It’s not too often you can tell someone you’ve been to the inside of a lava tube.
A lava what?
Yes, a lava tube. But if you plan a hike to the Ape Caves in Washington State, that’s exactly what you’re going to get.
If you are looking for a completely different hiking experience – one that combines ancient volcanic evidence and a challenging hike – then the Ape Caves should be on your short list.
This hike is described as both unique and challenging. Not for the faint of heart, it’s a mix of geological wonder and a physical test of strength.
What Exactly Are the Ape Caves?
This place isn’t just a cave, this is actually a geological site that’s classified as a lava tube. This means that it’s a natural tunnel where molten lava actually used to flow.
Thankfully the molten lava is no longer a threat. Instead, it has left behind this amazing natural site that makes for a great hiking adventure.
Technically in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the Ape Caves are located South of Mount St. Helens in Washington State.
The lava tube itself is about 13,000 feet long. The hike within the Ape Caves is over two miles in length, 2.6 miles round trip to be exact. While the elevation gain is only around 400 feet, don’t let that fool you.
And this isn’t just any lava tube either. Ape Cave is the third longest lava tube in North America and the longest in the Continental United States.
It’s hard to believe this tube wasn’t even discovered until 1951. Since it’s discovering, the trails have been hiked by tens of thousands of visitors each year. It’s a popular destination and with good reason – it’s not something you find every day in nature.
The caves present challenges for hikers that can make it somewhat difficult but definitely worth the effort.
Hiking the Ape Caves
Here’s where it gets even more interesting (as if the word “lava tube” didn’t have you hooked already).
There are actually two trails for you to choose from when hiking the Ape Cave.
The first trail is referred to as the Out and Back. As the name implies, you will hike down into the Lower Cave and then exit back out the way you came.
It’s also referred to as the Lower Cave. This is considered the easier hike of the two. If you are a beginner hiker or unsure of your expertise level, then it’s advised you try this hike first. It’s about a 2-mile hike, and the elevation gain is around 180 feet.
If you go this route, make sure you look for the famous “meatball” within the Lower Cave. It’s a large block of lava that has cooled and fallen into the ceiling of the lava tube. It’s wedged into a very narrow spot, making it look like it’s floating on the surface.
The second trail is known as the Loop, or the Upper Cave hike. This is an additional 2.7 miles of hiking and is considered the more challenging hike of the two. The elevation gain is 640 feet, thus making it a little tougher.
The Upper Cave hike is uphill for the first mile. Further into the hike, there is an 8-foot wall that needs to be climbed. If you are hesitant to climb this wall, then you have to turn around. Once you make it up this wall, it is a short walk to the ladder that will exit you from the lava tube and back onto the path.
If you are really brave, you can explore additional tunnels within the Upper Cave. You can try your hand at shimmying in and out of these tight quarters.
The Caves are open year-round which allows you to either hike or snowshoe the trail.
It definitely takes time for the hiking and discovering all the intricacies of the caves. You should plan on making a day of it and devoting several hours to the exploration.
How to Get to the Ape Caves
As mentioned previously, the Ape Caves are located South of Mount St. Helens, in the state of Washington. It takes about an hour to reach the caves if you’re coming from the visitor’s center of Mount St. Helens.
First, you will take I – 5 to Exit 21, SR503. This is the Woodland/Cougar Exit. You’ll turn right onto Highway 503S. You then drive 23.4 miles to the junction of Lewis River Road and SR503. Continue straight toward Cougar.
You will drive an additional 12 miles, through Cougar and over the Lewis River Levee. Eventually, the road will change names to FR90. Turn left onto FR 83. Drive 1.8 miles and turn left onto FR 8303, following signs for Ape Cave. Drive one mile and then turn right for the Ape Caves. You will see the upper parking area, or you can park at the overflow parking area if that one is full.
Oh, and you will need the NW Forest Pass to be able to park in the parking lot. The pass usually costs $5 a day or $30 for the season.
If you are exploring the caves during the winter time, then you have to park further out at the Trail of Two Forests Trailhead. It’s an additional 0.7 miles away from Ape Cave. You also have to make sure you’re in possession of the Sno-Park Permit.
Preparing for a Hike at Ape Caves
Here is a list of items you need to make sure you have the most enjoyable experience possible.
1. Warm Clothes
So when it comes to hiking in an ancient lava tube, it’s a good news/bad news scenario. The good news is, no matter the weather, it’s pretty much the same temperature all year round.
The bad news is, that temperature is usually between 40 and 50 degrees.
While in the hot summer months, the lower temperature may not sound too terrible, it only poses an issue if you haven’t packed correctly. No matter what time of year it is, you definitely need to dress for cooler temperatures. Dressing in layers is the smart way to go.
2. Hiking Boots
You might have assumed this, but in this case, proper hiking boots are a must. The caves are extremely hard underfoot. It’s not just the hardness either, parts of the caves are actually sharp and jagged too.
As you can imagine, when the lava tube formed over 2000 years ago, there wasn’t much in the way of electricity. That hasn’t changed after all these years and lighting has not been installed.
Not only do you need to bring a flashlight for your hike, it’s advised that you bring a backup light as well. These caves are so, so dark.
If you have forgotten your lighting, you can usually rent a lantern at the Ape Cave Headquarters for $5.
If you are planning on venturing out to the Upper Caves, then gloves are a must. The jagged and potentially loose rocks make gloves a necessity.
5. Leave Your Pets and Food at Home
Due to the nature of this hike, you will have to leave your four-legged friends at home.
Also, no food or alcohol is allowed. And since there aren’t any restrooms within the caves, this is definitely for the best. All these limitations are for your safety.
Plan Your Visit to Washington’s Finest Hiking Spots – the Ape Caves Await
Planning a trip to the Ape Caves is undeniably a unique and intriguing experience for you and your family. Yes, there are definitely aspects of this hike that can seem intimidating. With the right preparation and proper planning, it can be a tremendous amount of fun too.
And if you are willing to get out of your comfort zone, you will be rewarded with an experience unlike any other.
How many times in your life do you get to brag to your friends that you hiked a lava tube? That’s what we thought, so what are you waiting for? Go grab your lantern and get ready to explore this amazing underground hiking adventure.