By: Marc Bowen
Hike to Holly Lake
- Trail location: Leigh Lake Trail
- Roundtrip length: 13 miles
- Trailhead elevation: 6875 feet
- Total elevation gain: 2575 feet
- Highest elevation: 9424 feet
- Trail difficulty: 18.15 (strenuous)
*above info provided by TetonHikingTrails.com
I left home this morning at 4:30 am so I would arrive at the trailhead by 6:30 am. The drive just before sunrise is beautiful as usual . I have been choosing to go to Jackson by way of Rexburg and Driggs in the early mornings to avoid animals on the road. The road over the mountain between Swan Valley and Victor, although a slightly shorter drive time, tends to have more animals on the road before daylight (in my experience). I do enjoy seeing wildlife, just not in my headlights on a winding mountain road in the ‘wee’ hours of the morning.
To get to the Paintbrush Canyon Trailhead I drove through the Moose Wyoming entrance on Teton Park Road, then turned left on Jenny Lake Road (which is a beautiful scenic loop drive by the way), then right on String Lake Road. I parked in the String Lake parking lot and then began hiking the Leigh Lake Trail.
For the first .8 miles the trail follows along the shores of String Lake and there are some great views of Mt. Moran along the way.
Mount Moran was very beautiful in the morning light. I have hiked this trail before on the way to Leigh Lake, Bear Paw and Trapper lakes. To read more about that hike please click the link Hiking the Leigh Lake Trail to Bear Paw & Trapper Lakes.
String Lake and Leigh Lake are connected by a short but wide stream. At this point in the hike there is a fork in the trail. Go right if you want to go to Leigh Lake and the Leigh Lake portage area or left across the foot bridge to the String Lake Loop trail and the Paintbrush Canyon trailhead.
Paintbrush Canyon Trailhead
After I crossed the foot bridge across the Leigh Lake outlet I followed the trail in a gradual climb through Lodgepole pine forests and then took a right fork in the trail at the Paintbrush Canyon Trailhead. Along this part of the trail I enjoyed brief views of Leigh Lake and the valley and hills to the east.
A little distance up the trail from the beautiful Leigh Lake views the trail began to turn toward Paintbrush Canyon and was almost overgrown with huckleberry plants in some places.
At this point I had a few glimpses of Mt. Moran through the trees to the right of the trail.
And Rockchuck Peak to the left of the trail.
In this area of the trail the huckleberry plants are huge . The plants were as high as my head in some places. No ripe berries on them yet that I noticed but a good place to make a lot of noise to avoid surprising a bear. I wasn’t stressing it because there were plenty of hikers ahead of me and behind me.
I could hear Paintbrush Canyon Creek long before I was able to see it. The water had a slight aqua tint to it making the falling water very nice to look at.
There are a few campsites in this area of Lower Paintbrush Canyon. Some are first-come-first-serve and some sites can be reserved.
(Above photo) Just off this part of the trail I saw that someone had their tent pitched facing down the canyon so that they would wake up to this view in the morning!
This bridge (above) was the second bridge I crossed at this point in my hike.
Directly to the left of the bridge is a beautiful little waterfall.
To the right of the bridge Paintbrush Canyon Creek streams off in the direction of Mount Moran.
Not too far after I crossed the bridge the canyon opens up for a short way and I noticed a lot of the trees here were leaning way over to my left, all in the same direction, or were completely broken off.
As I looked to my right I could see more damaged trees and tree stumps. In the above photo you can see all this and piles of snow. I’m assuming the snow is what’s left of an avalanche that came down the ravine and took out a lot of these trees.
By the way. The reason this canyon is called Paintbrush Canyon is because it is usually filled with wildflowers. Columbine and Indian Paintbrush are a very common site everywhere. Just not now. Too early probably. Maybe in a few more weeks.
The canyon then narrows and the trail follows the creek for several bends. As I stopped to take the above photo, 3 trail-runners (men) moved at good speed past me and up the canyon. I’m always amazed and impressed by people who run these trails. This trail is strenuous enough just walking. I can’t imagine running up it!
As the trail increased in altitude I noticed the stream began disappearing under snow fields and then reappearing again.
As the snow melts, the water rolls off these canyon walls and adds volume to the swift flowing Paintbrush Canyon Creek.
Some of the stream crossings require some ‘rock-hopping’. This is where I’m glad I use trekking poles. I can stabilize myself and prevent myself from falling when stepping on wet or loose rocks in the stream.
I used my iPhone for the above photo to get a multi-shot panoramic view as I followed the trail up into more snow fields.
At the beginning of a large snow field someone had made the above cairn. Looking just ahead up the canyon the trail disappears underneath a snow field and from here I could not see where the field ended or the trail emerged. I decided to walk in a straight line up the canyon and soon I saw another rock cairn up some distance in front of me near a rock slide.
As I stepped back onto the trail just past this cairn I turned and enjoyed this view with lakes and mountains in the distance.
From here I could easily see Leigh Lake (closest) and Jackson Lake in the distance.
At this elevation the switch-backs in the trail start crossing snowy areas and created some tense moments while traversing the snow. The snow is rather hard and can be slick. I took the above photo as an example. Again, trekking poles were a great help to me.
These last parts of the trail were quite a ‘slog’. I worked up some serious sweat on these switch-backs.
I was compensated for this strenuous portion of the hike with some stunning views!
The trail eventually disappears again under snow. I followed the tracks of previous hikers up this gully. Again it was difficult walking on the slick hard snow. I noticed traces of the actual trail up the slope to my left (I found out later that underneath this whole area of snow is a scree field). As I walked near boulders sticking up out of the snow I used my trekking poles to test the snow in those areas. I saw a few places where a hiker’s feet had broken through the snow up to their thighs near some of the rocks. As the day grew warmer the footing was becoming treacherous.
I made the decision to try and get out of the snow and climb-up the slope to where I had seen traces of the actual trail. But this was so steep and slick that I realized why some previous hikers had chosen to hike up the bottom of the gully. So I climbed still further up the slope until I reached a ridge of rock with very little snow and worked my way to the top of the gully. My decision to travel this ridge turned out to be a bad one.
As I climbed over a few large boulders and planted my right foot down between a few smaller ones, I lost my balance and fell. As I fell I immediately tried to jerk my foot out from between the rocks fearing my leg would snap. I was able to get one of my trekking poles between my upper-body and the ground and keep me from going all the way down. But not before taking a chunk of flesh off my shin and the strain on my right leg causing a horribly painful and long-lasting cramp in my calf that took my breath away. After the cramp went away I was relieved that I hadn’t broken the leg. I pulled my pant-leg up to look at my shin which looked nasty enough that I didn’t want to look at it again. I stood up and experienced no small amount of pain as I put weight on the leg and that had me worried. I wasn’t sure how this pain would affect my hike back down the mountain. I didn’t have a lot of choices so I carefully worked my way off the rocky ridge and then down the steep snowy slope (literally by the seat of my pants).
At this point I saw a sign sticking out of the snowy ground indicating that Holly Lake was just a half-mile away. That got the adrenaline going in me and I decided I had come this far and was not going to head back before seeing the lake.
I found the trail again and a section where the snow had melted and stopped to rest, looking over my back-trail and the beautiful view.
As I hiked further up the trail I followed the tracks of someone going up the slope of snow ahead of me to the left (above photo).
After hiking up the slope and down the other side I saw a small lake before me and a group of people relaxed, sitting on rocks and enjoying the view.
I chatted with several of the people there at the lake. Everyone was rather proud of themselves for making it this far and most were resting and eating lunch before heading back down.
Paintbrush Canyon Trail continues on up the mountain behind the trees to the left of the lake (above photo) and eventually over the divide at an elevation of 10,700 feet. I was told by a hiker, who had hiked up that section of trail a-ways, that he watched some people climb up and over the wall of snow covering the divide. He said they had crampons and ice-axes but had fallen a few times before disappearing over the top. Crazy!
One of the guys I met at the lake was hiking alone as I was. His name was Leon. He had a heavy accent and I asked him where he was from. He said he was from Brazil and had traveled here to spend a week hiking the Tetons. He said he had hiked all over the world including the Swiss Alps and Patagonia in Chile.
As we chatted everyone else had headed back down the mountain and we decided we should probably do the same. Then two woman arrived, one of them saying, ” You guys do know this isn’t Holly Lake don’t you?” Apparently the lake we were sitting at has no name. I asked her where Holly Lake was located and she pointed up the mountain saying the trail to the lake was impassable because of the snow but was probably a 15-20 minute hike if we worked our way up through the trees, over the hill and into the cirque where we would find the lake.
I turned to Leon and suggested we work together to find the lake. We both had maps on our phones but with the trails covered with snow all we could tell from the map was the general direction of the lake which had already been pointed out to us.
On our way there we also ran into a park ranger who had just been up there so we back-tracked his trail to get there.
Leon ahead of me (above photo) hiking in to the ‘real’ Holly Lake.
This lake was definitely bigger then the lake with no name.
Holly lake sits at an elevation of 9424 feet. Not sure how deep it is but it was still half covered in ice and snow….The clouds were gorgeous in the early afternoon. But every time a particularly large bunch of clouds rolled through the temperature would drop, the wind would start blowing, sometimes so hard that I had to quickly grab my hat before it blew away down the mountain. Then the sun would shine, the wind would die and I would relax , eating my lunch and totally soaking in the views around me. I reflected on all my blessings, being healthy enough to do these hikes I enjoy, my wife and family, my faith, and all god’s beautiful creations…And…I suddenly noticed my leg didn’t hurt anymore!
This is a beautiful lake and I am so glad that someone kindly let me know that I was at the wrong lake because I would have been sorely disappointed when I got back home and found out after all that pain and effort, I missed the lake that was my goal by a half mile!
I would love to come back here sometime when there is less snow and hike over the divide into Lake Solitude on the other side.
This has been a great adventure and I’m glad I survived it! As Always I look forward to the next one!!