Julie United States 19 Comments

The Paintbrush Canyon – Cascade Canyon Loop is one of the best hikes to do in Grand Teton National Park. In just one hike, you can visit a handful of the park’s top spots: Jenny Lake, Inspiration Point, Lake Solitude, Cascade Canyon, and Paintbrush Canyon. Throw in panoramic views across the Teton mountain range and a few moose, and you have an unforgettable hike in Grand Teton National Park.

This hike is a big undertaking. At 20 miles, with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s a hefty hike. Many people do this as a 2 or 3-day backpacking trip, but if you are fit and fast, the Paintbrush Canyon – Cascade Canyon Loop can be done as a day hike.

We LOVED this hike. Sure, it’s a big day, but this trail is gorgeous every step of the way. Since it is a loop, you never repeat any part of the trail twice. Every few miles the terrain and the views change, so there is never a boring moment on this trail.

If you can handle a hard, long hike, this is one of the best ways to spend a day in Grand Teton National Park, in our opinion.

Paintbrush Canyon – Cascade Canyon Trail Stats

Distance: 20 miles
Difficulty: Very strenuous
Total Ascent: 4,700 feet
Starting Elevation (Trailhead): 6,900 feet
Highest Elevation (Paintbrush Divide): 10,700 feet
Length of Time: 8 to 12 hours
When to Go: During the summer and fall months. In the winter and spring, the trails are snow covered and dangerous. In the early part of summer (sometimes up through July) there can be lots of snow at the higher elevations, so special gear is recommended (hiking poles, crampons, etc.). Late summer to early fall is the best time to do this hike, when most of the trail is free of snow.

Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Map

Paintbrush Canyon Cascade Canyon Loop Elevation Profile

Please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.

 

How to Hike the Paintbrush Canyon – Cascade Canyon Loop

Which Direction Should You Go?

Since this is a loop trail, it can be hiked in either direction.

If you are backpacking this trail, your direction will be dependent upon where you get a campsite.

As a day hike, this loop is typically hiked counter clockwise. By doing it in this direction, you get the majority of the climbing finished early in the hike. Before you reach the halfway point, you’ll be standing on the Paintbrush Divide (at 8.4 miles), so it’s nice to know it’s all downhill from here. Then, you get to enjoy the views as you hike to Lake Solitude and through Cascade Canyon to Inspiration Point.

Getting to the Trailhead

Park at the String Lake Trailhead. This parking lot has room for about 30 cars and it can fill early in the morning, so it’s best to arrive by 7:30 am. There are portable toilets near the trailhead.

The Paintbrush Canyon – Cascade Canyon Loop starts and ends at the String Lake Trailhead.

String Lake Trailhead

Paintbrush Canyon

From the String Lake trailhead, cross the bridge over the outlet creek from String Lake. This part of the trail is flat and fast. A quarter mile from the trailhead, follow the signs to stay on the String Lake Trail (go right at the fork). The trail to the left is the Jenny Lake Trail.

For the next mile, the trail gradually ascends, but it’s nothing too strenuous. To your right will be views over String Lake and Leigh Lake.

Along String Lake

Just past String and Leigh Lakes, the trail will take a turn to the left and you will now be heading into Paintbrush Canyon.

At first, the trail takes you through forests of evergreen trees. Again, the trail gradually ascends here, but it’s nothing too strenuous.

Through the Trees

As you head farther into Paintbrush Canyon, the evergreen trees begin to fade away and are replaced with shrubs of various sizes. It is a constant uphill walk through the canyon, with occasional jumps in elevation as the trail briefly switchbacks up the trail in some spots.

Paintbrush Canyon

Paintbrush Canyon Hike

Every once in a while, make sure you pause and look back down the canyon. It’s a beautiful view, especially with String and Leigh Lakes, now off in the distance.

Paintbrush Canyon Overlook

Near the top of the canyon you will reach a fork in the trail. You can go either way here; both trails meet up again very shortly and are roughly the same distance. Take the trail to the right to go to Holly Lake. If you take the trail to the left, you will have stunning views through the canyon. We chose the trail to left and here is the view.

Paintbrush Canyon Trail Split

In Paintbrush Canyon

Hike Grand Teton National Park

If you take the trail to the left, you will have a view over Holly Lake at the point where the two trails rejoin.

Holly Lake Grand Teton

Paintbrush Divide

Just past Holly Lake, the hike gets to be more difficult. Now, the elevation is higher (you are at about 9700 feet just past Holly Lake), so it is easier to get out of breath now. The trail still slowly and steadily gains elevation, nothing too difficult, but the higher elevation makes it feel more challenging.

Julie Rivenbark

Hike to Paintbrush Divide

At this point, almost all of the vegetation has disappeared. Now, it’s just a rocky, almost barren, alpine wilderness. The higher you climb, the better the views get of the razor-sharp mountain peaks that surround Paintbrush Canyon.

The trail zig-zags up to Paintbrush Divide. The final half-mile to Paintbrush Divide is the most challenging section of the hike, but at least when you pause to catch your breath, you are treated to awesome views of the mountains.

Snow Paintbrush Trail

Trail to Paintbrush Divide

On the final climb, the trail clings to the side of the mountain. If you have a fear of heights, you could find this part of the trail unnerving, but the trail is relatively wide (about 5 feet) so if you stay up against the rock wall you should be OK.

Almost There

Paintbrush Divide Hike

How to Hike to Paintbrush Divide

Once on top of the Paintbrush Divide, enjoy the spectacular view and take lots of photos. You earned it!

Paintbrush Divide

Paintbrush Divide View

PRO TRAVEL TIP: It can be VERY windy here. On the day we did this, the winds were ferocious. It was literally the strongest wind gusts I have felt in my life and at times, it almost felt like I could get blown off of the mountain. We did not linger long here, because of the wind and the chilly temperatures.

Lake Solitude

From the Paintbrush Divide, it is a steep descent to Lake Solitude. In about 2 miles, you will descend 1,600 feet to Lake Solitude, so you lose a good chunk of the elevation you just climbed to get to Paintbrush Divide.

As you hike down this rugged, rocky trail, enjoy the amazing views over Lake Solitude and down through the canyon.

Day Hike Grand Teton

Trail to Lake Solitude

Grand Teton Hike

Lake Solitude

Lake Solitude is a beautiful alpine lake and it is a great spot to take a break and rest your feet. Find a comfy rock on edge of the lake and enjoy the view and a picnic lunch.

Lake Solitude Panorama

Cascade Canyon

For 2.5 miles, the trail follows along Cascade Creek until it veers left into Cascade Canyon. This section of the hike is gorgeous, since Grand Teton sits smack in front of you. Plus, it’s an easy downhill walk now so this part of the hike is very enjoyable.

Best Hike in Grand Teton

At the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, follow the trail signs to turn left into Cascade Canyon. Cascade Canyon is almost 4 miles long and a very easy downhill walk. The trail is mostly in the trees, but as you approach Jenny Lake, the massive canyon walls get shorter and the views open up over Cascade Creek.

Cascade Canyon

Cascade Canyon Hike

Grand Teton in September

Keep an eye out for moose as they are commonly spotted here. Black bear also make regular appearances.

Moose in Cascade Canyon

Inspiration Point and Jenny Lake

Before getting to Inspiration Point you have a choice to make. You can either take Cascade Canyon Trail to Inspiration Point or take the Horse Trail, which is a shortcut to String Lake.

Horse Trail: This is a 0.7-mile trail through the woods that ends on the Jenny Lake Trail.

Inspiration Point: If you choose to hike to Inspiration Point, this trail is about 1 mile long, until you meet up with the Horse Trail at Jenny Lake (so this trail is .3 miles longer than Horse Trail). However, you get to see the view from Inspiration Point, which is worth adding on to this hike if you still have the energy. You can also take the very short spur trail to Hidden Falls.

Here’s the view from Inspiration Point.

Inspiration Point GTNP

Jenny Lake Trail

From the Horse Trail, it’s just 1.7 miles until you reach the String Lake parking lot. For most of this distance you walk along the west bank of Jenny Lake. It’s a flat walk with a few small hills thrown in occasionally. This is a pleasant trail, but this final part of the hike can feel like it takes forever, especially if you are exhausted.

About Our Experience

We did this hike during the last week of September in 2020. Tim and I completed the hike in 8 hours (we started at 7 am and finished at 3 pm), including time for breaks and lunch.

The end of September is an amazing time to visit Grand Teton National Park, since it is peak season for fall colors. However, you should also expect lots of traffic on the trails. Crowds were larger this week than during our visit in mid-August, one year before, which surprised us.

Shorter Versions of This Hike

If you like the idea of doing this hike but don’t have the desire or the energy for a 20-mile loop, here are 3 shorter versions of the Paintbrush Canyon – Cascade Canyon Loop.

Paintbrush Canyon: You can hike Paintbrush Canyon out-and-back. This pretty canyon typically has fewer hikers than Cascade Canyon, so if you are looking for solitude, this is a nice option. You can turn around whenever you are ready, but the farther you go, the better the view. If you choose to hike all of the way Paintbrush Divide, this is a 16.8 mile hike with 4,550 feet of elevation gain. Park at the String Lake Trailhead.

Cascade Canyon: For gorgeous views along Cascade Creek and a good chance to spot wildlife, put Cascade Canyon on your list. Like Paintbrush Canyon, turn around whenever you are ready. You really don’t have to walk too far past Inspiration Point for some of the best views of the canyon, not to mention a good chance for wildlife sightings. If you hike to the end of Cascade Canyon from the west shore boat dock on Jenny Lake, the hike is 10 miles with 1,100 feet of elevation gain. To get here, take the Jenny Lake shuttle to the west shore boat dock and start your hike here.

Lake Solitude: Hike all of the way through Cascade Canyon and end at Lake Solitude. This hike is 15 miles long with 2,500 feet of elevation gain. Start and end at the west shore boat dock.

Tips to Have the Best Experience

Start the hike early, ideally by 7 am. This ensures that you get a parking space and gives you plenty of time to complete the hike.

Leave no trace. When you are in the park, practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace. This includes packing out what you bring into the park, be considerate of other hikers, stay on the trail, and do not remove anything from the park.

Do not expect your cell phone to work. For most of this hike we had zero cellular service. There were a few spots in clearings or at higher elevations where we got a few bars of LTE or 3G, barely enough to send a text message. But don’t depend on your phone to call for help, talk to friends, or send photos to friends and family.

If you are not acclimated to the altitude, this is not a good first hike in Grand Teton National Park. The long distance, elevation gain, and altitude make this a tough hike. If you have not already spent time in the park adjusting to the altitude, I recommend that you spend a day or two acclimating to the higher elevation.

For more information about Grand Teton National Park, read our Guide to Grand Teton National Park. Get important travel planning tips, sample itineraries, advice on when to go, where to stay, and more.

What to Bring on the Hike

Hiking shoes. Don’t do this hike in anything other than hiking shoes or hiking boots. There’s a good chance you will hike through snow, even in the summer.

Hiking poles. Hiking poles take the stress off of your legs and help to ease leg pain and fatigue.

Bear Spray. Black bears and grizzly bears make regular appearances in both Paintbrush and Cascade Canyons. 

Water and snacks. At least 3 liters of water in the summer.

Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses. For more than half of this hike you will be exposed to the sun, with very little shade.

Camera. Even a smartphone will do. The Paintbrush Divide is a great place to use the panorama feature.

Rain jacket or fleece. It’s chilly at Paintbrush Divide. Be prepared for all weather conditions, even snow in the summer months. Pack a rain jacket and/or fleece and even another layer of clothing.

If you are new to hiking or are curious about what you should bring on a hike, check out our Hiking Gear Guide. Find out what we carry in our day packs and what we wear on the trails.


If you have any questions about hiking the Paintbrush Canyon – Cascade Canyon Loop, let us know in the comment section below. Happy hiking!!

More Information for Your Trip to Wyoming:

If this is part of a bigger road trip through the USA, visit our United States Travel Guide for more inspiration and travel planning tips.

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Comments 19

  1. Thanks again for the detailed hiking trail tips! We did these two trails separately which were each still challenging but sooo rewarding. Cascade Canyon’s views are just spectacular. I’m glad I brought hiking poles for Paintbrush Divide. We encountered soft snow (more than what appears in your picture) which made the pole a helpful tool with balance.

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  2. Hi Julie – Ive been hiking 4-7 miles with 800-1500 feet of elevation gain daily in Souther California and your writing has inspired me to tackle a greater challenge. Thank you! I am planning to ramp up my hiking to be ready to do Paintbrush Canyon – Cascade Canyon in late Sept/early Oct. You mention hiking shoes/hiking boots several times. In Southern California, I am able to get away with Hoka trail running shoes. To be clear, do you think these are insufficient for the terrain and I need a more traditional hiking shoe? Would be grateful for your guidance – and thank you for the inspiration!

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      Yes, I think you can get by with a trail shoe. You will be doing the hike the same time of year that we did it, so there shouldn’t be snow on the trail. And I don’t remember any creek crossings with the possibility of getting wet feet. It’s a gorgeous hike!! Tim and I loved it because the views are always changing. Start early, so you get a good parking spot. If the elk mating season is still going on, it’s so cool to hear the males bugling in the early morning hours as you hike around String Lake. Cheers, Julie

  3. We are planning to do this hike in mid-Sept. Are there locations along the route that we can use a water filter to refill our canteens? I’m assuming there is, but it’s more of “is it easy to get to the body of water to put the filter in?”

    Thank you for the great guide!

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      From Lake Solitude through Cascade Canyon to Inspiration Point you will walk along a creek. There should be spots along the trail where I think you can detour over to the creek if you need water. You will need some sort of filtration device/purifier. Cheers, Julie

  4. Hey! We are looking at doing this hike tomorrow, July 6, 2021. We hiked Half Dome according to your instructions and it was incredible! How does it compare to this one? My concern is elevation. Yesterday we did a 5 miler at 10k and we’re pretty winded but it was our first day in elevation. Lmk any thoughts you have please!

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      Half Dome is a little bit more challenging. Half Dome isn’t quite as long but there is more elevation gain. On this loop, you get most of the climb over with less than halfway through the hike, if you do it in the same direction as we wrote this post. So it is a nice easy walk through Cascade Canyon and back to the parking lot. And since this is a loop, you are always looking at different scenery, so it’s a great hike. Have fun! Cheers, Julie

  5. This is a wonderful review; thank you for the information and tips! I’m planning a trip on the Teton Crest Trail next year—my one concern is the likelihood of snow in Paintbrush Divide. A lot of what I’ve seen suggests bringing an ice axe and knowing how to use it (which I currently do not!). Do you think tackling this trail in early- to mid-September is likely to be do-able with hiking boots and microspikes alone?

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      You will be visiting Grand Teton at a great time, catching the autumn colors and elk mating season. All you should need are hiking boots. We did this hike mid to late September 2020 and you can see from our photos that there was no snow on the trail. All trails in GTNP were snow free during our visit last September. By the way, we just published a hiking guide for Grand Teton National Park, which includes this hike and many others as a printable eBook, if you are interested. It costs $3.99. Here is the link to the guide. Have a great trip! Cheers, Julie

  6. How would you compare the difficulty of this trail to the South Kaibab -> Bright Angel Grand Canyon day hike? I did that one in a day in March (with snow on the first few and last few miles of the trail) but I felt at the end of the trail that I might not have made it if it was a few miles longer.

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      They are roughly the same. Paintbrush Canyon is a longer but it doesn’t end with a massive climb at the very end (like the Grand Canyon hike), so that’s why I say that they are about the same. If you do this hike in the order I write it, most of the elevation gain comes in the first half, then it’s a long but lovely walk back to your starting point. I remember feeling pretty wasted the last few miles on the Bright Angel Trail but I still felt pretty good at the end of this hike. Cheers, Julie

  7. Hello! My husband and I are planning a trip to Wyoming this summer. We are avid hikers (in the North East), and regularly hike 15-20 miles a day in the White Mountains and Adirondacks (anywhere from 4,000-7,000 feet of elevation gain). We’d love to do this full hike in a day. If you’ve hiked I’m the east, how does this compare to the Presidential Range and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks? I would love your insight!!

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      Hello Ruthie. You picked a great hike! We have not been to the Adirondacks yet. Crazy, right? However, if you hike 15 to 20 miles a day in these mountains, you will be fine on this loop trail. The only “issue” is the elevation. At the highest point you will be approaching 11,000 feet. We live at sea level in Maryland and did this hike on our first day in Wyoming. We had hiked a lot during the summer, so the distance and elevation gain wasn’t a problem. But we were both very winded on the final climb up to the Paintbrush Divide. It just made that part of the hike harder. So, it’s possible to do this early on in your trip, but you could “warm up” on one of the other Grand Teton trails first, if you are coming from sea level. Just a thought. Cheers, Julie

  8. Is this trail able to be done in two days, and camp somewhere along the way?

    I am a huge fan of your family travels!

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