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 the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer 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.

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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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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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