Many first experience the Teton Range as a visual drive-by on their way to Yellowstone on Route 89. Stop next time and experience first hand the geologically-recent, dramatically uplifted mountains with canyons sculpted by glaciers. This is the European Alps, the Colorado Rockies, the California Sierra Nevada’s, the Himalayas in compact form … easily accessible and hikeable on well maintained, gently sloped switch back trails.
This 19 mile-hike, is up one neat steep canyon to a mountain divide, down to a alpine lake nestled with views of the 3 Tetons, then further down a stream-riveted canyon back to the beginning. Not only is this the best scenery in the park, but also, this hike is one of the best rigorous day hike loops anywhere.
Starting out at 9am violated the normal “crack of dawn” early start for an extreme day hike. But there was another reason for the tardiness. Grizzly bears are noted to be in the area. A later start might find the bears already fed and doing something other than pestering a hiker. Some folks suggest carrying pepper spray for such an encounter. Most people, in my informal but complete survey, said if you stay on the trail you should be OK. I went with the majority opinion, and didn’t bring pepper spray.
But be aware there have been bear attacks on hikers. Read information from the National Park Service regarding prudent preparation and actions where bears live.
Another possible impediment, according to most write-ups on this “2-day overnight hike,” is ice/snow near the divide, often in July. I was lucky and found only three 100ft snow patches that were easily traversed without the need of an ice axe (trekking poles are always useful on extreme day hikes and made the small snow excursions even easier).
It’s best to go up the Paintbrush Canyon first because it allows for turning around if the quicker if ice/snow at the divide is a problem. Also, its steeper which is more pleasant to go up than down, and gets the hard part over with while you are still fresh.
To get to the trailhead turn west at the North Jenny Lake Junction off of the Teton Park Road. Take the String Lake turn to the right before the Jenny Lake Lodge (would be a nice place to stay but book 9 months in advance) is reached. The trailhead to Paintbrush Canyon is opposite the furthest parking lot. Walking swiftly by the Bear Sign, with the encouraging words, ” … your safety is not guaranteed,” take the east side of the String Lake forest trail and cross the bridge between String and Leigh Lakes.
At 1.6 miles, go right on the Paintbrush Canyon Trail and begin a moderate climb (550 feet/mile) of 4.6 miles to Holly Lake. If you want to save a few minutes and vertical feet, take the lake bypass to the left.
Along the way the spectacular views of the towering canyon walls are contrasted with panoramic views below of Leigh and Jackson Lakes. Small meadows planted in the rocky landscape contain many wildflowers including the name-sake for this canyon, the Indian Paintbrush, the Wyoming flower.
The steeper climb, but still on well-laid out switchback trails, reaches the Paintbrush Divide (10,645ft) 2.4 miles from Holly Lake. The views from this pass are breath-taking, not only from the altitude, but also from the amazing towering rock walls on Mt Moran to the north, and the rock needles of mountains to the south.
Then it’s a breeze … all down hill. First, a 2.4 miles descent on broad switchbacks to reach Lake Solitude (9035 ft), a small alpine lake perched in the steep-walled basin forming the blunt end of Cascade Canyon. Heading down through the U-shaped glacial valley views of Mt Owen (12,928 ft), the Grand Teton (13,770 ft), the Teewinot Mountain (12,325 ft), are impressive. The trail gently drops through meadows, forest, and ponds while cascading streams flow from the canyon sides.
Just before Inspiration Point, a trail to the left, not shown on some maps, will lead straight to the String Lake parking lot, bypassing the Jenny Lake boat dock and a lot of people.
This great hiking loop will take most experienced hikers about 7-10 hours, assuming acclimation to altitude and reasonable physical conditioning. As always, plan, use caution, bring layered clothing, and get advanced information about snow/ice on the divide, thunderstorm activity, and bears.
If the above is not enough, there are two other ways into Cascade Canyon that will fulfill your need for an “extreme day hike in the Tetons.”
1. Cascade Canyon/Death Canyon via Static Peak Divide
2, Teton Village Tram to Cascade Canyon via Teton Crest Trail
Note: Both of these are rate 2-3 nights in most literature, but are possible doable in one day for the person in the right mental and physical condition.
Header image By Acroterion [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons