Planning to visit Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument in Washington State then you must add a visit to Ape Caves Lava tube. It’s one of our favorite adventures in Pacific North West and is a must stop every time we visit Mt St Helens. Ape Caves are adventurous, child friendly and little spooky with the lights shut off.
Have you heard of Ape Caves?
Ape Caves are one of the geological wonders at Mount St. Helens. Ape Caves is a lava tube that is third longest tube in North America that is 13,042 feet long (about 2.4 miles) underground.
Why is it called Ape Caves?
There are no apes in it incase if you were concerned. It is a cave, more like tunnel that is dark, wet and cold. The caves were discovered by a logger named Lawrence Johnson. But the caves were explored in 1950 by members of a Spelunker group known as the Mount St. Helens Apes.
Ape was a word referring to the mysterious legendary creature commonly known as Sasquatch or the Big foot. A hairy creature like a human being reported to exist in the northwestern U.S. and western Canada. Ape Caves thus got its name.
How were Ape Caves formed?
Caves were formed about 2,000 years ago when lava poured down the southern flank of Mount St. Helens in streams. The outer edges of the lava stream cooled forming a hardened crust which insulated the molten lava beneath.
Family Visit to Ape Caves
I love exploring new places with my family. It can be challenging to find interesting family travel destinations that are easy enough to visit with kids and old grand parents. Ape Caves visit is exciting and adventurous for all specially children as they love exploring the dark caves with lanterns or flashlights. My kid was happy to try out his new head lamps.
Exploring the Ape Caves
There is a great trail system around the caves that will lead you through old lava flows. Entrance to the Ape Caves is at short distance from the parking lot. On Entering the large cave entrance, there are two staircases to the floor of cave. There is a signed board at junction between two Caves; referred to as the Lower Cave and the Upper Cave.
The Lower Cave is an easy walk, for a 1.5-mile round trip and can be hiked down and back in an hour. It is a broad lava tube that gets narrow at some part and then again widens up. The floor is flat, bit uneven and rocky at some portion and then sandy later.
The Lower cave houses a popular geologic anomaly known as the Meatball, a block of cooled lava which fell from the lava tube ceiling while lava was still flowing through the cave. Floating on the surface of the lava flow it was carried downstream until it became wedged in a narrow spot above the present cave floor.
The Lower Cave is exciting and adventurous trip for school age kids that also helps them learn about the lava, volcanoes and the historic volcanic eruption at Mount St. Helens.
As the name indicates, the railroad tracks are a rock formation that runs along the side of the lava tube. It resembles to a railway track. The formation was created when lava drained from the tunnel and left behind minerals on the wall
A tiny chamber marks the end of the Lower Cave. It’s only large enough to crouch in and has a very sandy floor. We saw few people crawling through tiny tunnel on their stomach. The tunnel is wide enough for one person. We didn’t try to go further in that tiny chamber as airflow was very poor and there was smell of ammonia that was making me uncomfortable.
There is not much to see at tiny chamber which is the dead end of the Lower Cave but it depends on how much you can explore with your sharp eyes. Kids can crawl in easily if they are not feeling scare and are excited to explore. We did observe something wonderful when my kid was throwing flash right over the end of the dead caves.
The rocks did shine with purple color. For moment we thought may it is purple quartz but not sure it could be though. There were many places in the tunnels which were glittering as gold dust over them when flash light over it. Possibility could not be ruled out that there can be enormous trace minerals in the Caves.
Upper Cave is 1.5 miles one way and is difficult one that requires more time, caution and good fitness level. This unique hike in ancient lava tubes takes to lava boulders, sharp piles of cutting rocks and uneven rocky floor. Some portion requires climbing up over and around abrasive rocks, walking over lower ceiling above you.
At times we need to be careful not to hit head on sharp ceiling. Also, one needs to take care not to twist an ankle in some places. We turned back from this hiking in Upper Cave as it was taking good enough time and our flash light battery got over. Upper Cave hike is one of the most unusual hikes that are available in Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Things to Remember for the Ape Caves
Lanterns, Head lamps and Flashlights
The most important thing, there is no light source in the lava tube. Visitors need to bring their own lights or lanterns. It is dangerous to explore the cave without proper light as there are many obstacles like boulder piles, low ceilings, and sharp rocks.
We were wearing Head Lamps along with Lanterns and Flash Lights in hand. I recommend having two to three strong light sources per person for maximum safety. Remember your phone’s flashlight doesn’t count.
In case you don’t have Lanterns, you can rent them at the Ape Headquarters in summer. Lanterns are one of the best light sources available because the volcanic walls don’t adsorb their light well. The Ape Caves are open year-round but be sure to check snow conditions in winter before making the drive.
Sturdy Water Proof Footwear
There are large, boulder rocks at some portion in Lower Cave and most of the Upper Cave. The ceilings are drippy, and there may be puddles. So Good Water proof footwear is must to navigate in the Caves.
If you’re planning to explore the Upper Cave, plan only if you are physically fit to navigate large rocks piles in boulder part with little light. Also take care not to hit your head to sharp lava ceiling and not twist or turn your ankle.
- No pets are allowed in the cave.
- Bring a Light Jacket or Raincoat. It gets cold down there, and there are some lava stalactites that drip water.
- Do not take any rocks from the caves. It’s not allowed.
- No food or beverages allowed inside the cave.
- Do not touch the walls. Touching the wall could contaminate or damage the cave life.
- To Park and visit the caves, Visitor needs “America the Beautiful” or “Northwest Forest Pass”. However, you can buy a day pass once you arrive from March- November.
Ape Caves Bats
White-nose syndrome is a disease caused by a fungus that grows on nose of affected bats. It is considered one of the worst wildlife diseases in modern times having killed millions of bats across North America. Affected bats wake up and fly around when they should be hibernating, using up vital fat reserves needed for winter survival. We didn’t see any bats during our time in Caves.
Where is Ape Caves
It takes around 3.5 hours drive from Seattle to Ape Caves, Cougar depending on traffic conditions. Follow I-5 S to Dike Access Rd in Cowlitz County. Take exit 22 from I-5 S. Take Lewis River Rd to Ape Caves.
Other Places to Visit at Mount St. Helens Washington
Johnston Ridge Observatory offers closest view of Mount St. Helens and the destruction site of volcanic eruption that can be explored on north side. There are many other recreational activities that can be done. Do read on Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
Where to Stay in Cougar?
Couple Stay/Mid Range Resort – Lone Fir Resort . This is only place that is nearest to Ape Caves, Climbers Bivouac trail head and Marble Mountain Snow Park. This Resort is famous among Climbers and Hikers who are climbing the Mount St. Helens with Permits. It gets fully booked due to its proximity and limited number of Rooms. They have options for Cabins, Tent sites and RV ground.
Have you visited any Caves that are engulfed in darkness and cold? What do you think of visiting Ape Caves at Cougar, Washington?
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