Have you ever heard of the Ape Cave?
Yea, me either, until I moved to Washington state.
Fun fact, people in Washington thinks it’s amusing that I refer to it as “Washington state”. But in New Jersey where I grew up, “Washington” usually refers to the capital city of the United States. Makes sense to me.
Did you know there’s a Vancouver, Washington? Also confusing.
Anyway, I digress. The Ape Cave is a really interesting geological wonder. Lava tunnels from Mount Saint Helens formed it several centuries ago.
So I guess technically it’s not a cave. And there are no apes in it either, in case you were concerned. The name comes from a group of spelunkers who called themselves Mount St. Helens Apes.
It definitely feels like a cave though. It’s dark, cold and wet.
There are several options on how you can explore the caves. Not far from the parking lot is an entrance to the tunnel. This gives you two hiking paths, and three different ways of exploring.
Enter the tunnel through the first entrance and turn right. This takes you to the Lower Cave, which is probably the easiest exploration.
It’s an easy, mostly flat walk on mud and sand for about 1.5 miles round trip. There are some cool formations to see. This is also probably the best one to do with younger kids.
Enter the tunnel through the first entrance and turn left (same one as above). This will have you hiking the Upper Cave, which is definitely trickier than the Lower.
You will encounter rock falls that can be difficult to climb over if you are not in decent shape. There are also some parts of this trek that are narrow and require squeezing through smaller spots.
Definitely bring a friend if you choose this option, as you may need help in some areas. It’s about 1.5 miles ONE WAY, so takes more time and effort than the Lower Cave.
Hike the trail uphill first, before entering the cave- to the area you would exit if you choose option two. It’s about 1.3 miles to the upper entrance, with the trail marked with blue diamonds.
This was the option I choose, although this may be the most difficult way to explore the cave. It was also not easy to find the upper entrance, as the trail sort of meanders to an end.
Look for a depression and small opening in a large open area. You will see the ladder that descends into the cave, but otherwise there are no markings.
Most of the rock falls are easier to ascend than descend. If I had known this, I might have chosen option two but it was my first time there. You can manage it, as there are ropes throughout the cave in harder sections. Also good to have a buddy.
Really, you should just have someone with you if you’re going to wander around in the dark underground.
Things to Remember for the Ape Cave:
- Bring two sources of light. Depending on which option you choose, you may be underground for an hour or more than two. You wouldn’t want your light to go out in the middle of your hike. Scary.
- No pets are allowed in the cave. They probably wouldn’t be able to manage some of the giant rock piles anyway.
- Bring a light jacket or raincoat. It gets cold down there, and there are some lava stalactites that drip water. Best to be prepared.
- Wear good boots that can get wet.
- Do not take any rocks from the caves. It’s not allowed and if you are caught you could be fined.
- You are also not allowed to bring food or beverages inside the cave. Your hands will be too busy climbing things anyway.
- Speaking of your hands, do your best not to touch the walls. The walls actually contain nutrients that support cave life, and touching it could damage or contaminate it.
- The Ape Caves are open year round, but be sure to check snow conditions before making the drive. You might find there’s nowhere to park or additional walking to the entrance.
- You will need a Northwest Forest Pass to use the parking lot and visit the Caves. However, you can buy a day pass once you arrive from March- November.
Driving to the Ape Cave:
It’s about a 4+ hour drive from downtown Seattle to the cave. There are also a few ways you could drive to the caves, depending on what you’re in the mood for.
The fastest way would be to drive the entire way on I-5. However, if you have extra time, it’s worth taking a longer route. This way you can stop at the Windy Ridge Lookout for Mt Saint Helens.
Getting to Windy Ridge lookout is the most “on the way” of the lookout spots in the area. It’s a beautiful drive and at certain points you can see multiple mountains. If you have loads of time, you could drive through Mt Rainer National Park towards Mt Saint Helens.
If you get up early or do this in the summer, I really recommend adding the lookout to your agenda.
You can also camp in the area if that’s your thing, instead of crushing it all in one day.
There’s so much to explore in Washington state! I’ve been here for over 2 years and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Do you have a favorite spot in Washington? Let me know, I’d love to check it out 🙂
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