The Ape Cave, that is.
Concealed within the beautiful Gifford Pinchot National Forest on the southern slopes of Mount Saint Helens is a remarkable opportunity. Discovered in 1951, the Ape Cave is a natural lava tube lying just beneath the forest floor by logger Lawrence Johnson. He brought back Harry Reese and family to discover the first portion of the cave. The full extent of the lava tube was later mapped by a local group of Boy Scouts.
“Ape Caves” Sadly Isn’t Because Of Bigfoot…
The cave is named after the Boy Scout troop, who referred to themselves as the Saint Helens Apes, or just The Apes. There was some confusion after a book on Sasquatch sightings erroneously listed the cave as the site of the 1924 story of Fred Beck in Ape Canyon.
I have to admit that I always believed that the cave was named for bigfoot, and although there have been a few sightings in the area of the Ape Cave, the name in fact does stem from the group of Boy Scouts who mapped the cave.
How To Get There
The Ape Cave is located about an hour’s drive East of I-5 through some spectacular countryside. Use exit 21 and follow State Route 503 East. There are Forest Service signs along the way clearly marking the route up to the parking area.
If you visit early in the year (while there is still snow on the roads) you may be blocked at the Two Forests gate, in which case you can park there and walk in. We visited the cave in mid-April and had no trouble getting to the parking area and making the short walk up to the cave entrance along a paved trail.
The main entrance to the cave is down a steel stairway about a third of the way along the tube’s length. If you follow the tube from the bottom of the stairs, you are hiking the Lower Ape Cave. If you make your way back under the stairway and continue up the cave (there is a noticeable slope to the floor) you are climbing the Upper Ape Cave.
The lower cave section is an easy .75-mile hike, although the lowest entrance is now blocked and you will be forced to turn around and hike back to the stairs to get out. The upper section is a more challenging 1.5-mile hike, requiring that you scramble over obstacles and traverse a slick rock face at one point. There is another exit at the end of the Upper Ape Cave and a trail that leads you back through the forest above to the parking area.
Some Suggestions Before You Visit
Many hiking resources warn that the Ape Cave is a favorite Washington attraction, and as such is very busy during the warmer months. If you visit either early morning or later in the day during those months you can avoid most of the tourists. The cave itself is always right around 42 degrees in temperature and always dripping water from the ceiling.
The floor is rough in places and sandy in others, and frequently wet. I wore a water-resistant jacket over a flannel shirt and felt it was a bit warm during our hike, you’ll have to judge for yourself.
You will enjoy your visit more if you prepare for the conditions, and bring at least two sources of light to carry. The cave is completely dark once you move away from the entrance. There is one source of natural light in the upper section, but the lower section is totally dark. The Forest Service asks that you not bring pets, food, alcohol, fireworks, or anything else that might make a great party. Seriously, though, the cave is a fragile ecosystem.
Be Kind To The Bats
When you approach the entrance, there are signs asking you to clean your shoes before proceeding. There is a disease spreading among the bat population called White Nose Syndrome that threatens the long-term survival of the bats. The current belief is that we humans are bringing the disease in to the caves from other places, and that by making sure you aren’t wearing shoes that have been worn in other mines or caves, and cleaning your shoes before entering the Ape Cave, we can do a lot to protect the bats that hibernate within the cave. My son and I were looking for the bats to void disturbing them if they were still hibernating, but fortunately for the bats, we didn’t see any.
Ape Cave, as mentioned before, is a lave tube. Lava tubes form when a lava flow begins to cool around the outer edges while the inner portion is still flowing. The outer shell remains and the center empties out, leaving a long tube.
Ape Cave is the longest lava tube in the continental United States and the third longest in North America. Scientists believe the tube was formed in a rare eruption approximately 2,000 years ago that included lava flows (the volcanos in the Cascades are strata volcanoes that are built up by ashfall rather than by lava flows).
I highly recommend the trip to Ape Cave for the scenery, for the learning opportunity, and possibly for the chance to see that confident friend or family member get nervous at being underground in the dark. But enough about me.