If you don't have time for a multi-day backpacking trip in the Tetons, but still want to see the best of the backcountry, try a full day hike up Paintbrush Canyon, over the Paintbrush Divide, and back down Cascade Canyon. While Cascade Canyon is swarming with hikers, especially below the forks, Paintbrush Canyon offers a remote wilderness setting. Two high alpine lakes welcome a quick soaking of the feet or a full dip for the cold blooded. The views are spectacular the entire way through.
- Length: 19 miles
- Elevation Gain: 4900 feet
- Average Time to Complete: 8-12 hours. This hike can be completed as a full day hike or multi-day backpack (campsites are available in upper Paintbrush Canyon and Cascade Canyon – permits required).
- Difficulty: Very Strenuous
- Trailhead: String Lake Parking Area
- Warnings: Snow can sometimes cover the top of Paintbrush Divide. Check with a ranger at the closest visitor center to make sure it is passable on foot. You may need to bring an ice ax or hiking poles for support.
Park at the String Lake Parking Area and follow signs towards Leigh Lake/Paintbrush Canyon. Cross the bridge at the junction of Leigh and String Lakes. You'll come to a sign for Paintbrush Canyon. Take a right towards Paintbrush. From here the trail winds and rolls over a nicely maintained trail, slowly climbing higher and higher. In the early summer, wildflowers are beautiful. Keep watch for moose, bears, and lots of marmots.
Higher up in the canyon look for a sign for Holly Lake. This is a short detour but ends up linking up with the main trail. Holly Lake is a great place for a break. Dip your feet in if you like.
Continue up the trail towards Paintbrush Divide. This is often snow covered in sections, even in the heart of the summer, but steps are usually built in (ask a ranger about the Divide before you hike). At the top of the Paintbrush Divide, you'll feel like you are on top of the world. It can be windy and cold up here so make sure to bring an extra layer if you plan to take a break.
From here the trail really only goes one way – down – and as you descend into the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, you'll be treated with views of the Cathedral Group as well as Lake Solitude. Stopping on the large flat rocks near Lake Solitude is a must.
Continue on down the North Fork through fields of wildflowers and rushing streams until you come to the junction at the forks. Turn Left toward Jenny Lake. From this point onward, the trail is relatively flat and steady. It is also busier and you'll pass many day hikers, backpackers, and families. But don't let this take away from the spectacular scenery below Cascade Canyon's towering rock walls. At the end of the canyon, take a short detour to see Hidden Falls (if you haven't already seen them).
Continue on down to the Jenny Lake Boat Dock and turn Left. You'll circumnavigate Jenny Lake for a quarter of the lake's circumference. Follow signs to String Lake Parking Area and head back to your car. String Lake is very inviting, and not quite as chilly, for a post-hike swim. And when you are ready to go, hop in the car and head to Dornan's at Moose Junction for a celebratory beer on their sun filled deck.