Enjoy some of the most spectacular scenery that Grand Teton National Park has to offer by taking a hike up Paintbrush Canyon! This grueling trail takes you through a stunning pine forest and beautiful meadows of wildflowers, past a gorgeous waterfall to a stunning alpine lake, and then to the top of a mountain pass with incredible views of the Teton Range.
It is hard to pick a favorite trail in Grand Teton so I’m not even going to try….but this one is near the top of my list. I have hiked this trail several times and am always speechless because of the rugged and raw majesty of these mountains. Making it to the top of the Paintbrush Divide never gets old…partly because of how much work it is to get there, but mostly because of how breathtakingly beautiful it is.
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My goal with this trail report is to give you the confidence and information you will need to complete this hike. Follow along with me as I take you on the trail up Paintbrush Canyon!
What You Need to Know
The hike up Paintbrush Canyon begins at String Lake, with two different trailheads to choose from. You can park at the String Lake Trailhead and hike around the backside of the lake, or you can park at the Leigh Lake Trailhead (just up the road) and hike next to String Lake for nearly a mile before the trail starts heading into the canyon.
I prefer to start from the Leigh Lake Trailhead so that I can enjoy the views of String Lake longer! Get an early start so that you can find a parking space…this area is busy!
This trail is strenuous. The only relatively flat parts of the trail are at the very beginning near String Lake and then again after a short uphill ascent to reach the mouth of Paintbrush Canyon. The lower section of the Canyon winds through a fragrant pine forest and is mostly shaded. Be on the lookout for huckleberry bushes along the way (although you should never eat a berry that you can’t identify!).
After the pine forest, the climb begins! This trail gains 2600 feet of elevation in the 4.9 miles to Holly Lake (near the end of the Canyon). Take your time and enjoy the views…it is a truly spectacular hike to some of the most beautiful mountain alpine landscapes you will ever experience. We were jumping for joy because of its beauty! (Cheesy, I know).
The trail follows the rushing river most of the way. I love the view of this enormous and stunning waterfall during the hike across a small boulder field. Ankles beware! Take your time through this section to avoid injury.
The views down into the valley below are phenomenal! After a particularly strenuous stretch of trail, it is very rewarding to look back and see how far you’ve come. The lakes in the distance are Leigh Lake and Jackson Lake. It is not uncommon for the air to be hazy in Grand Teton late into the summer months because of nearby forest fires.
From the top of the ridge, you have nearly made it to Holly Lake! This lake is a spectacular destination and is a great turning around point if you are not planning on continuing up the Paintbrush Divide. Be sure to stop, rest, drink plenty of water, and eat some good hearty snacks to reward your body for being so awesome!
Holly Lake is a stunning and crystal clear alpine lake that provides incredible views of the surrounding mountains. Watch for pikas and marmots on the rocks that line the shore…I saw several of each!
From Holly Lake, it is time to make a decision. Are you going to continue on to the notorious Paintbrush Divide? Hiking to the Divide adds another 1.5 miles one way and 1300 feet of elevation gain to your already strenuous hike. How does the weather look? If there are thunderstorms possible, you definitely do not want to be on top of the 10,720 foot Paintbrush Divide! Do you feel like you can tackle a steep climb up a talus slope and possibly several snowfields?
If the conditions are right, I say GO FOR IT!!! I have climbed the Paintbrush Divide several times and each time is a crazy rush of adrenaline! The views along the way are unparalleled and making it to the top deserves major bragging rights. Not to mention, in my humble opinion this is one of the most spectacular stretches of trail in any National Park!
If you have decided to continue on to the top from Holly Lake, you will climb another ridge overlooking Paintbrush Canyon below.
As you continue to climb, you will get your first peek of the Grand Teton from the trail!
Traveling up the trail, it is not uncommon to hit snow. This picture was taken at the beginning of August, so as you can see there is a good possibility that the snow will exist all summer long. My biggest piece of advice before attempting this trail is to check the Jenny Lake Climbing Ranger’s Trail Condition Blog. These rangers are amazing to hit the backcountry trails and assess the conditions for all of us. Based on their recommendations, I knew that there would be snow but that we would not need ice axes to cross it. Trekking poles were a huge help for stabilizing myself on this part of the trail as well. I would be lying if I said that this section didn’t scare me just a bit!
The picture below provides a great representation of the trail to the top of the Paintbrush Divide. This part of your hike is on an incredible rocky pathway that cuts into the steep mountain slopes. The elevation is too high for trees to grow! From here you will feel exposed to the elements, which is why I would never recommend hiking up to the top during a thunderstorm.
The views from the top are AMAZING! BREATHTAKING! MIND-BLOWING! I love the feeling of being on top of the world and looking down on what I just climbed. Enjoy the gorgeous 360 degree vistas from the top of the Paintbrush Divide!
Now, I have one last insider tip. If time allows, continue along the trail past the Divide for a few minutes. Before you begin the rocky descent into Cascade Canyon, you will come upon a charming meadow with a small snow-fed stream and some of the most spectacular views of the Teton Range that you will ever see!
The Paintbrush Canyon Trail is 16 miles roundtrip from the beginning of the trail to the top of the Paintbrush Divide. For a shortened version, consider hiking to Holly Lake which is 13 miles roundtrip, or hiking in for just a few miles and then turning around when you want! This trail is beautiful even if you don’t hike to the very end.
Going up the Paintbrush Divide from the Paintbrush Canyon side is easier than coming back down. If you have the time and energy, consider looping this trail by going up Paintbrush Canyon and down Cascade Canyon. A trail report of Cascade Canyon (and connecting the two trails) is coming to Dirt In My Shoes soon!
From Jackson, head north on US-191 until you get to the Moose Junction. Take a left at the junction, pay the entrance fee at the entrance station, and then continue on for 10 miles until you see the road to North Jenny Lake on your left. Turn here and take a right at the stop sign to follow the road to the String Lake area.
The String Lake Trailhead is the first parking lot you will see. If you want to take my recommendation and start at the Leigh Lake Trailhead, continue driving to the parking lot at the end of the road. After parking, walk past the bathrooms to find the trailhead marker on your right. This trail will take you toward Leigh Lake, but will branch off to your left and cross a bridge to take you up Paintbrush Canyon.