Hiking: 19.8 mi / 4000 ft. climbing
Home: Jenny Lake Campground hiker/biker site
Last night the sun painted the sky behind the mountains orange. This morning it painted the mountains themselves in nearly the same color. Quite a place to wake up!
In our 2021 visit, we did a hike from Taggart Lake northward largely along the face of the Tetons, ending at Jenny Lake and turning around for a 13-mile loop, at that point a record for the longest hike we had ever done. When I was doing research on other hiking possibilities, I was slightly surprised to learn that you could actually hike west into the mountains, because they appear to form such an impenetrable wall. Cascade Canyon and Paintbrush Canyon are two of those penetrations, and doing a hike like that perpendicular to our previous experience seemed like the obvious choice, but the problem was choosing which one to do, because we probably could only fit one day of long-hiking into our schedule.
Well, there was a way where we wouldn’t have to choose, but it was insane: the two canyons could be connected, high and deep into the mountains over Paintbrush Divide, creating a 20-mile loop. I didn’t think it would be wise for us to attempt such a thing, and was reluctant to even present the idea to Rett, since I knew it would be difficult to put that genie back in the bottle once I spoke it into existence. But I figured she might find out about it anyway and then be mad. So yeah, that means we’re going to try to do a 20 mile hike. Apparently Teton National Park is the place for us to come to set hiking records. And we would even need to add 6 miles of bike riding, to get us to and from the trailhead at String Lake.
The first stretch on foot was actually quite reminiscent of our 2021 hike with family, because we needed to cut north along the base of the mountains before we could find the gap and make a left turn into Paintbrush Canyon. It was a pleasant forest walk, but more exciting (er, “scary”) was the helicopter overhead making multiple in-and-out rescue runs as we hiked in. This was after I had seen it fly in and out twice at dusk last night over Jenny Lake. Were they retrieving more (now-hypothermic) members of the same stranded party this morning after darkness forced them to halt their runs last night? Or were these completely new people who had already gotten themselves in trouble by 9 in the morning?
Either way it made me think that maybe we should have consulted the ranger station before doing this hike, as the guide recommends. It says snow cover may require the use of ice axes into July. I figured well into August there was no way that could still be a risk, but maybe that’s what all these people getting unexpected helicopter rides also assumed? A guy and his teenage kids coming the other way had packs showing that they had overnighted out here, so I asked if they had any knowledge about the rescues (like maybe they were part of the same party but able to walk out on their own power?) He said no, but said “there are a lot of unprepared idiots out here, and we just saw three more of them heading up”. Hmm…is he going to tell the next group that he’s now seen five unprepared idiots heading up? We like to think we’re fairly well-prepared, but our bike-based setup means that we visually look a bit weird, and it does limit our capability somewhat. Well, we’ll take that as a reminder to turn around at the slightest difficulty, rather than pushing through and hoping for conditions to improve.
Eventually the forest opened up, and we began to see new mountains that aren’t visible unless you’ve punched through the front wall. The gradual incline also increased the deeper we delved. We passed by a couple of small lakes and other small offshoots that were tempting to explore, but we stayed strictly disciplined, not taking a single unnecessary step off the main trail, because each step becomes two steps, and adding even two steps to our required 20 miles could be enough to prevent us from making it back.
After lunch the mountains began hemming in Paintbrush Canyon from all sides and we hit the real wall we needed to get over. The talus slope looked nearly vertical, and although I could see people high above us, it seemed impossible that we would ever reach the same point. And, uh oh, now we needed to do about 30 steps across the first steep-angled snowfield, but enough boots before us had cut in a flat section that we got across without much terror, as long as we also took each step intentionally. Shortly after we saw a group who had just come over the divide looping in the opposite direction, and they said there wasn’t any more snow ahead for us. Phew! I guess that rescue helicopter must have been flying somewhere else. From there we just kept huffing and puffing up the switchbacks, and while I’m glad that we won’t need to walk back down that steep rocky path (especially without poles), the route up was easier than it appeared from afar.
We celebrated at the top with a Canadian couple (who thought we were also Canadian due to the maple leaf on my Quebec-made Arkel backpack-pannier), but then since it was chilly and the new view to the west revealed some ominous-looking clouds, we started down the other side as quickly as possible.
The switchbacks down the other side were longer and more gradual, though still quite rocky, and one of the rocks jumped up and bit Rett hard on the ankle. Oh, don’t worry, just 10 more miles to go on a stinging ankle, no problem! Paintbrush Canyon was pretty awesome, but Cascade Canyon was even better, so combining that with the differing slopes means that our counterclockwise loop definitely felt like the better way to go.
The “normal”, non-insane way to explore both of these trails as a loop is to do it as a multi-day backpacking trip, and we passed many designated backpacker campsites along the way, along with plenty of overnight backpackers on the trail. After seeing mostly CDT through-hikers this summer, it’s counterintuitive to see what now look to us to be enormous backpacks for just one or two nights, compared to tiny packs the CDT guys carry to get them through months! Given the world-class setting that many of the campsites are in (here I thought our frontcountry Jenny Lake campsite was incredible!), doing it as a two or three day trip certainly seems like a better choice, but even if we had the time, we unfortunately don’t really have the ability to carry overnight equipment with us on our backs. It felt like the overnighters and in-and-outers both outnumbered us loopers, which makes sense, but there were also a surprising number of people who seemed to be doing an out-and-back to Lake Solitude (or close to it), which is still a 14 or 16 mile hike!
Near the end of the canyon we ran into a big crowd stopped on the trail. They waved us through and as we went by I saw a girl with her ankle being wrapped in a cast, and a stretcher had been carried up to get her home. I don’t think they needed a helicopter for this one, but it’s certainly a reminder of the less-dramatic risks that come with every step out here.
Exiting the canyon mouth with the fewest possible steps took us down a steep forested dirt horse trail, and finally rain started falling, so with the girl in mind we made our way as quickly down as care would allow. We’d made it down from the completely-exposed 10000 ft. level without lightning from the threatening clouds up there zapping us off the mountain, so let’s not have these new storm clouds (looking quite intense on the radar) do us in.
Well, the Tetons somehow dried up all the rain from those cells (or divided them around us, because Colter Bay did get dumped on), because we barely got wet, and then were mostly getting hot and annoyed as we trudged with our rain jackets on along the west shore of Jenny Lake. So the home stretch was definitely an exhausting slog, but we made it! 20 miles! Six miles short of a marathon, but the 4000 feet of climbing and rough surface surely made it a marathon’s worth of effort. And we could still even move our body parts well enough to ride our bikes the few miles back to camp!