Hike Paintbrush Canyon to Holly Lake

Paintbrush Canyon Trailhead

A strenuous 14-mile out and back hike to a high altitude lake on the slopes of an 11,500-foot peak. It is called Paintbrush Canyon for a reason, Indian Paintbrushes and tens of thousands of wildflowers follow the path to the top. 

This day-long adventure takes off from the Paintbrush Canyon Trailhead. The trailhead is located north of the very popular Jenny Lake along String Lake Rd. It took us about 7 and half hours including an hour lunch break to hike up and down from about 6,900 feet to 9,300 feet, an early start is definitely recommended.

Once at the trailhead you will walk down a paved path for about 300 feet where you will see a footbridge to your right. Take the footbridge across the creek to the western side of String Lake. About a third of a mile in, you will reach a split in the trail, stay right to continue along the western shore of String Lake. If in doubt, look for a trail sign that points you in the “right” direction.

The next 1.3 miles take you along the ridge of the lake through aspen groves. As you gain elevation you will also begin to see beautiful panoramas of the valley lakes below.

About 1.6 miles into your adventure you will reach another trail split. This time stay left to continue onto the Paintbrush Canyon Trail. Enjoy the shade of through this part of the trail, soon you will reach Paintbrush Canyon and will be bathed by the sun.

As you reach the mouth of the canyon, 3 miles in, you will pass through a long stretch of Huckleberry bushes. Bears love huckleberries as much as we do or more. Make sure you make a lot of noise through this stretch of your hike and have your bear spray handy.

Around 4 miles into the trail you will cross Paintbrush Canyon Creek before emerging into the open terrain of the canyon. You will have great views of the canyon with its wildflowers as well as great vistas of the valley below. The rushing water of the creek should be a good indication that you have a somewhat strenuous adventure ahead of you.

As you hike up, the creek will remain on your left and mostly hidden by willows. This is a good place to spot a moose, although I haven’t been as lucky. If you are hiking in the early summer and the snowmelt is flowing, you should look for waterfalls on either side of the trail. This portion of the trail has significant elevation gain through boulder fields and is a strenuous part of the hike. Although not needed, hiking poles could be useful.

Between 6 and 6.5 miles into the hike you will reach Holly Lake Junction. Hikers should stay right towards Holly Lake. The trail to the left leads to Lake Solitude, but that’s another adventure.

Just after the junction the trail passes a small pond on the left. Don’t confuse this with Holly Lake or you might be disappointed. Continue for another half mile to the lake.

You finally made it! Holly Lake lies just below the slopes of the 11,590 foot Mt Woodring. You are most likely hungry and in need of a little rest. We veered right towards the eastern shore of the lake and sat on a boulder for our lunch break. I recommend taking this route, as the views are much better.

After refueling your mind and body start heading back down. It is worth noting that afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Tetons. Keep an eye on the sky, if it starts to look like thunderstorms, don’t hang around to find out.

A quick note: There can be significant snow pack well into July. We did this hike in late June and encountered some decent snowfields near the Holly Lake Junction. 

Pack List

  • Backpack
  • Water (I would take around 3 liters)
  • Bear Spray
  • Snacks & Lunch
  • Sunscreen
  • Hiking Poles (Optional)
  • Camera (Optional)
  • Good Attitude (it's a long hike!)
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RT Distance 14 Miles
Elevation Gain 2575 Feet
Activities Photography, Hiking
Skill Level Intermediate
Season Summer, Autumn
Trail Type Out-and-Back
Features
Easy Parking
Forest
Lake
River
Scenic
Waterfall
Wildflowers
Wildlife

Reviews

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Overall rating: 

A destination you've got to earn

Hiking from String Lake to Holly Lake is no joke. Fortunately Paintbrush Canyon is stunning, and the scenery will help distract you as you climb. Holly Lake is so peaceful, and would be an incredible place to camp if you manage to get a permit. I've been here in late July with a significant snowfield just beyond Holly Lake the prevented climbing up Paintbrush Divide without an ice axe, but I've also seen it in early August totally clear of snow.

This is such a beautiful hike that offers a plethora of incredible views and changing scenery throughout. You start below the Tetons near Leigh Lake and, as you ascend, you will pass by a great amount of wildlife, plant life, rushing rivers, and more. When we went, there was a moose hanging on the trail, but peacefully moved aside after some time. Once at Holly Lake, you can bask in the sunshine near the water and take a breather, but I definitely recommend exploring (or camping in) the Upper Paintbrush area as well!

You Can Also Camp

If you are looking for a backcountry trip this is also a great spot. Lower Paintbrush, about 3 miles in has a ton of sites. Later in the summer you can also hike at Holly Lake. Just remember to get a backcountry permit. https://www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/back.htm


Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

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