Just south of Ennis along Highway 287, two spectacular mountain formations, the Helmet and the Sphinx, rise out of the Madison range in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Arguably one of the best hikes in Montana, the Trail Fork of Bear Creek (Trail 326) and Trail 357 lead through the Lee Metcalf Wilderness on a 5 mile, 2,800 foot climb up to the saddle between the Helmet and the Sphinx. From the saddle, hikers have the option of returning back along the same route for a 10 mile out-and-back trip or of dropping down to the Middle Fork of Bear Creek (Trail 325) to complete an 11.5 mile loop.
To reach the trailhead, drive about 18 miles south of Ennis on Hwy 287. When you reach Cameron, turn on to Bear Creek Road. Follow the signs for 8 miles to Bear Creek Campground and Ranger Station. Bear Creek is a primitive, free campground and is popular with horseback riders. This campground offers a great (and inexpensive) place to stay if you don’t plan on camping in the backcountry.
Begin hiking from the Bear Creek Ranger Station (elevation 6,200 feet) along the Trail Fork of Bear Creek. The trail winds through the forest crossing over the Trail Fork of Bear Creek four times, twice on footbridges and twice without bridges. I was able to find logs to pass over the stream without getting my boots wet. The trail passes through intermittent meadows and early glimpses of the distinctive Helmet and Sphinx draw hikers forward. In an open meadow about two miles into the trip, trail 357 splits off to the left while Trail 326 veers back toward the creek. Follow trail 357 as it passes through meadows and switchbacks up through thickly forested hillsides toward the Helmet and Sphinx. Wildflowers blanket the meadows and forest floor all along the trail. Switchbacks carry hikers up through an alpine meadow along the final push towards the saddle, elevation 9,000 feet. I’m not a mountain climber, but at 10,876 feet the Sphinx is an enticing peak. Two climbers I met along the trail said they counted 14 different mountain ranges from the summit! If you’re not inclined to climb the Sphinx, the view of the Madison valley from the saddle is amazing, too.
The Trail Creek of Bear Creek receives more sun exposure and melts out earlier than the Middle Fork. Be aware that the Helmet and Sphinx trails lay within the Bear Creek Wildlife Management Area and are closed to recreational use from December 1st through May 1st. Early in the season, a large snow drift often blocks the trail at the crest of the saddle preventing hikers from completing the loop option. This snow drift may cling to the saddle until July in heavy snow years. Even if you are able to pass over the saddle, high water levels on the Middle Fork of Bear Creek may prevent you from completing the loop. As described by Bill Schneider in “Hiking Montana” there are five wet crossing along the Middle Fork Trail. In late June, I was not comfortable crossing this stream which seemed to be larger and far more turbulent than the Trail Fork. I would not recommend attempting to complete the loop hike until mid July and plan on getting wet even after the water has dropped to a level safe for crossing. If you plan on hiking the entire loop, check with the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest to be on the safe side.