And back in West Coast travel stories…
In many places we have visited in Oregon and Washington, you can see beautiful, snow capped mountains off to the east. Mount Hood is one of these mountains, and others like Mount St Helens and Mount Rainier are also part of the Cascade Range. Many of the notable peaks in the range are also volcanoes, so after leaving Mount Hood, we drove a few hours north to check out the Ape Cave, a mile plus long tunnel formed by lava in the Mount St Helens area.
From the south, we experienced a part of Mount St Helens in the Ape Cave and a small nature walk nearby called A Tale of Two Forests. We skipped the Lava Canyon which is supposedly a great hike. (Yes, we overdid it a little bit with our last 20 mile day on the Timberline Trail.) We took the “nature walk” since that typically means a short, often paved, loop, usually less than a half mile, with lots of helpful signs and pictures explaining the nearby sites, plants, or animals.
The Ape Cave is the third longest lava tube in North America. We hiked through the 1.25 mile tunnel from the parking lot, then walked back on the above ground trail. The parking lot and visitors’ center are in the middle of the tunnel. From there, you can take the long challenging way through the tunnel or the short easy walk way. We decided to do the long loop and descended down into the chilly caves from a beautiful summer June day. Usually, visitors need a recreation pass to park, costing $10, but since it was National Get Outdoors day, fees were waived. (Yes, it counts to get outdoors even if you then go back inside a cave.)
Lava Tubes are formed when hot lava flows beneath the surface of the earth, either due to the surface lava cooling and forming a crust, or due to flows that originate underground. Once the volcano returns to a dormant state, the tubes become caves, with walls that look like they’ve been carved by water.
The Ape Cave was discovered in the 1950s by a farmer and was maintained as a private tourist destination for many years. It was named the Ape Cave after the naturalist group that first explored the tunnel.
The caves were very creepy. Without light, they were pitch black, and the only sound was the dripping water. I was surprised how quickly the sounds of other hikers in the cave faded as we moved deeper into the cave. There were three six to eight foot walls that we had to climb up. The caves were pretty crowded at this point, so we had to stop and wait for other groups to go up or down one at a time.
It took us about 75 minutes to get the full way through, and about 20 minutes to walk back to the parking lot from the top of the caves. I was very glad we brought headlamps and not a lantern, since I needed my hands for scrambling and there were a few pretty sizable obstacles.
On the way back down, we passed a spot where you could just see the cratered rim of Mount St. Helens above the trees and below the clouds. We were excited to see the eruption site and resulting crater the the next day.
The nature walk we did, called A Trail of Two Forests, showed impacts from historic lava flows, including tree-shaped holes, where the lava surrounded the tree. The trees caught fire, but the lava flowed around them. . Adam dared to crawl through a 40 foot lava tunnel. Apparently that was a little rough on the knees. I was surprised he fit through at all. If you are in the area, you should probably go check this out just for fun.
That night, we had a spot at a great private campground in Cougar, Washington. Adam’s mom gave him a new flint fire starter that he was excited to try out, and did in fact use successfully for our campfire. I was happy that we had not been able to make a reservation at one of the state parks just down the road, like Beaver Bay and Cougar Camp, and since those were packed and also had signs posted prohibiting alcohol. Overall, it was a great recovery after our time backpacking the Timberline Trail.