take a right (west) and park at the first pullout on the left just off the intersection. To include more of String Lake in this hike, follow the road until it dead-ends into a large parking lot. The String Lake Trail will follow the lake back to this parking lot as well. From the first parking lot, look for a wooden foot bridge crossing the lake to get you on your way up the trail.