Get ready for an amazing underground adventure in a lava tube, which was formed over 2000 years ago. I went down inside for an amazing adventure and at the end of the trek, I found some paintings on the walls of the cave, which haven’t been disclosed anywhere, as far as my research tells me.
The cave is located on the south side of Mount Saint Helens and was first discovered in 1947 but not further explored until the 1950s. Ape Cave was named by the Scout Troop in honor of their sponsor, the St. Helens Apes.
The caves are open year-round but the Ape Headquarters, which are located at the parking lot near the entrance are open only certain times of the year. Information for the current hours of operation and the Ape Cave can be found on their website. The parking lot might get snowed in during the wintertime and you will have to park at the two forests parking lot a bit further down the road and hike in. To park anywhere inside the forest or at the parking lot you will need a “National Forest Recreation Day Pass” or the annual pass. You can buy the day passes right on-site at the self-registration near the walkway to the cave. The other option would be to buy the day pass online and have it shipped to you or buy an ePass to print it yourself. I did the ePass and I won’t recommend doing it. It’s a pain! First of all, they only accept .com, co.uk, and .net email addresses. If you are from Canada (.ca) or Germany (.de) it throws an error message at you, that you need to contact them. However, they are not open during the weekend. I discovered that issue really quickly and created a .com email address to have it mailed to me. With printing, the pass comes to the next problem. They set the “small” pass on a way to big paper and if you print it on a letter-size piece of paper you can barely read what’s on there. But that is already scaled down to 23% of its original size. Only because they put the little footer note way too far down. That’s why a regular printer setup can’t shrink it down enough to fill at least half of a letter-size piece of paper. I tried many options at the hotel I was staying at.
This is pretty bad for a government agency. You clearly see where the money gets spent. I didn’t know if there was a pay station in the parking lot. That’s why I decided to buy the ePass. I can only recommend going with the self-pay station at the parking lot. You will also have to pay if you park at the overflow parking lot. During the wintertime, you need a Sno-Park Pass.
A short list of gear you should bring:
- Headlamp and Flashlights
- good boots or shoes
- warm clothing (it’s always 42°F / 5,6°C year-round)
- small backpack for water
If the Ape Headquarter is open, you can rent lamps for 5$. I highly recommend bringing a headlamp. That leaves your hands free to climb over obstacles along the way. Just in case bring a second light if your batteries run out and or train to change your batteries in the dark. If you want to take pictures you will need a powerful flash. The flash on a cell phone is too weak to get good pictures.
The Ape Cave is also the longest lava tube in the continental US with a length of 3.25 miles. However, you can’t walk the lava tube from beginning to end. You will enter about 0.75 miles up and from there you can decide if you want to hike the Lower Cave or Upper Cave.
The Lower Cave
…is about 0.75 miles long and is a dead-end. You will have to come the same way back you took to get in. Also, it’s more suited for kids and not to mobile people. You won’t have to climb anything as crazy as in the Upper Cave. The Lower Cave can be completed in about one hour down and back.
The Upper Cave
…is the bigger challenge and the one I loved most. This one is definitely not for small kids or if you are not too agile. You will have to climb over about 27 boulder piles and climb up and 8-foot lava fall. The best part about the Upper Cave is that you can walk if straight from the entrance up and exit at the end of it. From there is a trail back down to the parking lot. The recommended exploring direction is from the main entrance near the parking lot upwards. It’s easier to navigate around the obstacles that way.
The lava fall has only a one-foot hole and a little rope to help you climb up. I brought my DSLR and all of my camera gear with me. The lava fall was the biggest challenge, especially with the gear. However, I met 2 guys from Texas and they climbed the fall up first. I handed my gear to them and now it was easy to climb it.
Almost at the top, you will encounter a skylight. Don’t exit out of this one. It is dangerous and you will destroy the living space. The exit is not too far away from the skylight.
Once at the exit, you can either exit or explore the tunnel a bit further up, but it’s a dead-end. At the end of the Ape Cave Lava Tube, you will discover “cave paintings” by “primitive people” also called graffiti.
The hole you will exit through was too small for me to get out with my big camera gear backpack on. I had to take it off and push it out in front of me. At the top, the ladder is not too steep and it’s easy to do so. Once I exited the warm outside air hit me and it was a beautiful sunny day. When I entered it was gloomy and looked more like it would rain soon. It took me about 2,5 hours to get to the exit. It took me that long because I stopped a lot to take pictures.
Once outside follow the blue diamonds back down to the parking lot. If you can’t see the blue diamonds look for blue ribbons.
I hope you enjoy the pictures. I didn’t use my tripod at all. Just my camera and my flash. Because it was too dark for the autofocus I had to focus manually and set the exposure as well manually. I think they turned out pretty good.
This was an awesome adventure and if you are around Mount Saint Helens stop by here. I also liked that the cave was not over-developed and turned into a major tourist attraction. I like there are no paved pathways inside the caves beside the entrance and exit stairs and no installed light. You have to bring your own light source and this gave me the real adventure feeling. Once inside and you are alone or only with your group. Turn off the light and “look” around.
Here a picture of what it looks like in the dark.
No this is not just a black square. It is an actual picture taken inside the cave with no flash and short exposure.
If you have some time drive to the lava canyon. From there you will have a stunning view of Mount Saint Helens and you can hike along and across the Muddy River and the waterfall close by. So much to do and see here but the Ape Cave was for sure the best adventure and now I want to do more.
More Information and a profile of the caves can be found on this website.
For all Geocachers! There are a couple of caches in the area. 2 caches are at the main entrance to the Ape Cave Lava Tube and one is at the upper exit/entrance. Plenty of adventures for you.
Peter has a passion for Traveling, Photography, and Geocaching. These are the best ingredients for amazing adventures all over the globe. “Traveling is fun, no matter if you stay in a luxury hotel or travel like a backpacker.” Peter shares his experiences on his Blog www.gatetoadventures.com
Some of Peter’s photos are published on corporate websites, in-flight magazines, travel guides, and much more.