Sphinx Mountain Hike – contributed by Lorna Robin
Sphinx Mountain is a prominent double peak south-east of Crawford Bay, looking rather like an enormous single-person pup tent when viewed from the Kootenay Lake ferry, and usually covered in snow until July.
Trailhead access: easy, via the Gray Creek Pass, 22 km from Hwy 3A
Rating: Easy for the first part, then moderate to challenging depending upon the route chosen. The route is not always obvious. Bring a topo map and compass. You should have some experience of off-trail travel.
Hiking Time: 6 to 9 hours, 7+ km, depending upon the route chosen.
Driving: Take Hwy 3A to Oliver Road in Gray Creek, a short distance south of the Gray Creek Store. Up Oliver Road, you will soon turn right to cross the bridge over Gray Creek, then continue up the switchbacking gravel road to1.3 km, where you will bear left on to the Gray Creek Pass Forest Service Road. Continue upwards, ignoring spurs. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the summit, passing Oliver Lake on your right near the top. (The lake is not visible from the road but you will see the sign and maybe stop on your way home for an enjoyable 20 minute walk around the lake.) You will continue over and down past the summit, to kilometre 22 where there is room to park two or three vehicles near the bottom of an old mining road that angles up northwest, at elevaton 5,905 feet.
The old mining road goes uphill on an angle across the slope. After a while it passes a derelict cabin known locally as Fat Bob’s. After a 45 to 60 minute walk you will come to the junction of the deactivated powerline road that used to be the access road to Sphinx. Continue west along this road for a short time, watching for the Sphinx Mt. trailhead, at 6,381 feet on the north (right) side, which may not be immediately apparent. If you pass the remains of a collapsed cabin on your left, then find yourself going downhill, you have gone too far. Look for the big logs across a small creek, and the path should become more obvious a short distance beyond the creek. The path climbs NW to the left, then curves north. It is a steady ascent for about 40 minutes, then the trail starts to peter out as you enter a basin, often either yellow with glacier lilies or golden with larch in the fall. Remember that this is grizzly country and take reasonable precautions. Head generally north towards the saddle or col. It is easiest to keep to the right (east) side of the drainage for a while. Be sure to look back behind you, and take note of where you came from; you don’t want to miss the trail on your way back. In particular, make sure you do not go down the drainage on the west side. It is good hiking practice to look back at regular intervals; it always looks different going the other way.
From part way up the basin, you can choose where you want to go. You could continue to the top of the saddle, where there are already amazing views, and stop there for an easier hike. At this point you would be at 7700 feet and maybe 2 ½ hours from the vehicles. From there you could climb the Sphinx (east), a steep but non-technical hike to 8500 feet. Or, you could scramble up Sphinx West if you are strong and agile.
An interesting route is to go west across the drainage before you get into the rocky approach to the saddle, and find a narrow trail leading up to the west ridge. It may be marked with a bit of flagging tape. The trail is rough and some scrambling may be required. Use the big dead larch at the top of the ridge as a landmark. From there looking NW, look for a hanging basin that conceals a lake. Climb briefly down the rocky far side of the ridge and make your way around the contour of the land, gaining a little elevation through interesting rocks and geological formations, and arriving at the beautiful little (and little known) Iron Claim Lake. You will want to stop here for a while and admire. The green avalanche slope above the lake is an excellent way to gain the next ridge and top of Sphinx West, which is just slightly lower than the Sphinx.
From the top of either of the Sphinxes you can see many named peaks, including Loki, Snowcrest, Akokli, Bluebell, Crawford, Brennan, Hooker, and Old Tom; also visible are the west arm of Kootenay Lake and the Crawford Peninsula. Do be aware of safety hazards, including loose rocks and snow cornices, and give yourself plenty of time to get back down to your vehicle before dusk.