Monday, January 27, 2020

Paintbrush Divide-Cascade Canyon Loop

The Tetons rise above the meadowed slopes of Cascade Canyon
19.5 miles loop, 4000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous; potentially difficult and dangerous snow sections before August
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Grand Teton National Park entrance fee required

The Paintbrush Divide-Cascade Canyon Loop visits spectacular alpine terrain in the heart of Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park, with jaw-dropping views of soaring mountains and explosive displays of wildflowers in midsummer that make this one of the better hikes on the continent. This loop through two canyons in the Teton Range, visits two alpine lakes nestled high in the range, crosses a 10,700-foot pass, and packs in views of magnificent Grand Teton, Mount Owen, and Mount Moran from all angles. Best done counterclockwise, this loop is a popular backpacking trip but can be feasibly be done in a long day by very fit hikers. Snow lingers on exposed portions of the trail near Paintbrush Divide until August most years; it's highly advisable to bring an ice axe and to know how to use it if you're hiking the trail earlier in the summer. Hikers need to also be aware that afternoon summer thunderstorms are common in the Rockies; it's best to be off high, exposed areas like Paintbrush Divide in the afternoon. This hike also traverses grizzly country, so it's a good idea to carry bear spray and to travel in groups.

I hiked this loop while on a summer roadtrip to Wyoming with my mother. My mom decided to skip the 19-mile hike day, instead heading over to the Teton Aerial Tramway south of the park; I was dropped off at the String Lake Trailhead early in the morning. From Jackson, take US 26/89 north into the park, turn left at Moose Junction onto the Teton Park Road and follow it north to the turnoff for the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive. Turn left and follow the loop road until reaching the turnoff on the right for String and Leigh Lakes; take the turnoff and park at the large parking area at the end of the road.

I set off from the String Lake Trailhead and almost immediately came to the shore of tiny String Lake. As its name suggests, the lake was narrow and elongated; as I hiked north along the shore of the lake I caught many views of Mount Moran lit by sunrise alpenglow.

Mount Moran rises above String Lake at sunrise
After following the shoreline for about three-quarters of a mile, I came to a junction at the northern end of the lake: the Leigh Lake Trail continued north but I turned left here, crossing the outlet of String Lake on a bridge and then following that trail gradually uphill for a half mile to reach the Paintbrush Canyon Trail.

At the junction with the Paintbrush Canyon Trail, I took the right fork to follow the trail into the canyon. The trail climbed gradually as it wrapped around the base of Rockchuck Peak to reach the entrance of Paintbrush Canyon. At points, there were openings in the trees that provided nice views of Leigh Lake with Signal Mountain and other peaks rising in the background.

Leigh Lake views on the climb into Paintbrush Canyon
Once in the canyon, the trail began to climb steadily and the scenery began to improve. The trail followed the stream, crossing Paintbrush Canyon Creek at just under four miles from the trailhead. From here on, the trail was more open, passing through creekside meadow patches bursting with wildflowers and delivering small peeks of the snowcapped peaks at the head of the canyon.

Wildflowers line the streamside trail in Paintbrush Canyon
The trail became steeper as it continued ascending the canyon, switchbacking at times to aid the climb. Soon, views of the soaring rocky peaks surrounding the valley became common; there was a particularly beautiful view of a cascading waterfall plunging down from the snowfields high on Rockchuck Peak.

Tumbling waterfalls in Paintbrush Canyon
As you would expect from a place called Paintbrush Canyon, this part fo the trail was packed with wildflowers, especially in areas where the trail approached creeks. The canyon's namesake red paintbrush was most common, but I was also able to spot some rarer flowers such as Colorado blue columbine.

Paintbrush and other wildflowers grace Paintbrush Canyon
While the view of the rocky peaks ahead of me impressed, I was equally astounded by the view of Leigh and Jackson Lakes, both dotted with islands, when I looked to the east out of the canyon. Forested ridges stretched beyond the lakes to the horizon.

Jackson and Leigh Lakes
After some more intense switchback climbs, at 6 miles from the trailhead, I reached a junction between the main trail up Paintbrush Canyon and an alternate trail that continued ascending through the canyon while visiting Holly Lake. I chose to take the right fork to stop by Holly Lake. Just a hundred meters or so pass the junction, the trail crossed a small stream; a small tarn lay just to the west of here with a backdrop of the snowy peaks of the Paintbrush Divide. The marshy area around the lake prevented me from walking up to its shoreline, so I just enjoyed the scene from afar before continuing on my way to Holly Lake.

Tarn in upper Paintbrush Canyon
I continued to ascend as I made my way towards Holly Lake, following the outlet stream from the lake through meadows dotted with tiny wildflowers and providing views of Rockchuck and other nearby peaks.

Paintbrush Canyon meadows
A half mile past the junction with the Paintbrush Canyon Trail, and about 6.5 miles from the trailhead, I arrived at the shore of Holly Lake. Four trails intersected here: the one that I arrived on, the continuation of the trail up the canyon to the left, and two trails that visited different shores of the lake straight ahead and to the right. I took the fork to the right and walked a short distance along the shore of the lake to a vantage point with a lovely view of the Paintbrush Divide peaks rising above the lake. I took a short break at the lake, enjoying the gorgeous alpine scenery and refueling with snacks.

Holly Lake
Continuing upwards, the Holly Lake Trail soon reconnected with the main Paintbrush Canyon Trail on the ridge above Holly Lake. As I continued ascending, the landscape became increasingly stark as meadows thinned out and rock and snow dominated an alpine environment. Looking ahead, I could see the ridge of Paintbrush Divide that I would later ascend, as well as the sharp summit of Paintbrush Peak.

Approaching Paintbrush Divide
As the trail began ascending a set of broad switchbacks above the highest meadow, I spotted snow-fed tarns below and the first glimpses of Teewinot Mountain and Mount Owen peeking out from behind the nearby peaks of upper Paintbrush Canyon.

Meadows and tarns in upper Paintbrush Canyon
The trail started traversing stretches of talus high on the slopes of Paintbrush Divide. There was still some patches of snow cover on the trail, but in late July I was able to handle these without too much issue; earlier in the season, though, microspikes and potentially even an ice axe would be helpful as the slopes are certainly quite exposed.

Scree slopes on the approach to Paintbrush Divide
The trail reached the foot of Paintbrush Peak and then made a sharp switchback and climbed through loose rock on an exposed slope for the final ascent to Paintbrush Divide. This was the most difficult portion of the hike: I lost the trail briefly at this point and started tackling a very exposed scramble before realizing my error and I saw later hikers make the same mistake later that day. Even on the trail, the rock was loose and the trail was narrow until reaching a large final snow patch just below the ridge of Paintbrush Divide. Here, a small portion of trail was still buried under multiple feet of snow; it was too exposed to try to hike on the snow covering that stretch of trail. Instead, I scrambled uphill a bit to reach a footpath through the snow and had to step across a very exposed crevice to return to the rocky path and reach the Divide. I thought that the path here was at least a little dangerous and that an ice axe could have been immense help and provided a bit more peace of mind.

Snow-covered trail: the crux of the July approach to Paintbrush Divide
Past this harrowing crux, I arrived atop Paintbrush Divide, the 10,700-foot roof of this hike. The views were spectacular from this stretch of flattened ridgetop. Perhaps the most stunning part of the view was the gneiss massif of Mount Moran, wih a dark striped diabase dike crowning part of the mountain's summit ridge.

Mount Moran from Paintbrush Divide
The trail skirted around a snowfield filling a northward-facing depression, following the ridge and offering constant skyscraping views. A spur trail led off to the left (east) to a high viewpoint above Paintbrush Canyon below; I followed this brief detour and enjoyed the views.

Paintbrush Divide
A (too) friendly marmot poked its head out here, having obviously been thoroughly conditioned to humans.

Marmot resident of the Divide
As I continued to hike along the high ridge of the Paintbrush Divide, new views began to emerge to the west. The snow-draped ridgeline of the Teton Crest lay across Cascade Canyon and rocky Maidenform Peak lay across the head of Leigh Canyon. Tiny yellow wildflowers dotted the spare alpine meadows in these tundra environs, presaging the upcoming flower show in Cascade Canyon.

Wildflowers at Paintbrush Divide
Upon reaching the west side of the broad montane shoulders of the Paintbrush Divide, the trail began to descend a steep talus slope via switchbacks. Here, views opened up to the bottom of Cascade Canyon and both icy Mica Lake and blue Lake Solitude were visible at the foot of the Teton Crest. Cascade Creek displayed many of its namesake drops as it fell from the lake into the lush, meadow-filled valley below. The Teton Crest itself was a solid wall of rock separating Cascade Canyon from Idaho.

Teton Crest with Mica Lake and Lake Solitude
The first good views of the back side of the Tetons also came out: Mount Owen and Grand Teton towered over Cascade Canyon.

Tetons and Cascade Canyon
Shortly into the descent, the trail offered views to the north into Leigh Canyon, with Maidenform Peak rising across the forested valley. The trail then made a sharp switchback, heading south with great views of the Tetons.

View down into Leigh Canyon
The trail continued descending through the steep talus slope. After the next switchback, the mountainside transitioned from rock to grass and I arrived at the scenic highlight of the hike: a steep meadow blanketed with an artist's palette of wildflowers, with mountain views in all directions of Grand Teton, the Teton Crest, and Lake Solitude. Aster, monkeyflower, and paintbrush dotted the meadow, but the highlight of this display were the purple petals and yellow bells of columbine; these particularly showy columbine are only found in the Rocky Mountains.

Colorado Blue Columbine
It was only a mile from the switchback along the mountainside to Lake Solitude, but this stretch of the hike took me over an hour; I had to stop constantly to take in the dazzling wildflower show. I've hiked in many of the most famous landscapes of the United States; this stretch of trail was one of the most beautiful I've seen. It was so stunning that I was on the verge of tears.

Grand Teton rises above Cascade Canyon

The meadows of Cascade Canyon

Cascade Canyon wildflowers
The trail aimed towards Lake Solitude at the head of Cascade Canyon, with progressively nicer views of the lake as I approached it. The trail finally entered the level lake basin on the northeast shore of the lake and then began to circle around the east side of the lake at 10.5 miles into the hike.

Approaching Lake Solitude
Large boulders and scattered trees dotted the meadow-filled basin, which held a small tarn just below Lake Solitude. The walls of the Cascade Canyon framed the towering peaks of Teewinot, Owen, and Grand Teton in the distance.

Teewinot, Owen, and Grand Teton from the head of Cascade Canyon
A short spur trail brought me to the lakeshore, where I began to meet dayhikers who had hiked up Cascade Canyon. The rocky cliffs of the Teton Crest rose above the cold, clear lake, which was fed by nearby snowbanks.

Lake Solitude
I enjoyed a short break at the lake, resting on a rocky peninsula jutting out into the lake and admiring this perfect alpine scene before the descent down Cascade Canyon.

Solitude and the Tetons
The trail descended through the verdant, wildflower-filled meadows that filled the bottom of Cascade Canyon. Amazing views of Teewinot, Owen, and Grand Teton appeared before me as I passed blooming patches of columbine.

Columbine and the Tetons
Part of the way through the descent, I noticed some montion in the bushes at the bottom of the canyon. I initially suspected a bear, but when the animal raised its head the massive antler rack made clear that it was a moose.

Moose grazing in Cascade Canyon
For the 2.5 miles past Lake Solitude, the Cascade Canyon Trail descended through its namesake canyon in spacious wildflower meadows beneath towering rocky peaks. As I approached the junction between the North and South Forks of Cascade Canyon, the trail entered the woods, blocking out the amazing mountain views, although small clearings were still exploding with paintbrush and columbine.

Teewinot, Owen, and Grand Teton rise above Cascade Canyon

Cascade Canyon

Wildflower show at the bottom of South Fork Cascade Canyon
The trail crossed over North Fork Cascade Creek just before reaching a junction with the trail down the South Fork Cascade Canyon, about 13 miles in. At the junction, Mount Owen towered overhead where the two streams flowed together, forming the main trunk cutting eastward to form a deep canyon through the heart of the Tetons.

Mount Owen rises above the confluence of the North and South Fork Cascade Canyons
For the next 3.5 miles, I followed the Cascade Canyon Trail along the base of the canyon, occasionally descending gently but generally staying level as I passed through mixed stretches of forest and creekside clearings with mountain views. There were still some wildflowers here, including columbine, but it paled in comparison to the explosive displays further up the canyon.

Tumbling waterfalls and the Tetons in Cascade Canyon
The trail took me past the bases of both Mount Owen and Teewinot Mountain, which towered far above. Plunging waterfalls descended from the rocky slopes of the high Tetons into the canyon, explaining the canyon's name.

As I approached the mouth of the canyon, clouds rolled in and rain began to fall; soon, a Rocky Mountain thunderstorm had begun in earnest. There were still plenty of hikers along the trail, many of them headed back to the boat dock on Jenny Lake, so I joined a steady stream of people rushing to return during the rain.

Mount Owen rises above the entrance of Cascade Canyon, a thunderstorm approaches
After passing the mouth of Cascade Canyon, the trail began to descend, about 17 miles into the hike. Soon I came to a junction, where I took the left fork, a horse path, for a faster descent to Jenny Lake. This loop could be modified to visit Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls on the way back to the trailhead; however, the trail to Hidden Falls was closed at the time of my visit so I made a direct return to the shoreline of Jenny Lake and then back towards String Lake.

The thunderstorm began to let up as I reached the shore of Jenny Lake and the sun soon broke back through the clouds, illuminating a brilliant double rainbow that soared above Jenny Lake.

Double rainbow over Jenny Lake
As I continued hiking back along the shoreline of Jenny Lake, the clouds began to roll out and I was able to enjoy views of the lake with Teewinot, Owen, and Grand Teton behind me as I hiked through segments of the trail in areas burned by the Alder Fire in 1999.

Jenny Lake after a thunderstorm
Reaching the north end of Jenny Lake, the trail followed the west bank of the inlet stream from String Lake as it continued through flat terrain of open forest. At a junction with the String Lake Trail, I continued on the Leigh Lake Trail for another fifth of a mile, crossing the stream just below the outlet of String Lake. Here, the trail skirted by the String Lake Trailhead; I continued hiking for another third of a mile along the shore of String Lake to return to the trailhead from which I had started the hike.

Few day hikes in North America can match the scenic highlights of the Paintbrush Divide-Cascade Canyon Loop, which covers a varied and beautiful subalpine and alpine terrain of wildflowers, waterfalls, lakes, and high ridges. The hiking is strenuous and the terrain can especially be treacherous when covered in snow earlier in the season, but this is an extraordinary hike when the conditions are right.

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