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The Best Short Backpacking Trip in Grand Teton National Park

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 loop up Paintbrush Canyon and down Cascade Canyon from String Lake: 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.

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The Grand Teton bathed in evening light above the North Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.
The Grand Teton bathed in evening light above the North Fork Cascade Canyon.

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 in July and 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.

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and the short backpacking trip described in this story.


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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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Moose in Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.
Moose in Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.

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 got to take the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake (a friend with us on the trip hiked the last mile or so to retrieve the car at the String Lake Trailhead). We celebrated with ice cream afterward. And we didn’t lose any stuffed animals.

All in all, it was a win. My kids are teenagers 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.

Tell me what you think.

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See my story “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 “American Classic: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” and “Ask Me: 8 Great Big Dayhikes in the Tetons.”

You can also see a menu of stories by scrolling down to Grand Teton on my All National Park Trips page at The Big Outside.

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About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor and primary gear reviewer for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    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
    • Michael Lanza

      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
  2. Avatar

    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
    • Michael Lanza

      Hi Khozem,

      Last I checked, shuttle service to various points in Grand Teton National Park was provided by jacksonholealltrans.com. I haven’t used Uber or Lyft specifically in Jackson Hole or GTNP, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you can use them there.

      Good luck.

      Reply

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