The Paintbrush Canyon to Cascade Canyon loop hike is a Teton classic that can be completed in one long day or stretched out over multiple days. This route visits multiple subalpine lakes and crests the stunning Paintbrush Divide at 10,700 feet.
Wildflowers and high alpine views along with Holly Lake and Lake Solitude are the main attractions of this hike. At 19 miles, this hike is doable in a long day by fit and experienced hikers as the trail is excellent and easy to follow.
This is one of my favorite hikes in the Tetons and one that I could do every year and not get tired of.
Distance and Elevation Gain
Distance: 19.0 miles (30.6 km)
Elevation Gain: 4,087 feet (1,246 m)
Max Elevation: 10,720 feet (3,267 m) on Paintbrush Divide
Estimated Time: 9-11 hours if completed in one day
Best Direction to Complete this Loop Hike
I highly recommend completing this loop counter-clockwise by hiking up Paintbrush Canyon and hiking back down Cascade Canyon.
The main advantage of going this way is that you knock out the steepest part of the hike (the ascent from Holly Lake to Paintbrush Divide) earlier in the day, and you have outstanding views of the Grand Teton while hiking from Paintbrush Divide down into the North Fork of Cascade Canyon.
Multiple options exist for good trail maps. I’ve always liked the Adventure Guides Jackson Hole Map, but the Trails Illustrated Grand Teton National Park Map works great for this hike as well. Both maps show backcountry camping zones, which is a plus if you’re doing this as a multi-day hike.
I haven’t personally used the Beartooth Publishing Maps for the Tetons or Jackson Hole, but I’ve heard rave reviews that they are the best in the area. Beartooth Publishing sells a Teton Range Core Trails Map that covers this hike and others in the heart of the range.
They also sell a Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole Map that covers a larger area.
The Gaia GPS app is also an excellent resource to use while out on the trail. You can download topo/trail maps for this area in advance, then track your progress while your phone is on airplane mode so that you don’t drain the battery.
For backpacking, this is best done as a 3-day/2-night trip due to the nature of the terrain and the location of the camping zones.
Here is my recommended itinerary:
Day 1 — Hike up Paintbrush Canyon and camp at Holly Lake (6.3 miles, 2,536 ft. of elevation gain). If permits are unavailable for Holly Lake, then the Upper Paintbrush Zone would be a viable backup option which is just a little bit farther up the trail past Holly Lake.
Day 2 — Hike over Paintbrush Divide and past Lake Solitude and camp in the North Fork of Cascade Canyon Camping Zone (~4.5 to 6 miles from Holly Lake depending on where you camp).
An alternative option if the North Fork of Cascade Canyon is booked full would be to camp in the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, which would be about 1-3 miles off of the main route depending on where you camp.
So not ideal, but viable if it’s your only option. This would add a few more miles of hiking as well beyond the North Fork zone.
Day 3 — Hike out down Cascade Canyon and loop back around past Jenny Lake to your starting point at String Lake (6.7 to 8.2 miles from the North Fork of Cascade Canyon depending on where you camp).
Securing a Backcountry Permit
While necessary to keep our parks as pristine as possible, obtaining backcountry permits in Grand Teton National Park (and most parks for that matter) is not a straight-forward process, especially during the busy months of July and August.
Advance Reservations: Grand Teton National Park offers advance reservations to one third of its backcountry permits from January through mid-May each year.
To book a reservation in advance, visit the Recreation.gov website and search for Grand Teton National Park. Be sure to look for sites in the lower Death Canyon Camping Zone. It costs $45 to reserve a permit in advance.
After reserving your permit, you must pick your permit up from a ranger station before 10am on the day of your trip, or else it will be released. The closest location to pick up your permit for this trip is the Jenny Lake Ranger Station.
Walk-in Permits: The remaining two-thirds of backcountry permits are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis no more than one day prior to the start of the trip. Walk-in permits cost $35.
For more information about backcountry permits, visit the NPS Grand Teton Backcountry Camping page.
How to Get to the Trailhead
This hike begins from the String Lake Trailhead. From Jackson, it’s about a 35-minute drive to the trailhead, all on paved roads. When turning into the String Lake area, there are a few parking area — it’s best to park at the farthest one to the north.
This trailhead gets very crowded from mid-morning through mid-afternoon due to its popularity with swimmers, floaters, and lake loungers, but if you start your hike early in the morning then you’ll have no problem finding parking.
String Lake is definitely worth taking a dip in at the end of your hike!
Trail Breakdown and Highlights
From String Lake, head north on the String Lake Trail and enjoy the impressive morning views of the Tetons from across the lake.
The flat trail offers a nice warm-up before swinging to the west and crossing a bridge across the inlet between String and Leigh Lakes, at which point you start to gradually gain elevation.
After 1.5 miles, take a right onto the Paintbrush Canyon Trail and begin a steady climb up through the forested canyon with more frequent views opening up the higher you ascend.
After 6.4 miles and 2,600 feet of elevation gain, you’ll reach Holly Lake which is a great spot to take a break if day hiking (or camp if backpacking).
From Holly Lake, it’s an additional 1.5 miles and 1,300 feet of elevation gain to reach the top of Paintbrush Divide (mile 7.9), but this is where the spectacular alpine scenery really starts to open up.
If hiking before the end of July, you may need an ice ax to cross the snowfield that lingers late into the season just below Paintbrush Divide.
The top of Paintbrush Divide is a rewarding spot for a lunch break if it’s not too windy.
However, heading down the north side of the pass into the North Fork of Paintbrush Canyon offers plenty of break spots with less wind along with incredible views of the Grand Teton from a unique perspective.
The next “stopping point” after Paintbrush Divide is at Lake Solitude (mile 10.2), which sits at an elevation of just over 9,000 feet. On warm days, Lake Solitude offers an opportunity for a quick dip in the chilly water to cool off.
Caution: This lake is a super relaxing spot and on nice weather days you won’t want to leave!
From Lake Solitude, it’s a long steady downhill to complete the loop. At mile 12.9, you’ll reach a junction with the main Cascade Canyon Trail — take a left here and continue on a more gradual downhill through scenic Cascade Canyon.
Near the mouth of Cascade Canyon at mile 16.2, you can hang a left onto the marked “horse trail” to knock off some extra distance as you head back down to Jenny Lake, and then to String Lake.
This is probably the better option for day hikers as 19 miles already makes for a long day.
Alternatively, you could stay right onto the main Cascade Canyon Trail and visit popular destinations Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls on the way down.
This side trip adds about another mile (making it a 20-mile round trip hike), and while these destinations are scenic, they are also very crowded and not as stunning as the areas you have just hiked down from. So don’t feel too guilty if you are tired and decide to skip this section.
Upon reaching the Jenny Lake Trail, head north (left) along the shore of Jenny Lake for a mile and then take a right onto the String Lake Trail to complete the loop.
Best Time of Year to Hike the Paintbrush Canyon to Cascade Canyon Loop
Mid-July through late September is generally the best time to hike here due to heavy snow conditions for the remainder of the year.
During near average or above average snow years, you’ll likely need an ice ax and microspikes or crampons before the end of July and possibly even into early August.
To inquire about current snow conditions, check out the Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers’ Teton Climbing Conditions Blog which is usually updated every week or so during the summer, or better yet give them a call at (307) 739-3343 between 9am-5pm.
Fall snow season varies by year. Usually the first snows will dust the higher elevations of this hike periodically in September but often melt quickly in the days to follow.
During dry years, this hike may be possible with minimal/light snow into October, but in most years, the first heavy snows arrive by early October, making this hike more difficult and dangerous to complete.
During the mid-summer months, lightning is the biggest weather hazard, especially when hiking over exposed Paintbrush Divide.
Whether day hiking or backpacking, time your ascents of Paintbrush Divide for the morning hours to reduce the risk of being caught in a thunderstorm up high.
Thunderstorms in the Tetons are most common in July and August and become much less common in September.
Looking to time your hike for best wildflower viewing? Late July through Mid-August is the best window on average.
The wildlife viewing opportunities are abundant on this hike and there is a good chance you’ll see at least one big game mammal. Deer and moose are both common throughout this hike, and you may see elk near the beginning/end of the hike near String and Jenny Lakes, especially late in the year.
Black bears and grizzly bears both inhabit this area. I’ve seen black bears multiple times on this hike and never a grizzly, but I’ve heard from others who have seen grizzlies here. Make sure you hike with bear spray and make noise when hiking through more densely vegetated areas.
Although more rare, sightings of bighorn sheep and mountain goats (the latter of which are nonnative) have been reported across the higher elevations of this hike as well.
How are the Bugs?
They really aren’t that bad on this hike. You may encounter some mosquitoes early and late in the day around String Lake in July and some black flies up in the canyons, but compared to most of Wyoming, they shouldn’t cause too much trouble here.
Caveat: I’ve only done this trip as a day hike, so I can’t speak to mosquitoes in the backcountry camping zones in the evenings. If I were to do this as a backpacking trip, I would prepare for the possibility of evening mosquitoes around Holly Lake and in Cascade Canyon during July and early August.
Pre and Post-Hike Camping Options
The nearest campground is the Jenny Lake Campground, but fair warning, this area fills up fast in the summer.
Signal Mountain and Gros Ventre are the next best options inside of the park, with the latter offering the fewest crowds and best chances of finding a spot in most years (that has not been the case in the COVID summer of 2020 when all campgrounds in the park are getting slammed with traffic).
There is plenty of dispersed camping to be found outside of the park in Bridger-Teton National Forest. Signal Mountain and Curtis Canyon tend to fill up quickly, but you can get creative in other farther back spots in the national forest if visiting during a crowded time.
Visit freecampsites.net for some ideas outside of the parks.
Here are a few items I consider to be essential for this hike:
- Extra layers
- Ski hat and lightweight gloves
- Bear spray
- 3 liters of water or a water purification system
- Personal locator device, such as a SPOT or DeLorme beacon
- Rain jacket/rain gear (unless you’re 100% sure of a dry forecast)
- First aid kit
Here are a few items I might bring depending on current conditions:
- Ice axe
- Microspikes or crampons
- Down jacket
- Bug spray
Leave No Trace
As more and more people recreate in the outdoors, practicing wilderness ethics and leaving the wilderness as good or better as you found it become more important than ever to minimize human impact.
Below are the 7 Leave No Trace Principles. For more information about these principles and how to reduce your impact, visit lnt.org.
The 7 Leave No Trace Principles:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly (bury your poop, pack out TP, wash all dishes at least 200 feet away from water even with biodegradable soap)
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts (note: campfires are not allowed in the backcountry zones mentioned for this hike)
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Where to Find Weather Forecasts
Here are links to National Weather Service point weather forecasts near the start of the hike and across the upper portions of the hike that take elevation and terrain into account.
Keep in mind that there is a greater margin of error in mountain forecasts for remote areas, but the NWS point forecasts are one of the more reliable sources.
Another weather source that is well worth your time to check out is the OpenSummit website and app.
This app provides detailed weather forecasts specifically for mountain summits, and they will be expanding their offerings in the near future as well. Two-day forecasts are free and any forecasts beyond two days require a $19/year subscription, which also gets you access to OpenSnow ski area forecasts in the winter.
OpenSummit Weather Forecast for Table Mountain (comparable to Paintbrush Divide)
The National Weather Service offices in Pocatello and Riverton write Forecast Discussions twice per day, which although somewhat technical, can be skimmed over to gain valuable insight into the weather patterns for the area.
Also, check out my local weather blog, Jackson Hole Weather Forecast, which is generally updated Monday through Friday mornings.
Post-Hike Food and Drink
During non-COVID years: Signal Mountain Lodge is the closest place to enjoy a post-hike meal and beer, and it has a great outdoor seating area right on Jackson Lake.
The Jackson Lake Lodge is another scenic location for a post-hike meal and the Blue Heron Lounge is the best option for a more affordable meal where you can also eat outside.
In the mood for pizza? Head north up to Leek’s Marina near Colter Bay, or if you’re heading south back into Jackson, then stop by Dornan’s Pizza and Pasta Company and enjoy pizza and beer while sitting outside on the roof with a classic Teton view.
Summer 2020: Most of the restaurants in Grand Teton National Park are closed this summer due to COVID-19, except for Dornan’s.
For post-hike meals, your best bet is to head into Jackson, but prior to Labor Day be prepared for long waits or better yet, order take out as restaurants are experiencing a high volume of visitors amidst the COVID craziness. And please tip well!