Basics: This is a short hike through a lava tube at Mount Saint Helens in Gifford Pinchot National Forest (Washington state). The cave is very dark – two light sources per person are recommended. There’s not terribly much to see, but it’s a unique and interesting experience. Including the return hike, the trip is under 3 miles. A parking permit is required and can be purchased at the parking lot. During the summer, lanterns can be rented at the kiosk near the entrance.
Directions to Trailhead: From the town of Cougar, WA, drive East on Rd 90. Turn left at Rd 83, then left again at Rd 8303. The cave parking lot is only about 20 minutes from Cougar. It is well signed and easy to find.
Trail Description: Our first day at Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument was rainy, foggy and cold. Welcome to Washington State I guess. That’s actually not fair, it was raining when we left California too (in late June!). After checking in and picking up our Mt St Helens climbing permits at Lone Fir Resort in the town of Cougar, we decided to go check out Ape Cave. Ape Cave is the longest continuous lava tube in the continental US. It was discovered in the 1940’s or 50’s when somebody accidentally drove a tractor into an opening of the cave.
This trip is more than one mile, so I count it as a hike. We rented a lantern from the gift shop at the parking lot, then proceeded down the short paved path to the cave entrance. The entrance is wide and there is a set of stairs leading down into the darkness. At the bottom of the stairs there are signs for the upper and lower caves. The Lower Cave is an easy kid-friendly walk that dead ends after about 3/4 mile.
The Upper Cave is a little over one mile, but there is a second opening at the end, so the return trip can be made above ground. The Upper Cave is still a relatively easy walk, but there are a few spots where some climbing is necessary. About halfway through the cave we encountered a family that had turned around. They informed us there was an eight foot tall lava flow wall that was “impossible” to get over. Nevertheless we proceeded. The wall had a nice foot hold carved into it, so we managed to climb up.
Somewhere in the last third of the cave we saw light! Rob wanted a photo and since we thought we were at the end, he turned off the lantern. We soon realized this was just a sky light. Rain was coming in and the rest of the cave was dripping. We only had four matches and no box. Strike anywhere matches do not work on wet rocks. Rob managed to light one on his front teeth, but it went out. Luckily, a group of people behind us had a box of matches for their lantern. We continued on as soon as our light was working again. The real end was soon in sight! The cave looked like it may have gone just a little bit further, but we climbed up the ladder to exit the cave. At the top, a blue sign on a tree points to the trail. Somehow the cave gained quite a lot of elevation because the walk back to the main entrance was all downhill.