14 Mar Ape Cave Hike
The longest lava tube in the lower 48, Ape Cave is a great place to escape hot summer days or give spelunking a try for the first time. This 13,042 foot long cave was formed nearly 2000 years ago when an eruption sent lava flowing down the south side of Mt. St. Helens. The flow cooled on the outside insulating the still molten lava on the inside. It kept flowing down hill, leaving an empty channel behind we call Ape Cave.
To get to the entrance of the cave you take highway 503 from I5 past the small Washington town of Cougar (see the google map). Summer is the busiest season accounting for the majority of the cave’s yearly 170,000 visitors. At this time, you will just need to purchase a $5 Northwest Forest Pass. In the winter, the gate to the main parking lot is closed right above the Trail of Two Forests trailhead (check out the printable map at the bottom of the page). You will have to park here and pay for a Sno Park pass for the day and walk the .5 miles to the entrance.
Once at the entrance of the cave, you have two options:
- The Upper Cave (Difficult) – 1.5mi
- The Lower Cave (Easy) – .75mi
Both of these options will give you an amazing feel of what a lava tube is, with its huge cavernous, smooth sided passage ways and phosphorescent fungus. As usual though, a slightly higher risk definitely comes with reward. I think it goes without saying that I chose the upper passage way. After making our way to the main parking lot we took a look at the map and realized if we headed into the entrance by the parking lot we’d be walking back down the trail from the top of the cave at dark. Why not enjoy some of the peeking views of Mt. St. Helens while there was daylight? The trail to the upper entrance winds through woods and lava flows for what seems like forever, but is really just a mile and a half. By the time you are there, you are beyond pumped to climb backwards down the ladder into pitch blackness.
Into The Caves
With headlamps illuminating the slick glowing sides of the cave we began to realize why this route was considered “difficult.” Rockfalls slowed our travels only 50 feet from the entrance. These ancient collapses formed as the lava flows disappeared and cold air was able to enter the cave. The temperature change caused the porous basalt to crack and fall to the ground, collecting in piles that resembled a Stegosaurus with back problems. At some points they are stacked 8 feet tall, nearing the top of the cave and making you twist and crouch in some epic yoga stances.
Sometimes though, the channel opens up wide and twists away in front of you, vanishing into blackness. All you hear is water slowly dripping into the pools on the sandy floor and some slow cave breezes brushing against the rock. That’s when you start realize the magnitude of this thing, this sarcophagus of rock and time. And as you slow down and look around you start to see that we, humans, have found a way to make our mark on this timeless place. Graffiti scarring up the fungus on the walls and cigarette butts littering the ground are too common throughout the cave. This can be expected as this is one of the most traveled caves in the pacific northwest, but is in no way easy to accept. Enjoy the cave, but don’t mess with the cave, there’s a reason it is called Ape Cave.
No seriously, according to legend the woods surrounding the lava tube are frequented by Big Foot. There is even a report of a fight between a miner and a family of “Apemen” way back in 1924. Long story short, many Sasquatch believers think the caves are a perfect habitat for the furry beasts. Don’t mess with their home or they may attack you just like that unfortunate miner.
Hokey myths aside, these caves are worth taking care of so they might look just as amazing the next time you visit them. Ape Cave is one of those places where time slows down for a bit. The long, damp tubes are the closest thing to a time machine you’ll find any time soon. If time machines had bats, that is.