Mt. St. Helens Ape Cave is not an easy place to get to. It’s also not for the faint of heart. But my God, is it a fun place to embrace your inner explorer!
After over three hours in the van, doubt started to creep in as to why we were spending a total of seven hours round trip for a couple of hours of cave exploration. Just how good could this Ape Cave be? It took all of five minutes inside the chilly cave, fumbling with our head lamps and using our hands to clutch our way up volcanic rocks, to appreciate that we were in for an unforgettable trip.
We departed lightly bruised, with a few cuts, and super dirty, but rest assured – a journey through the Ape Cave is INCREDIBLE FUN.
History of the Ape Cave
The Ape Cave consists of 2.5 miles of lava tubes, making them the third longest known lava tubes in the continental U.S. This geological phenomenon was created over 2000 years ago following an Mt. St. Helens eruption.
In 1947, the caves were inadvertently discovered by a logger named Lawrence Johnson, after he and his tractor nearly toppled inside. No, there are no apes or simians inside the caves. Nor are these the residence of the legendary Bigfoot. The name “Ape Cave” takes its name from the outdoor youth group that first explored them in the 1950s – the Mt. St. Helens Apes. It is doubtful you’ll come across the natural inhabitants of the cave: camel crickets, salamander, bats, and grylloblattids.
Why are you highly unlikely to see wildlife below ground? It is ink black and 40 degrees inside there! There’s a reason the park recommends you carry two light sources with you.
Two Options: Lower Cave or Upper Cave?
Getting to the start of the Ape Cave network involves a short hike through the forest. In order to protect the caves from foreign contaminants, explorers are requested to brush off their shoes at one of several stations near the entrance. After descending a steep set of staircases that take you far below ground, you are presented with two options: the Upper Cave or the Lower Cave.
The Lower Cave is a .75 mile trail that is comparatively wide and smooth, and which is described by park rangers as “easy”. Even still, it is pitch black and requires basic fitness to navigate an uneven surface. Expect to spend an hour in the Lower Cave.
Ape Upper Cave
By contrast, the Upper Cave is 1.75 miles long and involves scrambling up and down 27 different underground boulder piles while avoiding a much lower cave ceiling and slime along the rock walls. (The slime provides nourishment for the invisible cave inhabitants.)
With the exception of one natural skylight towards the end, the caves are completely devoid of natural light.
The most physical part of the experience (for me) was climbing the eight foot lava wall, which is practically vertical, with footholds that are only a few inches wide. Fortunately, there’s a knotted rope for assistance.
I had been curious as to why the rangers stated we should allow ourselves 2 to 2.5 hours to complete the Upper Cave. As soon as we hit the first wall of rocks I understood – if you rush the process or misplace a foot, there’s every chance you’ll break a leg or twist something. You need good coordination, solid lighting, great footwear, and upper body strength to navigate some portions. And even then, you might need help.
Fortunately, I happened to be with an energetic group of cheerful young Marines.
Anyone with an interest in geology should choose the Upper Cave. But even those with very limited knowledge – such as myself – can appreciate the beauty and variety of the rock formations. It is easy to gawk at the sheer amount of power, pressure, and heat of the molten lava as it flowed from Mt. St. Helens to create what would ultimately become these tubes.
The Hike Back
The Upper Cave route ends near a narrow ladder surrounded by haze. What looks very mystical is actually the product of extreme temperature differentials: we went from the 40 degree cave temperature to the 80 degree outdoor temperature in the span of a few seconds.
Once above ground, we were treated to gorgeous unspoiled views of sky and tall trees. From there, it was a mere 1.5 miles on well-marked trail back to the visitor parking lot and gift shop. Along the way, we were lucky to catch a glimpse of Mt. St. Helens, the stratovolcano that last erupted May 18, 1980. She’s absolutely beautiful. The mountain looks so serene that it’s difficult to comprehend the level of destruction the 1980 eruption created.
Its peaceful appearance is a facade. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Mt. St. Helens remains the most active volcano in the continental U.S.
If You Go
Timed advance reservations are required to enter Ape Cave between May and October. If you choose to do the Upper Cave route, please don’t underestimate the physicality or the inherent dangers. While a flashlight is fine for the Lower Cave, I strongly recommend choosing a headlamp over a flashlight for the Upper Cave. You will definitely want to keep your hands free. My headlamp was barely adequate; had I not been with a kind Marine who generously used his headlamp to light the way ahead, I would have been forced to turn back.
Although it is 40 degrees year round inside the caves, I was surprised I did not need as many layers as I thought. The level of exertion required had me sweating the entire time.
Simply put – this is a cave unlike any other. Most of the caves I’ve been to have discrete lighting systems (some multi-colored for drama), sound systems, handrails, etc. If the ranger or guide turns off the lights to allow you to appreciate the darkness, it’s for 5-10 seconds so that no one gets hurt. Perhaps that’s the allure of the Ape Caves – it’s dangerous, but it’s REAL.
Maybe that’s what makes going there such a satisfying experience. 😊
Here’s wishing you a safe and happy adventure!