To enter Ape Cave, you descend a set of stairs into a hole in the ground that suddenly becomes pitch black.
One of the more interesting geological features of the Pacific Northwest lies right in our backyard in southwest Washington state.
Ape Cave was extensively explored in the 1950s by a hiking club known as the Mount St. Helens Apes, hence the name. Now people come from just about everywhere to explore the 2.5 mile lava tube that is administered by the U.S. Forest Service, in the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
Today, I met up with a cheerful and friendly group of guys from Vancouver, Wash., who invited me out to enjoy a hike in the upper portion of the cave, known as the more difficult of the two portions. I had previously hiked the lower portion with my father and younger brother when I was much smaller, but had never been to the upper portion — so I jumped at the chance to go.
Anyone going to Ape Cave should do three major things: (1) wear boots, (2) dress warmly and (3) use a bright headlamp. You’ll need your hands to do some clambering up through several rock fields inside the cave.
Once we arrived, we walked up past the closed gate to the entrance to Ape Cave (pictured above), where we promptly received our first sign the hike was going to be a bit of a test.
The beginning of the Ape Cave upper trail indicates the hike is a bit difficult — multiple scrambles up rocks await.
The inner portion of the cave is wet year round — after all, we live in the Pacific Northwest — so being mindful of where you place your footholds is key. The trail through the cave, about 1.3 miles or so in length, alternates between rock fields and smoother portions of a path.
The group heads down a rather tame portion of the upper trail.
The first half of the cave includes several rock fields that you will absolutely need a headlamp for help navigating. In this instance, a headlamp is better than a flashlight, because you’ll need both hands…
…especially when you come to a portion called “The Ladder.” Members of the group helped each other up, and I have no shame in admitting I took the longest simply because I had the longest legs of anyone there…it was tough to swing my right leg over a portion of the giant rock wall. The Ladder is the toughest part of the climb by far.
Only the penitent man shall pass, and thankfully, all six of us were able to easily kneel before the Lord.
Teamwork is crucial when it comes to an area known as “The Ladder.” Very few footholds exist on a rather difficult rock wall that must be scaled to continue.
Once you’re through The Ladder, the trail continues to alternate between rock fields and smoother paths — but it narrows and the scenery becomes a bit interesting. The structure of the lava tube is incredible to see in person.
The way Ape Cave was formed is nothing short of amazing. What’s not amazing is people defacing the rocks by carving their initials and names into them.
Perfectly formed rock walls on each side of the trail are common throughout Ape Cave.
More rocks and narrow passageways await.
Looking over a piece of rock that had fallen somewhat recently.
Close-up shot of the rock seen throughout the lava tube.
The hike through the Ape Cave upper trail is very good exercise. For me, it was an equally intense workout for my upper body as well as my legs, owing to the fact I used my arms to provide stability as I navigated the rock fields.
We killed the trail rather quickly — I think I counted an hour and 30 minutes or so — and we encountered a makeshift stairway that takes you out to the open once again, leading to a trail that takes you back to the main parking lot.
Stairway to Heaven. Saint Peter awaits.
Looking down the ladder that leads back to the surface.
We stopped for a few minutes to gnosh on some granola bars and drink some water, then we were headed back for the main parking lot. The hike above ground was impressive in its own right, offering views of a vast forestland that covers most of Skamania County.
The Gifford Pinchot National Forest is home to tall trees and overall beautiful scenery.
Ape Cave is an incredibly awesome trip, one that I highly recommend. The lower trail is perfect for a family excursion, and the upper trail is best suited for more experienced hikers. It’s not only great exercise, but a great experience in one of the more unique geological features of our wonderful region.
If you go, the easiest way to get there this time of year is to take Interstate 5 to Woodland (exit 21), head east into Cougar using State Route 503 and its spur route — then continue following that road as it becomes Forest Road 90. Take a left on Forest Road 83, then a right on Forest Road 8303. Signs directing you to Ape Cave are plentiful.