The Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Loop trail is perhaps the most beautiful hike in the Grand Tetons, featuring iconic granite peaks, picturesque alpine lakes and abundant wildlife! This 21.9 mile loop will take you deep into the Teton backcountry, where you are more likely to see a moose than another hiker and features epic views around every corner. If you are trying to decide which hike or backpacking trip to do in Grand Teton, look no further. Having hiked almost all of the trails in Grand Teton, this hike stands out above the rest. The Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon loop trail in the Grand Tetons cannot be beat!
- Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Loop Trail Overview
- About Grand Teton National Park
- Highlights and lowlights
- How difficult is the loop?
- When is the best time to hike?
- Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Trail map
- Which direction should I hike?
- Hike details
- Backpacking trip logistics
Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Loop Trail
The Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon loop trail covers almost 22 miles and over 4,200 feet of elevation gain, so it’s a beast!
But do not be deterred because the hike features some of the best views in the Grand Tetons including Jenny Lake, Holly Lake, Paintbrush Divide, Lake Solitude, Cascade Canyon, Inspiration Point, and Hidden Falls. Yes, you can see all of these amazing sites on one trip!
In the rest of the article, we will give you all the information you need to plan an epic Grand Teton backpacking trip on the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon loop trail!
About Grand Teton National Park
Located in western Wyoming, Grand Teton National park is renowned for its iconic rocky peaks, picturesque alpine lakes, diverse wildlife, and endless opportunity for outdoor adventures. With over 300,000 acres and 200 miles of hiking trails, there is something to do for everyone, from short, easy hikes for the whole family to challenging backcountry treks.
Our favorite part of the park is the extensive network of backcountry trails that bring you away from the crowds and deep into alpine paradise.
We have hiked nearly every trail in the park, and, in our opinion, the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon loop trail is the best hike in the Grand Tetons!
Overview | Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Loop
- Hiking distance | 21.9 miles
- Elevation gain | 4,230 feet
- Timing | 10-12 hours, or 1 night/2 day backpacking trip
- Epic-ness rating | 10
- Difficulty | Hard
- Trailhead | String Lake/Leigh Lake Trailhead
- Advanced permits required | Yes (for backpacking)
- Fees | $45 for advanced permits, $35 for walk-in permits
Find this hike on AllTrails: Paintbrush Canyon-Cascade Canyon Loop
How difficult is the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Loop?
Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Loop as a day hike, this trail is very difficult. With so much distance and elevation to cover (and so many beautiful sites to see along the way), finishing the hike in one day would be a big challenge, although it is certainly possible.
As a backpacking trip, the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon trail is still challenging. Regardless of which direction you hike, climbing Paintbrush Canyon trail to Paintbrush Divide with a heavy pack is tough and there are a few sketchy sections with loose scree and steep drop offs. Nonetheless, the views throughout the hike are 100% worth the challenge!
- Stunning mountains views the entire hike, and particularly at Paintbrush Divide
- Beautiful backcountry camping sites at Holly Lake and North Fork Cascade
- Perhaps the best hike in the Grand Tetons (includes several popular viewpoints)
- Backcountry permits are in high demand and tough to get
- A few sketchy spots crossing Paintbrush Divide
- Large elevation gain makes for a tough hike
How much time do you need for the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Loop?
If you are feeling very ambitious, you can tackle the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon trail in one day, but we would advise against it. It would be a solid 10 to 12 hour day hike moving at a fairly quick pace.
There is so much to enjoy and take in that the whole experience would feel rushed, never mind the fact that you’d be absolutely exhausted by the end!
The best way to experience the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon loop is to hike it as a two-day, one-night backpacking trip. Not only will this allow you to take your time and enjoy the scenery, but sleeping deep in the Teton backcountry under a star-filled sky should be on any hiker’s bucket list!
When is the best time to hike?
The best time to hike the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon trail in the Grand Tetons is mid-July through mid-September. Before July, you can expect Paintbrush Divide to be snow-covered, making it dangerous to pass. Typically, the park rangers recommend crampons and an ice-ax to safely pass while the divide is still snow-covered.
When we hiked in early July, the rangers had just relaxed their recommendation to carry an ice ax the day before we started our trip! There were still several large sections of snow cover, but we managed to cross Paintbrush Divide with microspikes and hiking poles.
The exact date that Paintbrush Divide becomes passable varies each year based on snowfall and recent weather conditions, but we can say that planning to hike in early July is a gamble. For current trail conditions, check the Jenny Lake Ranger’s climbing and backcountry information blog.
Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Trail map
The map below displays the trail for the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon loop, along with possible campsites and key landmarks.
Note that there are two possible trailheads, Leigh Lake or String Lake Trailhead. The green shaded sections are backcountry zones, meaning there are designated campsites but you aren’t assigned a specific spot in advance.
Which direction should I hike?
The first decision you will need to make when planning your Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon backpacking trip is which direction you’d prefer to hike.
Because the trail is a loop starting at String Lake, you can hike either clockwise or counterclockwise. We would strongly recommend hiking counterclockwise for a few reasons:
- It’s easier to cross Paintbrush Divide. The sketchiest part of the hike is on the eastern slope climbing up to Paintbrush Divide. If there is snow or ice on the trail (which lingers deep into the summer months), it’s easier to go up this section of the trail, rather than going down it.
- The views are better going counterclockwise! Besides Paintbrush Divide, which has unimpeded 360-degree views, the best view on the hike is of the backside of the Grand Teton as you are descending from Paintbrush Divide towards Lake Solitude and Cascade Canyon. If you hike clockwise, this view will be at your back, whereas it will be staring you in the face if you hike counterclockwise.
- Tackle most of the elevation gain earlier, reaching the top of Paintbrush Divide after about 8.8 miles. You can then breathe easy knowing the rest of the hike is downhill.
Hike Details | Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Trail
In this section, we’ll give you all the details from each section of the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Loop Trail so you know what to expect from the hike.
We hiked the full Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon loop in the summer of 2021. We did the hike over the course of two days and spent the night camping in the North Fork of Cascade Canyon.
This is one of our all-time favorite backpacking trips, and in our opinion, the best hike in Grand Teton National Park!
Parking and getting to the trailhead
The Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon trail can be started from either the String Lake Trailhead or the Leigh Lake Trailhead, both located just north of Jenny Lake.
The trailheads are just a minute away from each other, and it doesn’t make much difference distance-wise which you choose. There is more parking at the Leigh Lake Trailhead, so that’s probably your best bet.
The parking lots at both trailheads tend to get very crowded and fill up early during the peak season. Plan to start your hike as early as possible. You don’t want to start your backpacking trip by circling the parking lot looking for a parking spot!
Starting the hike
The first three miles of the hike are fairly flat as you meander through the dense forest of lodgepole pines, past Leigh Lake and String Lake and into the mouth of Paintbrush Canyon. As the odometer moves past 3.0 miles, the climb intensifies and you will slowly, but doggedly, make your way deeper into the canyon.
Make sure you take some time to turn around and enjoy the views back towards String Lake. In no time, the canyon will start opening up a bit and the vegetation begins to thin out.
There will be more open space and low-lying flora, making it a prime area for seeing some of the iconic Teton wildlife. We saw two moose munching on some juicy shrubbery just dozens of feet from the trail!
The Lower Paintbrush Camping zone starts about 3.5 miles into the hike and continues for about 1 mile. There is also an “outlier” spot about half a mile outside of the zone.
Intersection to Holly Lake
After about 5.7 miles, you will reach a junction in the trail. At this point, you have two options. If you stay straight, you will go directly towards Paintbrush Divide and enter the Upper Paintbrush Camping Zone. However, if you bear to the right, you can add a short detour to the picturesque Holly Lake.
This detour doesn’t add any mileage or elevation gain so we definitely recommend it. We stopped at Holly Lake to eat lunch and take a quick dip in the water to cool off. It was a perfect resting place! But don’t get too comfortable because the hardest part of the hike is still ahead of you!
If you are spending the night at Holly Lake, there are three campsites located on the eastern side of the lake.
Holly Lake to Paintbrush Divide
After departing from Holly Lake, you will continue the slow climb up towards Paintbrush Divide, which sits at an elevation of 10,100 feet and is one of the highest elevations you can reach on a trail in the Grand Tetons.
The climb up to Paintbrush Divide is tough. At this point, you will have already hiked over 8 miles and climbed over 3,000 feet. Even more so, the afternoon sun will be high in the sky. But keep pushing and don’t forget to take time to rest and enjoy the spectacular scenery.
As you get closer to Paintbrush Divide, there is a chance there will be snow or ice for short stretches of the trail, even later into the summer months. Be sure to talk to a park ranger before you depart to get current conditions and make sure it’s safe to cross.
How scary is the hike up to Paintbrush Divide?
The final section of the trail up to Paintbrush Divide is steep and exposed – it wouldn’t be a great place to lose your footing! If you have a fear of heights, this part may make you nervous, but the good news is that the sketchy section doesn’t last long.
I had read all sorts of comments and reviews about it beforehand that made me really nervous, but I honestly didn’t think it was too bad.
There was one section about 5 feet long (see us about to cross it below), that was very narrow due to lingering snow with loose footing and a sharp drop off on the side. Other than that section, we didn’t think there was anything too scary.
When you arrive at Paintbrush Divide, you will be immediately rewarded with incredible 360-degree views of the Tetons! Plan to take a break for lunch here and soak in the views as long as possible.
We talked to a fellow hiker who told us that they cried the first time they saw the view from Paintbrush Divide, and frankly, we can kind of see why…
Now, I don’t think either of us cried, but the view was definitely one of the most spectacular sites we have ever seen!
Paintbrush Divide to Lake Solitude
Once you cross Paintbrush Divide, it’s all downhill from here! After you have soaked up every possible view from the pass, it’s time to start your descent towards Lake Solitude and Cascade Canyon.
From the western side of Paintbrush Divide, you can actually see Lake Solitude perched up in the mountains on the far side of the canyon.
The trail starts descending pretty quickly, with a few big switchbacks, but the straight-on view of the Grand Teton down the North Fork of Cascade Canyon will distract you from your sore knees and aching back.
After about 2.5 miles, you will reach the banks of the aptly named Lake Solitude. This small lake is surrounded by towering granite walls on three sides and makes for a great resting spot.
North Fork of Cascade Canyon
Cascade Canyon forms a “Y”-shape, with the base at Jenny Lake and Inspiration Point and one arm going north toward Lake Solitude and the other reaching south towards the South Teton. After leaving Lake Solitude, you will enter the North Fork of Cascade Canyon.
With towering peaks on both sides, the trail cuts down the middle of the canyon through the dense forest of lodgepole pines. This was definitely one of our favorite parts of the hike. You are deep in the backcountry with very few other hikers around.
Here you have straight on views of the backside of the Grand Teton, surrounded by stunning peaks in almost every direction.
North Fork Cascade Camping Zone
There are a number of campsites in the North Fork of Cascade Canyon. This is where we camped and we had a lovely spot with views of the Grand Teton just around the corner.
If you are camping in the North Fork Cascade Zone, the start of the camping area is just about half a mile past Lake Solitude. However, keep in mind that sites are first come first serve, so you may have to hike further into the zone to find a spot.
About 2.5 miles from Lake Solitude, you will reach the end of the North Fork of Cascade Canyon and enter the main section of Cascade Canyon, which heads east back towards Jenny Lake and Inspiration Point.
To your left, you have the Jaw, sitting at an elevation of 11,365 feet and to your right, you can see both Mount Owen (12,875) and Teewinot Mountain (12,166). This is also a great area for seeing moose and other wildlife so keep your eyes peeled!
The crowds will start to pick up as you get closer to Inspiration Point, one of the most popular short hikes in the Grand Tetons. We personally thought Inspiration Point was overrated, but we had already been spoiled by the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Loop…
Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls
About 4.5 miles after turning east, you will reach Inspiration Point. You won’t be able to miss it because you will suddenly be bombarded by throngs of other hikers and families. The view from Inspiration Point looks east, away from the mountains across Jenny Lake.
We were very tired by this point so we shuffled past pretty quickly. As you descend from Inspiration Point, you can take a very short detour over to Hidden Falls, the only waterfall reachable by hiking trails in Grand Teton National Park!
Similar to Inspiration Point, this is a very popular spot, but not one of our favorites. It is worth a quick stop nonetheless.
After departing Hidden Falls, you are now in the home stretch! The trail follows along the western bank of Jenny Lake, making for a relatively flat and serene final few miles. If you hike in early to mid-summer, you’ll likely be able to see some amazing wildflowers!
Follow along the shores of Jenny Lake for one mile. Soon enough, String Lake will come back into view and you will have just about made it back to the trailhead!
Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Backpacking Trip Logistics
In this section, we’ll cover all the details you need to know to plan the perfect Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon backpacking trip, including possible itineraries, how to get permits, and tips for a great experience!
We would strongly recommend completing the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Loop as a two-day, one-night backpacking trip. You can complete the 21.9-mile loop as a day hike, but it would be a very long day and we don’t think you’d be able to take your time and really appreciate all the beauty the hike has to offer!
You could also stretch the hike out over three days for a very leisurely pace, but you might was well use that third day exploring another part of the Grand Tetons.
Therefore, our potential itineraries will focus on two-day, one-night options.
Option 1 | Camp in the North Fork of Cascade Canyon
This is the itinerary we did and it worked out great. We hiked counter-clockwise and spent the night camping in the North Fork of Cascade Canyon. There are 13 different sites in this camping zone, meaning you have a decent chance of both getting a permit and a good camping spot. Camping here split up the hike nicely.
The camping zone is about 1 mile in length (the 13 campsites are scattered throughout the zone over the mile) so the exact mileage will vary, but you are looking at about 12-13 miles on day one and 8-9 miles on day two.
Campsites in the North Fork Cascade zone are first come first serve, so try to arrive earlier for the best shot a great spot. In our opinion, the best campsites are towards the north end of the zone, closest to Paintbrush Divide.
You can view a map of the North Fork here.
Option 2 | Camp at Holly Lake
There are three campsites and one group campsite at Holly Lake.
If you go counterclockwise, which we would generally recommend, you will only knock out 6.8 miles on day one, leaving you a very long second day. Alternatively, you could hike clockwise, which would mean 15.1 miles on day one, and just 6.8 miles on day two.
You can view a map of the campsites at Holly Lake here.
Option 3 | Upper Paintbrush Camping Zone
Unlike the other sites along the Paintbrush Cascade Canyon trail, the Upper Paintbrush Camping zone is an open camping zone, meaning there aren’t any established campsites. The open camping zone runs from 0.1 miles above the lower Holly Lake Junction to a quarter-mile below the Paintbrush Canyon headwall.
You must camp at least 100 feet from the trail and any water sources. You can read more about the open camping zone here. This camping zone is located right near Holly Lake, so your hiking mileage per day is very similar.
Option 4 | Lower Paintbrush Camping Zone (2-night trip)
The Lower Paintbrush Camping Zone starts about 3.5 miles from the trailhead. We wouldn’t recommend camping here if you plan to do a one-night trip, because it would leave you with a lot of distance to cover on either day one or two. If you have no other option, it would be doable but not ideal.
However, you could camp here as part of a more leisurely two-night trip, paired with one night in the North Fork Cascade zone.
Backcountry Permits for the Cascade Canyon Paintbrush Canyon Trail
Backcountry permits are available for purchase both online in advance or in the park up to one day before your trip. Requests for advance backcountry reservations for the summer season open on the first Wednesday in January and are accepted through May, on recreation.gov. However, most of the reservable spots in popular areas sell out almost immediately.
The park reserves up to one-third of each camping zone in advance and saves two-thirds of each zone for first-come, first-served permits. Permits can be picked up in person up to one day before the start of a backcountry trip.
There is a $45 fee for advance permits and $35 fee for walk-in permits. Competition for permits is high during peak season (July-August). Be ready to book your advance permits as soon as they become available and have a back-up plan if you are hoping to snag a walk-in permit.
- You can read more about backcountry permits here.
Cascade Paintbrush Canyon Trail Packing List
In addition to your standard backpacking gear, below are a few important items to make sure you bring for the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon backpacking trip:
- Warm Layers (Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody) | Even during the summer, it gets quite cold at night in the Tetons. Pack a warm sleeping bag and extra layers for when the sun goes down. The Arc’teryx Cerium down jacket is incredibly warm, lightweight and packs down small!
- Bear Spray | Since there are grizzlies in the area, carrying bear spray with you is a must. Each person in the group should have their own can and carry it within arm’s reach (ie. attached to your hip – it’s nearly worthless packed away in your backpack)
- Bear Can (BearVault) | You will need to fit anything that smells (food + toiletries) into a bear can. We typically share the small can for short trips (1 – 2 nights) and the larger can or two small cans for longer trips. Bear cans are also available for rent at the ranger station.
- Water Filter (Katadyn BeFree 1.0L Water Filter) | There is plenty of water along the trail so we highly recommend packing a water filter to save some water weight (even if you are just day hiking). The Katadyn BeFree couldn’t be easier to use!
- Hiking poles (Hers: Black Diamond Distance Z poles, His: Black Diamond Distance FLZ poles ) | Really helpful for climbing the trail to Paintbrush Divide and keeping you stable on the steep sections.
- Micro-spikes | Micro-spikes are essential for crossing the final snow field up to Paintbrush Divide earlier in the season. When we hiked in early-July, we probably wouldn’t have continued without them.
P.S. We’ve compiled a complete list of our backpacking essentials to help you pack for your trip!
Tips for a great backpacking trip
- Be prepared to sign up for backpacking permits as soon as they are released, typically at 8:00AM MT on the first Wednesday in January. They will sell out quickly, and while it’s possible to get walk-in permits, you may have a harder time getting the campsites you want.
- Don’t plan to backpack before early July, unless you are comfortable using an ice ax, as Paintbrush Divide will be snow-covered. When we hiked fourth of July weekend, the rangers had just declared the pass safe to cross without an ice ax.
- Bear cans are available to rent from the Jenny Lake Ranger Station – super convenient if you are flying in!
Other Useful Resources
Planning a trip to the Grand Tetons? Be sure to check out these other great hikes and cool things to do in Wyoming and Idaho:
- Grand Teton | The Perfect 2-day Grand Teton Itinerary
- Grand Teton | How to Hike to Delta Lake in Grand Teton
- Grand Teton | 18 Best Hikes in the Grand Tetons
- Grand Teton | How to Hike to Bradley and Taggart Lakes
- Jackson | 22 Amazing Things to Do in Jackson, Wyoming
- Sawtooths | How to Backpack the Stunning Alice Toxaway Loop
- Idaho | How to Kayak to Shoshone Falls in Southern Idaho
For all things Wyoming: Wyoming Travel Guide
Have you hiked the Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon loop trail? Questions about planning your backpacking trip? Let us know in the comments below and we’re happy to help!