CASCADE CANYON – GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
Lake Solitude is a popular hike in Grand Teton National Park that offers incredible views of Grand Teton, Cascade Canyon, and the surrounding peaks. It can be accessed via the Jenny Lake Trailhead or you can take a boat shuttle to the beginning of the Cascade Canyon Trail on the west side of Jenny Lake. Taking the shuttle will shave 2 miles off the hike each way. We opted for an early shuttle ride and found the trail relatively empty, and the hike to be truly remarkable.
Lake Solitude Trail Info
Note: The route displayed here starts at the String Lake Trail trailhead. We started at Jenny Lake Campground and hiked to the Jenny Lake Boating Dock to catch the first shuttle across the lake. There are a number of locations/trailheads that you can start this hike from but they all will converge on the Cascade Canyon Trail.
- In high/summer season, the first (7:00 AM) shuttle across Jenny Lake is only $5 (cash only).
- Depart for this hike early. You will avoid the crowds that come later in the day and get you back at a reasonable time. The hike will typically take you 7-12 hours.
- Dress in layers. Even in summer, it can be quite cool, especially in the morning.
- Be prepared for rain. It’s quite common for rain or thunderstorms to develop in the afternoons.
- Pack plenty of food and water, you will need it.
Jenny Lake Shuttle
In the summer season, if you get to the Jenny Lake Boating dock early enough to catch the first boat at 7:00 AM, the cost is only $5 per person for a round trip ride. The cost is normally $18 per person, so this is a great deal. Be prepared to pay in cash – that’s the only way you will get the discount. They will give you a stamp on your hand but you may want to ask for a receipt; some of our stamps had rubbed off by the end of the day. Fortunately, it wasn’t an issue as they didn’t give us a hard time when we explained this on our return trip.
What’s even better about taking the early shuttle is that you will avoid the crowds that typically form around Jenny Lake and Inspiration Point and you won’t have a problem finding parking at that time. The only downside is that it is noticeably cooler/cold at this time in the morning. It was about 40 degrees when we headed out.
We were tent camping at Jenny Lake Campground, which is but a short 5-minute walk from the Jenny Lake Visitor Center. The dock is less than 100 yards past that. We had gone down to the dock the day before to confirm the discount for the first shuttle. They told us that a line typically starts forming for the boat about 15 minutes before and can sometimes be long. We didn’t want to take any chances so we awoke at about 6:00 AM, had a quick breakfast and coffee and was at the boat dock by 6:45. At 7:00, they opened the gates, we paid, got on the boat, headed across Jenny Lake.
Once we disembarked the Jenny Lake shuttle, you have a number of options to get to Inspiration Point, which will lead you to Lake Solitude. There is a spider web of trails branching from the boat dock that can look confusing on a map but they all convene on Inspiration Point. We took the trail that led south and then worked our way back towards the “Hidden Falls” – a waterfall that is tucked around a bend. We actually didn’t go to it – we didn’t know how many people would be on the trail and wanted to get ahead of others if we could.
We made our way to Inspiration Point, a destination that is known for usually being crowded and packed with people. Since there were only a handful of us on the trail at this point, we didn’t have that problem, so we did stop for a moment and enjoy the view. About the time we heard others coming up the trail, we gathered our things and got hiking into Cascade Canyon.
Cascade Canyon Trail
Once past Inspiration Point, Cascade Canyon Trail beelines west into Cascade Canyon. The trail starts with relatively wide, unobstructed views as you enter the canyon. Grand Teton looms in the distance to the West and Cascade Creek runs nearby to the south, which you can usually hear if you can’t see it.
As we continued hiking, the wide-open views became partially obscured by patches of trees and scrub. We also started noticing a lot of fresh moose droppings – and I mean fresh – some were still steaming. I’ve encountered moose twice before – once in the Bighorn Mountains and once in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The latter was a female with a calf and it charged us so I was aware of how cantankerous they can be. We had discussed this with the kids beforehand and we had three cans of bear spray between us.
Despite the evidence, no moose made themselves known to us and we continued to hike along at a slow-but-steady pace. Slowly, the trail was working its way into a more heavily forested area and our once expansive views were being shielded by larger trees. It was actually a very serene and peaceful evolution; we could hear the creek to our left and the wind blowing through the branches to our right. The only thing that broke the serenity was when we came upon a couple of NPS staffers doing trail work. They unsurprisingly informed us that storms were forecast for the afternoon.
After a bit, we started to hear a loud waterfall in the distance, which grew louder as we hiked. We eventually came upon said waterfall, which also happened to be next to the junction where Cascade Canyon Trail splits into Cascade Canyon South Fork Trail, heading SW and Cascade Canyon North Fork Trail, heading NW to Lake Solitude. We didn’t take time to enjoy the waterfall since we knew that stormy weather was coming and we wanted to try and beat it.
Cascade Canyon North Fork Trail
The kids started asking what our plan was if it started storming. We let them know that it was still early enough that I felt we could make it to Lake Solitude and at least be on the way down when the weather hit. We also let them know that if we felt it was too dangerous, we would turn around, which we had done the previous week, four miles into our hike to Sky Pond in Rocky Mountain National Park.
This first section of the North Fork remained in the forest, usually parallel to a small but loud stream. Then after about a half-mile, we emerged from the trees into a vast, massive glacial valley that was strewn with boulders, scree fields, and flowers. It was like stepping onto a different planet, it was remarkable in its own way – it wasn’t the vistas of Grinnell Glacier Trail or the surrealness of The Narrows – but it was just as beautiful. The kids were wowed.
The change of scenery and environment gave us all a boost that seemed to hasten our pace a bit. Not that we were rushing, we just felt more purposeful and motivated by this impressive vista. We wanted to see what was around the bend, the lake had to be close…
Around the bend, we found a massive boulder and scree field. We made our way through this alien landscape and listened to its many inhabitant Marmots and Pikas chirping at us.
After crossing the scree field and hiking a bit more, the end of the valley came into view. It was provided another emotional boost as we could now see our goal. However, we were now about 9000 feet and just hitting the steepest grade on the trail and we could feel it.
We’ve been here before. We felt it on the Highline Trail and Garden Wall Spur, we felt it on our first hike at elevation to Fern Lake the previous week in Rocky Mountain National Park. We didn’t talk much at this point but we all knew we were going to make it. This is one of the great things about getting your kids outside doing hikes like this that are not your “walk in the park”. It’s challenging, it takes planning, it takes tenacity, it takes the right attitude.
After hiking for 7 miles, nearly 3000 feet, and 4 or 5 hours, we reached Lake Solitude. It is aptly named.
We were shocked to find that there were only two other people here. It was nothing like the crowds around Upper Grinnell Lake or Granite Park along the Highline Trail. It was more like our experience in The Narrows, where we got far enough (almost to Big Spring) that there were not many people. We sat down for a well-deserved rest, had some snacks, drank some water, and chatted with the couple that was there. It turns out, they live about an hour from us, just outside of the Driftless Area, in Cannon Falls, MN. They were kind enough to take our picture with our cameral. Small world.
We sat and briefly enjoyed our accomplishment until our, pardon the pun, “solitude” was broken by a solo backcountry camper that had come down from Paintbrush Pass to the north. He chatted with us a bit and let us know that storms were incoming and that Lake Solitude had been completely frozen over only a week and a half before. We could see clouds forming to the south so we felt it would be best to get ready to start our descent.
Going down is typically easier but the older I have gotten, it feels like that scenario has flipped. While the kids scampered down the trail like bunnies happy with their garden plunder, my right knee and its partially removed meniscus were reminding me of its presence. Thank goodness for trekking poles, they truly have made a difference for me when hiking. They provide stability, they help absorb impacts and distribute stress from my knees to my arms. I am a trekking pole evangelist. Leki, do you hear me?
One of the things I like about out-and-back trails is that it gives you two views of the same scenery with different lighting conditions. This was true of the Lake Solitude Trail as well. Unfortunately, due to the impending weather, we didn’t take much time to shoot lots of photos on the way back. I will say that I thought the views going down were better than going up.
I figured it was a matter of time but I was hoping it would be another hour before I heard the sound of distant thunder. We didn’t see any immediate threat but we could see the sky slowly darkening to the SW. We continued moving down at a pretty good pace – definitely faster than what we typically would do.
As we made our way down, the interval between rumbles of thunder decreased and the skies continued to darken. We still had not seen any lightning, which was good; I wanted to make it to the cover of the forest, which is safer than sticking out like a sore thumb in a field of granite.
Just as we were about to enter the forested area, the temperature dropped significantly, the wind began to gust, and we began to feel the first drops of rain. A few flashes of lightning could now be seen but we have experienced worse. As we entered the tree line, the rain started coming down hard. We stopped hiking, put on our shells, and I put the DSLR away.
Our shells kept us all dry and we continued to make our way down the now muddy trail. By the time we came to the junction with Cascade Canyon Trail, it had been raining hard for 20 minutes or so. We were surprised to find several groups of very unprepared hikers huddled under trees trying to (unsuccessfully) stay dry and warm. They didn’t seem to be in any peril but they also looked quite annoyed with the situation. They didn’t have any rain protection, they didn’t have any layers, and some were wearing basic sneakers. I felt bad for them.
Then, just as quickly as the storm blew in, it dissipated. Blue sky started peeking through the clouds and a mist began to rise from the rocks surrounding the trail – I love how that happens. Perhaps a quarter-mile outside of Inspiration Point, the number of people absolutely skyrocketed. All of the network of trails between Inspiration Point and the boat dock were jammed with people. It was quite a contrast to the first 95% of our hike. This is why we like to head out on our hikes early – we beat the crowds.
Surprisingly, there was only a short line for the boat and we only had to wait about 5 minutes for the shuttle to arrive. We boarded and once on the other side of Jenny Lake, walked back to our campsite in Jenny Lake Campground. We were pretty exhausted but it was a good exhaustion.
Post Hike Notes
We packed up quickly and made our way into Jackson to shower at the Teton County Rec Center. We found out the hard way that travel into Jackson between 4-6 PM is absolutely nuts. A trip that should only take about 15 minutes took us over an hour due to the fact that there is only one highway in/out of Jackson. Had we known this, we would have gone north to Signal Mountain to shower instead.
After showering, we picked up pizza at Dornan’s, a restaurant just outside of the Jenny Lake area, next to Grand Teton National Park headquarters. Our campsite at Jenny Lake was a welcome sight. We built a fire, ate some pizza, and Nat and I enjoyed a glass of wine.