ENNIS – There’s nothing quite like Sphinx Mountain in all of the Madison Range.
Blocky in shape with a truncated summit, the mysterious conglomerate that gives the top 2,000 feet of Sphinx Mountain its unique reddish-brown color isn’t found anywhere else in the mountain range.
The approach to the fortress-like mountain passes another interesting crag called The Helmet. Together, they serve as two of the most distinctive landmarks in the Greater Yellowstone area.
It takes a pair of sturdy legs to make the climb that begins in a gentle fashion at the Bear Creek trailhead about 20 miles southeast of Ennis, off U.S. Highway 287.
Be prepared for a nearly 4,500-foot gain in elevation if you plan to hike to the summit of the Sphinx.
The trail up Bear Creek offers an easy climb through Douglas fir and spruce forest on a well-pounded trail. Get there early enough in the year and you’ll be greeted by meadows ablaze with arrowleaf balsamroot and bluebell.
There are a few minor creek crossings to negotiate and maybe a wet spot or two.
It doesn’t take all that long to break out of the timber and be met with the jaw-dropping sight of The Helmet reaching for the sky. Turn west just a little to catch sight of the rugged top of the Sphinx Mountain.
The trail of switchbacks continues to gain elevation as it leads to the saddle between the two peaks. The saddle’s trees are the last bit of tall shelter from high-powered winds that often sweep across the Madison Range.
The wind blew so hard on the day we journeyed there that, at times, it felt like it might actually lift you off your feet and blow you away.
Once you make the saddle, it’s time to make your legs burn.
Stay right as you begin the steep ascent toward the summit. Watch close to find the dimly marked climber’s trail leading to a broad, obvious gully heading ever upward.
The climb is steep for the next 1,200 feet. Once you reach the summit plateau, the true summit will be found on the northeast end of the ridge.
Be careful of your step. It’s a 2,000-foot drop into the Indian Creek drainage from here.
You can come back down the same way you went up, or make a loop by dropping over the other side at the saddle and coming out on the Middle Fork of Bear Creek. The entire route is 13 miles long.
Location: The trailhead is 20 miles southeast of Ennis at Bear Creek campground, off U.S. Highway 287.
Distance/duration: The trail and climb up Sphinx Mountain is about 13 miles round trip. Total elevation gain from the trailhead is about
Difficulty: Strenuous, especially the climb from the saddle to the top of Sphinx Mountain.