Great Drives: Ennis to West Yellowstone

Great Drives: Ennis to West Yellowstone

A Montana backroad to Yellowstone National Park

By Ken Hall

Meandering past mountain lakes, spirited streams and the Madison River, Highway 287 may cause you to reflect on the power of nature.

The road, which travels through the heart of the Madison Valley and into a corner of Yellowstone National Park, features miles of mountains, trees, water and animals seemingly fit for no other place on the planet.

Begin the drive on the east edge of Ennis. Upon crossing the bridge that spans the Madison River, the imposing, yet serene Fan Mountain comes into view to the east. Part of the Madison Range, it stands proudly in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness and peaks at over 10,000 feet above sea level. In winter, the magnificent structure of rock and earth takes on a special aura as snow gently finds its way into the fissures of the fan.

Here, too, the Madison River wends through rich ranchland and past towering mountain ranges. It threads the lakes that comprise this area known as “The Chain of Lakes” together. During the next 40-plus miles, the river flows parallel to the road giving you stunning views of what Montana’s known for—pristine waters against a backdrop of lowland plains and rugged mountaintops. Throughout the year (although spring and summer are the seasons in which fishers dot the river nearly every 50 yards), you can observe anglers wetting their lines.

Within this more than 40-mile stretch sits Cameron, a quaint settlement comprising mostly ranchers and farm folk. Many of the locals, as well as those who travel US 287, consider The Blue Moon Saloon a must-stop for food and liquid libations.

Just east of the town’s outskirts is a taller neighbor of Fan Mountain: Sphinx Mountain which rises to 10,876 feet in elevation. It gives hikers and climbers their due, forcing summit-seekers to ply dirt, rock and sparse vegetation to reach the top.

Once past Sphinx, the valley narrows as the Madison Range encroaches from the left and the Gravelly Range does so from the right. The road becomes a concrete and asphalt serpent ascending and molding itself to the contours of the increasingly rugged mountain terrain.

For a glimpse at history, turn off to the right at the West Fork area of the Madison and head to the campground on the river. Here you will find the Hutchins Bridge in the location of the first bridge across the Madison. You also will see on the near side of the bridge The Old Kirby Place, which is a charming, well-restored and maintained cluster of historical structures. Once a stop for the stage coaches venturing through the Madison Valley, it now serves as a guest facility for anglers and tourists.
            From the West Fork area US 287 gently swings eastward, putting you closer to a posted wildlife viewing area near the first of the lakes—Cliff and Wade.

From the lakes, the highway climbs solemnly into the canyon region where the infamous and catastrophic earthquake you have to tell readers what this is. occurred in August 1959. The earthquake happened before midnight that fateful night.

A first-hand account from one Ennis resident recalls the magnitude of the tremors that shook her out of her bed.

For a different view of Mother Nature’s fury, look for the Camp Fire Campground, found just a short distance beyond the Quake Lake Visitor’s Center.

Approximately a hundred yards into the campground’s entrance is a dirt road to the right. It follows the Madison River through willows that are home to moose. As with most of the roads in the region, seasonal conditions may limit access. Hiking, skis or snow shoes may be the modes of choice for those willing to challenge the elements for right of entry into this sacred domain. Views from this road show a different perspective of the carnage of slide and rising water.

Structures in various stages of decay lie across the river. The quake violently lifted these buildings off foundations and thrust them some three or four miles up river.From the sector of Quake Lake the road makes a steep incline. At the summit Hebgen Lake explodes into view with a burst of splendor. Hebgen is summer home to

hundreds who migrate from other realms of existence. Winter brings acres of accessible frozen lake surface for those seeking a year-round experience of mountain lake and forest shoreline.
            Shortly US 287 intersects US 191. Turn right toward West Yellowstone. During snowy winters bison can be seen foraging along the river, creeks and roads that cross the highway. On occasion herds of bison can be seen crossing the highway, thus bringing pause to travelers.

From West Yellowstone US 20 veers west toward Targee Pass, which rises to 7,072 feet above sea level. Generally the passes are clear throughout the year, but it is best to closely monitor the weather and road conditions since severe and sudden weather changes can hit the region.

Travel about nine miles on US 20 before turning right on Highway 80. This road will reconnect you with US 287. A crossing of Reynolds Pass with its elevation of 6,836 feet above sea level returns the highway into the Madison Valley.

Along this route there are miles like no other place on the planet. Rocks, trees, waters and animals seemingly reserved for this place imbue wonder and amazement.