Grand Tetons National Park
September 6-7 , 2021
Distance: 21.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 3656 ft.
Time: 2 days, 1 night
The Tetons are a special place. Driving into the park, it was fairly flat until we were met with some massive jagged mountains that came out of nowhere. There’s a bunch of iconic views along Route 191, but to really experience the Teets, I think you have to get up into the backcountry.
Backpacking Paintbrush Canyon + Cascade Canyon Loop
Every year, a group of my close friends and I do a 1-2 week outdoor adventure trip somewhere in the USA to get away from our jobs, reconnect with each other and get into nature. This year we explored the national parks in Wyoming as well as some cool spots in Idaho. The past few years we’ve been pretty good about planning out our itinerary and reserving permits for the backpacking trips we want to do, but this trip had pretty much no planning at all.
We really wanted to backpack in the Tetons, but we missed the permit deadline earlier in the year. It was also Labor Day weekend, so we were a little nervous about acquiring walk-up permits for our top choices. From my pre-trip research, Backpacking Paintbrush Canyon and the Cascade Pass loop popped up a lot so we wanted to try for that as our first choice, and succeeded!
GTNP allows walk-up permits the day before starting a backcountry trip. I’m not a big fan of this. I think it should be the day-of, but alas.
We arrived at the Jenny Lake Visitor center at 6:30am after a 2 hour drive from Yellowstone. We were told by a friend that the doors opened at 7am; turns out they opened at 8am, whoops. It was pretty chilly outside so no one really wanted to wait outside for an hour and half, which in hindsight we should have done. Once we left our warm car to wait in line for permits, a decent line had already formed. We didn’t succeed in getting the Paintbrush Canyon permits the day we got there, but we got them for the following day for North Fork Campground.
Now onto the trail deets!
This loop starts at String Lake, just north of Jenny Lake. By the lake, there are 3 parking lots; we chose the South lot since we were taking the loop counter-clockwise.
After missing our very first trail junction less than a mile in and having to backtrack, we were finally on our way into one of the most scenic areas of the GTNP backcountry. About 2 miles in, we were greeted by a mama and baby moose walking down the trail!! Shoutout to Dillon for these epic telephoto shots.
We also later saw a black bear cub, but I didn’t get any good pics of it.
Lower paintbrush canyon reveals the first beautiful views of the Grand Teton backcountry. Even in Early September there were some hints of fall colors.
There are several streams to fill water throughout the paintbrush canyon ascent,which we took advantage of a few times. I think the lower and upper camping areas in Paintbrush Canyon would make great one day backpacking trips going counter clockwise, or a second day campsite coming from the other direction.
After filling up our water bottles, we pushed forward to Holly Lake for lunch. At 6 miles, Holly Lake was approximately the halfway point for Day 1. So far, we knocked out ~2500 ft. of elevation gain. The next section of climbing was a lot tougher for us because the altitude started hitting.
In the panoramic photo below, the break in the mountains on the right side of the photos is the continental divide and the last bit of climbing, around a mile to go.
I’ve seen photos of this section covered in snow and ice and I much prefer the scree. Walking on the scree was still pretty sketchy though; the rocks moved a lot. So close yet so far and we were struggling.
Eventually, the four of us arrived at the high point of the loop – 10,700 feet!
There were some pretty great 360 views from the top. But descending into the canyon on the other side of the continental divide made the views look even better. Unfortunately, there were some visibility issues due to Canadian wildfires in 2021, but the Tetons still looked majestic nonetheless.
The descent from the Paintbrush Divide to Lake Solitude was about 2 miles and 1600 feet of elevation loss. It was also scree on almost the entire way down to the lake. Because of this steep scree section, we were all really glad we decided to take the Loop CCW instead of CW; I think it’d be more strenuous going the other way around.
As a reward for making it past the crux of the hike, we took a frigid polar plunge in Lake Solitude. And then walked to our campsite in our underwear. Little did we know, that was another 2 mile walk… ha!
We all thought the North Fork Campsites would be just down the trail aways, however the backcountry sites span over a mile. (Make sure to grab a map of the camping area from the ranger for whichever campground you get permits for! It was very helpful finding the hidden campsites tucked away off trail.) Since we arrived at sunset, all of the campsites closer to Lake solitude were taken and we got one of the very last ones further down the mountain.
The next day was pretty much all downhill, for 7 miles. We had beautiful views of Cascade Canyon for the first several miles.
Then the last 2 miles, the end really seemed to be running away from us. Walking around the edge of Jenny Lake, back to the parking lot, seemed longer than it should be. Part of that was probably because the sun was beating down on us, without much shade for relief. But we all made it eventually, injury free!
Overall this was a very strenuous 2-day backpacking trek, that provided incredible views of the heart of the Tetons. If I were to do this hike again, however, I’d probably make it a 3-dayer to enjoy my time in the mountains more instead of just 2 days of a brutal workout. I’d still take it CCW and camp at Upper Paintbrush or Holly lake the first day, North Fork or South Fork the second day, and then hike out the third day.
I hope you enjoyed this recap, and feel free to leave any questions or comments below! I always love hearing your feedback!