April 1, 2013 by Deborah W. Trotter
We were there. We were fit. We were eager. And we did it! End of story? Well. Not exactly.
It was a clear July morning in 2001 when our family of six set out on the longest, most challenging hike we had ever attempted: up Paintbrush Canyon, over 10,000 foot Paintbrush Divide, and down Cascade Canyon, back to our starting point. Our youngest child was 9, our oldest 15. We got up early, stoked our bodies with a hearty breakfast, and drove from where we were staying at the Jackson Lake Lodge to the Paintbrush Canyon trailhead near the String Lake parking lot.
On the trail by 9:15 (in hindsight, not early enough), we were still uncertain whether all of us would be attempting the entire 19 miles; our 9-year-old and I had contemplated possibly turning back at an appropriate point and returning to the car to wait or come back later for the others.But as we hiked through tree-shaded glens and blooming meadows, stepping over small streams tinkling across the trail, steadily upwards into Paintbrush Canyon, we were energized and inspired and soon decided that we could indeed go the distance. And it’s a good thing we all decided to stay together.
The beauty of the canyon as we climbed into the heart of the Teton Range made us less aware of the hike becoming tougher, the trail rockier, more exposed.
Eventually, we stopped to eat our box lunches under what appeared to be the last trees below the Divide at about 8,500 feet. The food was good – everything somehow tastes better at high altitude – but I already knew we should have brought more water than we did.
The push up the last 1,500 feet to the top turned into a torturous slog.
The trail was surfaced with coarse chunks of rock. In a few places patches of snow made the footing more treacherous, and a stiff wind challenged forward progress. Finally, we all made it to Paintbrush Divide (I will say that none of our children was the weakest link here!).
Massive mountains surrounded us up there, and views were spectacular in every direction. The Grand Teton was to the south, and Idaho to the west. I really felt as if I were part of the grandeur.
Pretty soon reality set in. It was almost 4:00, and we still had many miles to go. In hindsight, returning the way we had come might have been the wiser course, but we wanted to do what we had set out to do. And it would all be downhill!
The scenery was breathtaking as we continued, the Tetons towering behind us, Indian paintbrush and other wildflowers coloring the hillside.
We made our way down toward Lake Solitude, tantalizing in the distance, a ladle full of deep blue liquid, buried in the hanging valley above Cascade Canyon.
By the time we got to Lake Solitude it was after 5:30. Feet were hurting, thirst was becoming a concern as our water was almost gone, and we realized we would have to set a blistering pace if we had any hope of getting back before dark. The thought of still being on the trail after sundown was scary since we had not brought any flashlights.
Our hike down Cascade Canyon was a bit of a blur. Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving. No time to enjoy the beauty of the canyon, no time to stop for photos that wouldn’t have come out well anyway in the deepening shadows. Almost 7 miles later we arrived at Inspiration Point overlooking a darkened Jenny Lake. The sun was down behind us, but still illuminating the plains to the east in fading evening light.
Still more than 2 and a half miles to go, and from then on it was just do it and get this over with! The trail along Jenny Lake was broad and flat, and our sole goal was to beat darkness back to our car. We didn’t quite succeed at that, and the last mile of trail through a past burn area was a creepy trek alongside dozens of blackened stumps that in our tired and thirsty state became bears, quietly watching us and waiting to git us!
Actual grazing deer and elk weren’t bothered by our passing, although nocturnal birds, invisible but vocal, came out to scold us. Finally, in the near dark we made out the foot bridge ahead of us across the outlet from String Lake (which connects Jenny and Leigh Lakes) and knew we were almost back. We all tagged up at our car, alone in the parking lot, at 9:30.
A twelve hour day, 19.2 miles with a 4,000 feet elevation gain, a triumph for all of us. Lessons learned, but no do-over necessary. Thank you Grand Teton National Park for our family’s most memorable hiking experience.