Coming from Minnesota, the lure of hiking an ancient underground lava tube at the base of Mount St. Helens is too good to pass up. With our friends from Hi-Tec, we headed into the abyss, searching for some adventure…
Ape Cave is a 2,000-year-old lava tube located just south of Mount St. Helens in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington State. It’s the longest continuous lava tube in the continental United States and one of the longest in the world. Although Ape Cave is centuries old, it was only recently discovered in the 1950s. At a constant temperature of 42°F, the cave has its own ecosystem and climate. It’s like you are traveling to another world.
The main entrance is between Ape Cave’s two ends: upper and lower. Upon arrival at the cave, you’re greeted with an iron staircase, leading to the bottom where you’ll see the entrance to both the upper and lower caves.
We traversed the lower cave with our buddies from Hi-Tec Boots on our trip to Ape Cave. This section of the cave actually dead-ends, so you’ll have to backtrack the way you came in. As far as difficulty level, the lower cave is easy to moderate. You would have no problem bringing your kids along as most of the walking is flat with very few loose boulders or rocks. Standing in silence in complete darkness, the piercing quiet is broken only by the faint dripping of water from the damp ceiling. The whole experience is eerie and beautiful. Perfect for anyone looking for an adventure.
Be prepared to climb over house-size boulder piles, and scale lava slides close to 10 feet high. If this is your first time hiking, the upper cave is probably not for you. The upper cave takes significantly longer to traverse and is far more challenging than the lower cave. Looking to put your hiking skills to the test? Upper Ape Cave has your name written all over it; literally, if you’re named after a primate. If so, we send our condolences. Chin up.
What to Bring to Ape Cave
Headlamps and flashlights – Yes, plural. Ape Cave is completely dark. Probably the darkest place I’ve ever been. Bring extra everything regarding light.
Batteries – Bring extra batteries or make sure your rechargeable headlamp has a full charge.
Hiking Boots – We got lucky and had Hi-Tec hook us up with awesome boots, but you’ll want to bring your best pair with the best support possible. It gets a little rocky and very wet down there.
Gloves – If you plan on exploring the upper cave, the gloves will save your hands from sharp rocks while climbing and help keep your hands warm no matter which cave you hike.
Water – You’ll be spending a couple hours underground away from modern conveniences, so bring something to keep you hydrated.
Bandages – If you are going to test your hiking skills in the upper cave, there’s a chance you might leave with a couple minor scrapes, so make sure your pack has some bandages. Better yet, use this as an excuse to put together a simple first aid kit. We always carry one on all our hikes!
Jacket – With a consistent temperature of 42°F, a nice waterproof jacket that allows you to layer is an absolute must!
Get out and explore more
Standing at the moss-covered precipice to Ape Cave, the entrance to what appeared to be the bowels of the earth, I thought about the first people to climb down to explore the winding ramparts of the unknown. With nothing more than childlike curiosity on their side, they disappeared into the darkness, not knowing how long they would be underground or when they would see daylight again. These brave souls exemplify the heart of self-exploration. Luckily for all of us, they paved the way for anyone who enjoys the outdoors to explore Ape Cave and countless places just like it.
For us, it’s not always about finding an unexplored place where no one has ever stepped foot. These self-guided explorations are the perfect compliment to any camping trip. And these places are all over the country! Maybe not as unusual as a lava tube, but new places that you’d never see if you stay back at camp. Going it solo or with a group of friends on a day trip exploring is a fantastic way to spend the day outdoors. Next time you head off to camp, consider traveling away from camp and exploring. Use your phone that never leaves your side to do some on-the-fly research of places to explore. You won’t be disappointed.