Our fourth day on the Teton Crest Trail was another epically long day due to poor planning on my part. It would be an 11-mile journey with 2,925’ of seemingly unrelenting elevation gain while hiking Paintbrush Divide. While our second day of backpacking the Teton Crest Trail was technically our longest, today would be the roughest as it had slightly more elevation. It all came on one long slog while hiking Paintbrush Divide.
This post is all about our experience on the 4th day of backpacking the Teton Crest Trail. If you missed the first day, second day, or third day get caught up before reading on. If you are wanting details for planning your own trip check out the Teton Crest Trail Guide.
Day 4 on the TCT – Hiking Paintbrush Divide
After a rough night’s sleep from worries related to the unrelenting wind, we arose early and tired. Despite being tired we were excited to continue our journey on the Teton Crest Trail. Our next challenge? Hiking Paintbrush Divide. From our campsite, in the middle of the Cascade South Fork camping zone, we continued our descent down the canyon. The trail follows the flow of the creek on its way towards Jenny Lake. Through the middle section of the camping zone the path and creek have a moderate descent and it is a tranquil walk through the woods for almost 2 miles.
Waterfall in the Shadow of the Grand
At about 2 miles there is a huge waterfall located on the right careening down Grand Teton Peak. It is beautiful! There are several nice established campsites in this area that provide great views of the wonder. It is on the north side of the mountain so it is almost always in shadow.
A Steep Descent
Below this waterfall, the path and creek steepen their descents and drop 700’ in just over a mile. The path is well maintained and grated so it never felt overly steep. It is a nice stroll with the ever-present sound of water crashing down the canyon.
Cascade Canyon Junction
At 3.5 miles on the day (29 miles from Phillip’s Pass TH) we came to the juncture for the North Fork Cascade section of the Teton Crest Trail. The Cascade Canyon Trail continues east towards Jenny & String Lakes. The parking lot where our truck was parked was a mere 6 miles away if we had taken that direction. However, the Teton Crest Trail over Paintbrush Divide meant we still had nearly 15 amazingly beautiful but tough miles ahead of us.
An Option to Bail
The Cascade Canyon Trail is the bail point if the weather were to turn bad. So before proceeding, we asked one of the groups milling about for an updated weather report as there is no cell service on the TCT. It had been 4 days since our last report. When we set out on the journey, this day and the next had a slim chance of bad weather and we needed an update. The gentleman in the group said the weather was supposed to remain very nice and warm throughout the day. It was in the 80s and it felt amazing. He then informed us in an half-hazard gesture that it would be snowing tomorrow and chuckled. Obviously a funny joke in such warm weather in late August. We took the left up the North Fork Cascade towards Lake Solitude.
The North Fork Cascade
The climb to Lake Solitude is seemingly straight up the North Fork Cascade canyon regaining nearly 1,200’ in less than 3 miles. We started the journey in a thick forest that quickly fell away and soon found ourselves in a wildflower-covered meadow following the flow of the creek and looking for moose. Others on the trail had spotted two moose but we never saw either. The north canyon is beautiful and one of our favorite sections of the Teton Crest Trail. There is an especially beautiful scene where the trail crosses over a well-placed and picturesque bridge.
4th Recommended Campsite – Cascade North Fork Zone
As the trail nears Lake Solitude it leaves the permitted camping zone and then steepens as it climbs up and over a waterfall which is the outflow of the lake. The last established campsite in the Cascade North Fork camping zone is right on the edge of the camping border (there is a sign) and is located about a 1/4 of a mile before the lake. This would make for a great campsite and is our recommendation for the 4th night’s destination.
This lake, Lake Solitude, (9,035’) has very little solace. We arrived on a Sunday and it was packed with people which was a surprise to us as it is more than a 7-mile hike (one-way) from the ferry dock on Jenny Lake, much less any of the parking lots. These large crowds are no doubt the reason why camping is no longer permitted at the lake. We joined the crowd and found a spot on a rock to have lunch.
The lake while beautiful is not the most picturesque site on the Teton Crest Trail. It sits in an alpine bowl with nearly vertical cliff walls rising up on three sides. Looking up at the mountainsides from the shore of Lake Solitude we wondered where the path ahead would cross over the ridge above. The wind was still howling so lunch was a bit cold even on this warm day.
The End of the Teton Crest Trail
The Teton Crest Trail technically ends at Lake Solitude but almost everyone who hikes this epic journey across the Tetons takes on the challenge of hiking Paintbrush Divide. It is in no way an easy journey but it is one full of epic beauty and should not be bypassed unless inclement weather rolls in.
Hiking Paintbrush Divide
The path leaving Lake Solitude skirts the east side of the lake before turning east at the northeastern corner. As we made the turn to the east we could see the path clinging to the mountains as it climbed along the northern wall of the Cascade North Fork canyon which we had traversed earlier in the day. From this vantage point, nearly a mile of the trail up Paintbrush Divide can be seen and it is intimidating. However, when you reach the end of that mile there is still more than a mile worth of climbing yet to go.
The 13,770’ tall Grand Teton Peak sits at the mouth of the Cascade North Fork canyon. As we climbed the path back in a southeastern direction the view of the tallest peak in the Teton Range increased in its sheer beauty. This grueling climb has perhaps the best views of the iconic mountain peak.
On the first switchback, I noticed a magnificent alpine lake (Mica Lake) sitting in a bowl to the southwest across the canyon. It looked incredibly high perched far above Lake Solitude and our current position on the trail. Before we reached the second switchback we were looking down on Mica Lake.
Paintbrush Divide Switchbacks
Hiking Paintbrush Divide passes through three incredibly long switchbacks. The first of which is a mile long. Then the second is a false divide 450’ lower than the real Paintbrush Divide. Arriving at the false divide we thought for sure we had reached our destination but the incline continued across the saddle and we continued our climb.
The Final Push Hiking Paintbrush Divide
Reaching the third switchback we turned into a meadow and knew we had to be close to the top of the divide as the mountain peaks themselves weren’t much higher than our current position. This alpine meadow was still laden with snow in late August but the trail was mostly clear. The 10,700’ high Paintbrush Divide is located a little over 2.5 miles from Lake Solitude (34.5 miles from Phillip’s Pass TH) but sits nearly 1,700’ higher. Despite the massive gain in elevation the trail is graded extremely well and is never overly steep or exposed. We can’t say the same for the trail on the east side of the divide.
The Paintbrush Divide
Our view from the divide to the west is of the meadow and is less than stellar. The last great views of the Grand Teton and the Cascade North Fork Canyon are found at the third switchback. Views to the east from the divide overlooking Paintbrush Canyon and Leigh Canyon are unbelievably gorgeous. From this vantage point the peaks of the northeastern Teton Range reign with Mount Woodring (11,595’) taking center stage. The split Grizzly Lakes sit in the bowl directly below the divide.
While I prefer the views from Hurricane Pass and Avalanche Divide, Paintbrush Divide would be a destination worthy of this entire 43.5-mile journey. We quickly took in the views as best we could in the now howling and frigidly cold winds. At the time, it seemed as if the wind had taken on a malicious mission to dislodge us and send us over the edge.
The Descent – Hiking Paintbrush Divide
From Paintbrush Pass the trail down into the Upper Paintbrush Canyon is intimidating as it skirts an extremely narrow ledge on the peak to the north (you can see it on the left in the image above). The next quarter of a mile the trail drops 200’ along an exposed and crumbling scree path. This is by far the most dangerous section of the entire journey on the Teton Crest Trail. It would be challenging enough as a hike let alone with a heavy backpack full of gear. We cautiously and slowly made our way down the scree trail.
A Snow Obstacle
The trail beyond this initial quarter of a mile continues to be over loose terrain for an additional half mile but the sheer exposure to a swift drop and certain death dissipates. About a mile from Paintbrush Divide we crossed over the only real snowpack (on the trail) of our journey. The boot path across was well stomped into the snow and was an easy traverse. Had we been here earlier in the season microspikes might have been needed as a slide down the snowpack would have been a long one.
Upper Paintbrush Camping Zone
Shortly after the snowpack, we enter the Upper Paintbrush Camping Zone. This area is beautiful as it sits in an alpine basin dotted with small lakes connected by streams and tributaries that all flow into Paintbrush Creek. About 1.5 miles beyond Paintbrush Divide we find the spur trail to Holly Lake and quickly descend the final 225’ down to the lakeshore.
Holly Lake (9,410’) sits in a deep bowl on the south side of Mount Woodring (left in the image above). While it is a pretty lake I would recommend sticking to the main trail unless you have a camping reservation for Holly Lake. There are four campsites located less than a quarter of a mile east of the lake. They are clustered together tightly. It isn’t a spot we would recommend even though we had a very interesting time there.
Holly Lake Campsites
After 11 miles of hiking (almost 36.5 miles from Phillip’s Pass TH), we crawled into the Holly Lake Camping area and threw down our packs. The trail leads directly to site #2 which was occupied upon our arrival. A voice came from within the tent informing us sites #1 and #4 were still available. I went to check out site #4 which was located deeper into the woods with more privacy and shelter from the wind. Sadly the ground was extremely uneven so we settled for the more exposed but far flatter site #1. This would end up being a rather serendipitous decision.
An Intruder in Camp
After setting up our campsite we set about filtering water and preparing dinner. We had no more sat down on a log to start consuming our freshly rehydrated freeze-dried meal when our neighbor from site #2 came running by saying, “Oh, good. I’m glad you aren’t in site #4. I just spotted a bear coming from that direction.” Immediately, I asked Jennifer to get the bear spray and guard our dinner. I took the camera to investigate the intruder. The black bear looked very healthy and well-fed. While she crossed directly through the small cluster of campsites she had no interest in any of us or our food. She immediately made her way to the boulder field behind Holly Lake and before long she was out of sight.
Was it a Joke?
The Holly Lake campsites are the only ones we stayed at on the entire journey that had a dedicated bear box. Even though we had our food in a bear canister we slept better for having put what was left of our food inside the provided box. As it was getting dark and the mercury was dropping we climbed into our tent exhausted and wondered if the person who had half-jokingly warned us of snow had been joking at all.