Sunday, February 27, 2011

Trip Report: Tetons - Paintbrush Divide & Cascade Canyon Loop

Sunset from our campsite situated in front of the cathedral group
Over a year ago I went on the best hike of my life to-date. What, you may ask, actually defines a hike as being "the best"? Pristine scenery, prime weather, great company, and the list goes on and on. In saying this, I must admit that anything I try to explain in this post will fall short of doing justice - hopefully the photos will help though.

Two years before planning this trip, I slowly began saving up for my backpacking equipment. About a year before, I started donating plasma once or twice a week for the sole purpose of purchasing everything I would need for such backpacking trips. Once I saw this suggested hike in Backpacker Magazine, I wanted it to be the first hike to test out all of my equipment, and to finally start my backpacking adventures.

Holly Lake - where we stopped for lunch, and had a failed fly-fishing attempt 
My friend Geoff and I planned the trip a couple of months in advance, and felt that the month of September would be much cooler than July, but we were a little worried that we would be hit by an intense early winter storm - which are known to hit the Tetons as early as the end of August, or first part of September. Geoff and I slept at his place in Rexburgh, ID the night before, and then had an early start the next morning.
Second photo taken during the trip - LOVE when the scenery makes
every photo look as though it has been edited
By the time we hit the trailhead it was already 9:00 in the morning; not too early of a start when faced with a 12 mile hike which included a nearly 4,000 foot climb in elevation. Backcountry hiking in the Tetons means you are obligated to pay for a backcountry permit, and to leave a deposit on a bear canister (yep, for blacks, and even potential grizzlies:) Although the parking lot had plenty of cars, we didn't see anyone until we hit the trail. From the time we left our car at the trailhead to the time we returned we probably came across 50+ hikers.

The hike on the first day was brutal. This was the first time that I had ever carried 40+ pounds of equipment on my back, let alone the first time I did so while hiking up the side of a mountain. Although I fared well the first half of the day, taking a break for lunch (and a poor attempt at fly fishing) was just enough for my body to decide that it didn't like the heat, didn't like the extra load, and didn't like the gain in elevation. I didn't realize it at the time, but looking back on it, I can see that my labored breathing, mild headache, and extreme fatigue = heat exhaustion. This came at the worst possible time (as if there is ever a good time for heat exhaustion), as we had just begun the final push to the divide and crossed through snow and climbed up a slippery field of shale rock.

Looking into the valley where we camped
Once over the divide, it was all downhill. I filled our water supply from a small spring at 10,700 feet, and although I didn't need to, I used this opportunity to try out my new MSR filter. Pretty sure I've never tasted anything so good. The satisfaction of finally completing an intense climb to the divide only made the freezing water that much more divine. From the divide down to our campsite we had an amazing view of the cathedral group.

The best part of this trip was, by far, the fact that our campsite had a perfect view of the cathedral group that makes up the breathtaking skyline so many are familiar with. We were all alone at our campsite, which only added that much more to this amazing experience. Arriving just before a magnificent sunset almost felt as though the Tetons were welcoming us after a long, strenuous climb.

The hike back to our car the next morning felt like it took no time at all. It is natural to want to hike twice as fast as you normally would since you have gravity on your side. Since this hike, I have read that hiking downhill is twice as hard on your body, and you actually cause more strain on your muscles and joints. For these reasons, you should stop just as often as you normally would when going uphill. My body definitely felt the consequences of hiking downhill so fast once we made it back to the car.

Saying farewell to the Tetons
In closing, I have to say that it is hard to imagine experiencing another backpacking trip quite as impressionable as this trip was. Geoff and I have said repeatedly that this trip has spoiled us. It will be very difficult to experience something as magnificent as this trip was.

Up Paintbrush, camped at Solitude Lake,  and then down Cascade

One of my favorite parts of this trip occurred when driving back home to Provo. I called one of my best friends to tell him about the amazing time I had, and told him that I would love to come do it again when he would be able to join me. Assuming that he would see that being my willingness to drive such a long distance again for this same exact trip would be an indicator of how great the trip really was, he instead said, "it sounds like a long way to drive just for a hike...". This took me back for a second, but I laughed it off, and promptly sent a text to Geoff, relaying the message. I realized after this conversation that backpacking is not for your regular day-hiker, and that it really does take a higher level of commitment to plan such a trip, carry it out, and actually enjoy it. I was reminded once again how lucky I am to have a friend who shares my desire and passion to be in the outdoors.

Best trip EVER!!!!


  1. great post, lets get to planning this summer's trip in the tetons. I have a trail all planned out that fizzled last fall, only I have modified it so as not to be such a killer.

  2. Awesome trip report. I did the same loop in 2011, and camped in the upper paintbrush zone. Never forget it.