The Best Short Backpacking Trip in Grand Teton National Park

By Michael Lanza

As we backpacked up Paintbrush Canyon on the first day of a three-day family hike on the nearly 20-mile loop of Paintbrush and Cascade canyons in Grand Teton National Park, I kept a close eye on our kids. Our son, Nate, then eight years old, had taken a few backpacking trips with me already; I figured he’d do fine, but still, he was young. Our daughter, Alex, then six, was on just her second backpacking trip. I knew that making it fun for them would be an important first step toward nurturing a love for future wilderness trips in them.

We could hardly have chosen a better multi-day hike than the Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon loop: Offering a highlights reel of Grand Teton National Park’s backcountry, it is probably among the most scenic sub-20-mile hikes in the National Park System—and I’ve taken many of the best over the past few decades, including many years as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and running this blog.


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A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
David Gordon backpacking the Teton Crest Trail toward Paintbrush Divide.

With nearly 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, the loop crosses one of the highest points reached by trail in the park, 10,720-foot Paintbrush Divide, where the panorama spans a jagged skyline of peaks and spires in every direction, including 12,605-foot Mount Moran to the north and the 13,776-foot Grand Teton and 12,000-footers Mount Owen and Teewinot to the south. It also passes by Lake Solitude, nestled in a cirque of cliffs, and below the striped cliffs of Paintbrush Canyon and the waterfalls and soaring peaks of Cascade Canyon. Wildflowers carpet the ground from late July well into August.

On my family’s second evening, camped in the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, with a jaw-dropping view of the Grand Teton towering thousands of feet above us, I thought the kids would be exhausted from the hike over Paintbrush Divide. But Nate and Alex played for hours in the creek. When I asked Alex if she was tired, she started doing jumping jacks in front of me.

Dying to backpack in the Tetons? See my e-guides to the Teton Crest Trail
and the short backpacking trip described in this story.

I’ve backpacked and dayhiked this popular loop and parts of it on longer trips several times. In a park that arguably ranks among the top five for backpackers, the 19.7-mile loop linking up Paintbrush and Cascade canyons from String Lake is the best beginner-friendly introduction to backpacking the Tetons for the scenery, relatively short distance, and good trails and campsites.

But that doesn’t mean the scenery or experience are second-rate; this hike’s as outstanding as any other in the park, a very worthy weekend trip for new and experienced backpackers or a fun, scenic, big day for fit hikers and trail runners.

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A moose along the Teton Crest Trail, North Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.
A moose along the Teton Crest Trail in the North Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park. Click photo for my expert e-guide to the Teton Crest Trail.

As we hiked down Cascade Canyon on our last morning, we stopped to watch two bull moose grazing not far off the trail. The kids loved the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake, craning our necks up at the peaks above us. We celebrated with ice cream afterward. And we didn’t lose any stuffed animals.

All in all, it was a win. My kids are young adults now and probably don’t remember much about this hike. But I look back on it as an important step toward molding them into the avid, seasoned backpackers they are today.

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See “5 Perfect National Park Backpacking Trips for Beginners” and all of my stories about Grand Teton National Park, including this feature story about my family’s backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail when our kids were a little older, and my stories “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail” and “8 Great Big Dayhikes in the Tetons.”

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6 thoughts on “The Best Short Backpacking Trip in Grand Teton National Park”

  1. Hi, Michael,
    Thanks for all your awesome articles on here. I love your E-guides! We have permits to hike the TCT with my sister and our kids this year — my youngest is 9 — got permits for Middle/South fork Granite Canyon, Death Canyon, one night in Alaska Basin, then South Fork Cascade (going out Cascade Canyon). Was planning on taking the tram but just found out the TRAM IS CLOSED all summer!! Are there other feasible ways to get to where we need to be? Granite Canyon looks like a long steep climb for our first day, with heavy packs, coming from low altitude New Hampshire. I want to make sure its fun and doable for the kids, not a death march. Welcome any ideas you have! Should we just postpone until next year? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Hi Amy,

      Thanks for the question and kind words about my e-guides. I have plans to create and publish more of them, so keep an eye out for them. I’ve also recently created some e-guide bundles, so you can buy more than one at a discount off the individual prices.

      Bummer that the tram is closed, that is a popular approach to the Teton Crest Trail for backpackers. If your kids can manage a first day of 8-9 miles (depending on where you stop to camp), Granite Canyon is pretty, has water, and mostly rises gradually uphill. You’ll finish with a bit of steeper uphill to reach the Middle/South Fork Granite camping zone, but with an early start, enough rest breaks for eating and drinking, it may not be as bad as you think. The early start also gets you on the trail in cooler temps, and the heat can be more tiring. That camping zone is in the mid-8,000 feet elevation range, which can make you feel a bit short of breath but doesn’t usually affect most people too badly.

      Granite Canyon Trailhead is the most direct approach to that camping zone. If you’re on Death Canyon Shelf on your second night, then day two’s hiking will be shorter and easier. If you are in Death Canyon on your second night, that will involve a significant downhill and then climbing back uphill on day three.

      I’ve always found it helps to talk to my kids prior to a trip, let them understand how challenging any of the days will be, and get their buy-in, and they’ve often risen to a challenge and been proud that they could surmount it.

      If you’d like me to take a deep dive into helping you figure out the best itinerary plan for this trip, check out my Custom Trip Planning page.

      Good luck and have a great trip in the Tetons! You really are going to a beautiful area of the park that’s not as busy as some areas.

      Reply
  2. HI Michael!
    Thank you for all the information you have provided on GTNP. We are arriving there on July 27 and hiking along the Crest trail for 4 days/3 nights. We are starting at Granite Canyon and finishing down Cascade. I am wondering what you think the snow will be like this year?

    Thanks for any advice!

    Clarissa

    Reply
    • Hi Clarissa,

      Good question, because there was a large snowpack this past winter and spring. In fact, I just saw photos that friends of mine took while backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in the first days of July this year. As I had figured, the ground was bare in the canyon bottoms, but almost entirely snow-covered above around 8,500 feet, which means much of the route from upper Granite Canyon to Death Canyon Shelf, Alaska Basin, Hurricane Pass, and upper South Fork Cascade Canyon, plus the upper North Fork Cascade, Paintbrush Divide, and upper Paintbrush Canyon.

      However, by the end of July, I expect you’ll see much of that snow gone, and I doubt you’ll have any problems with snow impeding your trip. I’m backpacking the TCT again at the end of August and very excited about it, too.

      Thanks for the comment. Have a great trip!

      Michael

      Reply
  3. Mike,

    Are there any taxi/Uber options to get from town to Death Canyon Trailhead and from Leigh Lake Trailhead to town?

    Thanks in advance.

    Reply