Venture into the Enchanting Depths of Ape Cave: Your Next Family Adventure Awaits!

The Ape Cave opens its doors for the season on May 18th, a date that resonates with historical significance. It is the very day in 1980, when Mt. St. Helens erupted, “unleashing eight times more energy than was released by the sum of every explosive dropped during World War II, including two atom bombs.” What a fitting day to explore the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument!1

Venturing through the Ape Cave offers a safe and unique self-guided adventure, ideal for all ages. On my own explorations, I’ve been accompanied by kids ranging from 3 to 14, and each one connected with the experience in a positive way. It’s akin to embarking on a choose your own adventure story, with two distinct sections to choose from: the “lower cave” and the more challenging “upper cave.” The lower cave, a leisurely ¾ mile one-way route, is perfectly suited for families, making it the choice for our previous visits. I’m eagerly looking forward to tackling the upper cave route this summer. It promises a thrilling experience with its rocky obstacles to scramble over and an eight-foot rock wall to scale.

Ape-Cave-People-in-Cave

The Ape Cave is the third longest lava tube in North America. Depending on your walking speed this may take a couple hours to explore, especially with kids!  At 42 degrees year-round, it gets chilly. There is a steady wind that whips through the cave, so it is essential to bundle up. Wear hats and coats and bring hand warmers – trust me, you’ll thank me later! Equipping everyone with headlamps ensures you can relax and fully appreciate the stunning scenery.  Make sure and bring backup flashlights, including a powerful one that will illuminate the cave walls and ceiling beautifully, dispelling any feelings of claustrophobia.

Keep an eye out for the “meatball,” a block of cooled lava that was carried downstream atop the lava flow until it became wedged above a narrow spot along the ceiling of the cave. The moment you lay eyes on it, the reason behind its nickname, “the meatball,” becomes instantly clear – the moniker fits it perfectly!

Ape Cave Meatball

While bats aren’t commonly found in the Ape Cave itself, the surrounding Gifford Pinchot National Forest boasts a significant number of caves, making it the state’s cave hotspot. Some of these caves serve as hibernacula for bats during the winter months. However, visitors need to be cautious not to inadvertently introduce Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), a fungus responsible for white-nose syndrome, into these caves. To prevent this, the U.S. Forest Service has set up shoe cleaning stations at the cave entrance to minimize the risk of transmission. For more information, you can visit www.whitenosesyndrome.org.

Why is it called the Ape Cave? The cave was named by the Boy Scout troop that explored the cave in the early 1950s in honor of their sponsor, the St. Helens Apes. This local group was made up primarily of foresters.

It’s a long drive out to the cave. For an added adventure during your trip to the cave, consider stopping by the Trail of Two Forests nearby. This short boardwalk trail offers an immersive experience in understanding lava flow. Over 2,000 years ago, this lava flow engulfed trees, which ignited into flames. As the lava cooled and solidified around the trees, it created fascinating tunnels with bark impressions. One of these tunnels is even large enough to climb into! While it may be challenging for those uncomfortable with tight spaces, it’s a hit with the kids!

Get all the details needed before your visit: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/giffordpinchot/recarea/?recid=40393
$5/vehicle/day or valid Recreation Pass. Fee tube available for payment on-site. See Mount St. Helens Map for fee and payment sites. A timed reservation is also necessary and may be booked through recreation.gov starting April 15.

  1. New York Times. (2020, May 18). 40 Years Ago, Mount St. Helens Erupted. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/18/science/mt-st-helens-eruption.html
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Tara Burnett

Avid adventurer and weekend wanderer Tara fervidly explores the Pacific Northwest and beyond with her tiny trailer in tow! You can find her at @tarastinytrailer

5 Comments

  1. Avatar photo Shay on May 18, 2024 at 8:09 am

    Definitely a place I would like to explore. Thanks for sharing your experience and all that info.

    • Avatar photo Tara on May 18, 2024 at 8:11 am

      It is one of my favorite kid friendly adventures ever in the state for sure! Next time I need to try the upper cave!

  2. Avatar photo Michelle on May 18, 2024 at 8:32 am

    Wow! This looks like such a cool adventure, I had no idea this was in my area! Thanks for sharing all the helpful tips and tricks to make it a successful experience, especially with family or those not so fond of the dark/tight spaces. 🙂

    • Avatar photo Tara on May 19, 2024 at 10:24 am

      It’s totally doable, even if your not a fan of small dark spaces! Haha! The lower cave is large lots of airflow and high ceilings! Totally worth a visit!

  3. […] hiking resources warn that the Ape Cave is a favorite Washington attraction, and as such is very busy during the warmer months. If you […]

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