Inside the Ape Caves at Mount St. Helens

26 June 2015 | Episode |

Last year, friends of ours took my family on one of the most epic adventures: We hiked the Ape Caves at Mt. St. Helens.

Since this summer is shaping up to be hot hot hot, this is a great place to cool of and have an epic adventure where it is always 42 degrees.

This is a quick history and overview of the caves from

About 2,000 years ago lava poured down the southern flank of Mount St. Helens in streams. As the lava flowed the outer edges of the lava stream cooled forming a hardened crust which insulated the molten lava beneath. This allowed the lava to remain hot and fluid encased in this “lava tube” and continued flowing months during the eruption. The end result was the creation of this spectacular 13,042 long lava tube. This formation is especially unusual at Mount St. Helens as this type of volcano usually erupts lava of a much thicker consistency which tends to block flow and build up pressure resulting in explosive eruptions like the blast of 1980.

Now you know. You’re welcome.


A ‘skylight’ at the Ape Caves

This was our adventure

On a cloudy day just over a year ago, we made our way to the famous volcano, parked the car and gathered our gear.

The main entrance to the cave is welcoming, a staircase leads down a big hole in the ground and then…
Here I should interject and talk about the fact that I’ve hiked through several popular caves in Europe. I don’t call myself a spelunker (had to add that word in here somewhere) but what surprised me right from the start was that the Ape Caves, which are very popular, are very different compared to the caves I ”spelunked” (am I using this right?) in the Alps.

The caves I previously visited are well marked, sometimes even lit, with good, and obvious trails, sometimes guard rails and stairs. The Ape Caves are wild in comparison.

About gear

You need flashlights, but headlamps really are the best options.
Some people take lanterns, but if you’re planning on taking the longer route you’ll be required to scramble (there is that word again) over some boulders and lanterns could get in the way.
Headlamps are best, trust me. And not just for caving. I love them dearly for many tasks, even around the house.
Also: Some people take climbing gloves, if you have anything like that it would be worth considering, but we didn’t have any and survived fine. Gardening gloves also work.
A definite must are sturdy shoes, long pants and a long sleeve sweater. Even if it’s hot outside, the temperature in the cave doesn’t change from 42 degrees, and is quite cool. The boulders and rocks can be sharp in places, so remember, you’re not on the beach!
Also to note: You’re officially not allowed to bring any food or water into the caves, so you gotta plan for that, since the upper cave trail is about 1.5 miles takes 2.5 hours to complete.



Take it all in, those are the last few rays of sunshine you will see for awhile.

Pretty much right after you leave the stairwell at the main entrance hall, it gets pitch dark. Well, duh you’re in a cave, but with two kids in tow this took me a bit by surprise.
The light of the headlamps is the only thing to guide your eyes and there is no path, no trail. There is, for the most part, only one obvious way of course, but you are on your own navigating through the lava long tube.
Once you’re adjusted your expectation, the Ape Caves become fun. Adjusting your eyes will help too.
If you are caving with a few friends, you get to help each other navigate to boulders, find your way and experience some awesome bonding. This should be a team building exercise for your hot tech startup.
The experience is one of a kind. Sharp boulders, the deep tunnel, very little signs of life… being so long under ground is not for everyone. Our kids had a couple of moments when they wanted to be done, but as a team we kept them focused on the “trail” ahead. We did this by showing them the cool rock formations and explained to them how unique this place is.


The exit ladder.

If you’re unsure if you can make it all the way on the longer route, consider taking the shorter one, which begins at the same entrance but you take the opposite direction, down the mountain on a one-way trip which can be hiked, there and back in an hour, total.
On the longer route there are a few unique and exciting features. The ‘lava fall’ is an 8ft drop you have to scale. Work as a team and help each other up the little headwall.
Toward the back part of the cave there are a couple ‘skylights’ which create incredible visuals, especially after you’ve been under ground for over a couple of hours.


Exiting the Ape Caves after over two hours underground.

Once you reach the end of the lava tube, a ladder leads you out of the cave and back to daylight.
The trail back is a pleasant hike through some awesome volcanic terrain on a slight downhill path back to the parking lot, main cave entrance, and little visitor center with gift shop.


Hiking back through bizarre and amazing volcanic landscape.

We didn’t stay long at the parking lot, as it was a busy day, but packed up and headed to back Yale Lake, which offers a few great picnic spots on a beautiful maintained lake side.

An adventure it was, but not a very photogenic one. Of course, we all loved having done it and are now ready to take another family on this adventure. The Ape Caves are best done with someone who’s previously been in there and feels comfortable navigating and knows what to expect.

How to get there:

The Ape Caves are located on the south side of Mount St. Helens. From I-5 you can the caves via Highway 503 past the little town Cougar, WA right on Yale Lake.
From the Mount St.Helens Visitor Center is about an hour to the Cave. You need a Northwest Forest Pass to park your car.

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