Friday, August 11, 2017
In August, I took a trip to Portland with a friend and her son for a long weekend. We made a stop on the way on the south side of Mount St. Helens, to do the Ape Cave hike!
Ape Cave was formed when about 2,000 years ago lava erupted down the south side of Mount St. Helens. As the lava flowed the outer edges of the lava cooled and formed a hardened crust which kept the lava underneath in a molten state. As a result the hot lava flowed in a lava tube and continued flowing for months during the eruption. The Ape Cave lava tube is 13,042 feet long, the third longest lava tube in North America, and the longest in the continental United States (for people who pay attention to these sort of statistics…). A lava tube like this is rare at Mount St. Helens because the mountain typically has thicker lava which tends not to result in lava tubes; instead it builds up pressure which then causes explosive eruptions like the eruption in 1980.
We got to Ape Cave about 1:30 in the afternoon after a several hour drive. It was definitely time to stretch our legs and get moving. There are two options to hike Ape Cave, the upper cave and the lower cave. The lower Ape Cave is about 0.75 miles long with a flat floor and is considered “easy,” appropriate for kids and people that are not up for doing the upper cave. The upper Ape Cave is 1.5 miles long, with approximately 27 boulder piles that must be climbed over. When the lava tube finally cooled, the molten lava drained out and the ceiling began to shrink and crack. Boulders fell from the ceiling, in some places leaving the piles and in others leaving the entrances. Even where there aren’t boulder piles, the hardened lava is uneven to walk on. There are also two rock wall obstacles in the cave that need to be scaled too, only one of which was in the website literature we read…
We decided to do the Upper Ape Cave, because who wants to do the easy hike?!? Pretty quickly we were absolutely alone. In the dark… With just our headlamps to keep us company. We made our way through the cave, climbing up the boulders and then back down the pile on the other side. Over lots and lots of rock piles… Over lots of uneven lava floor. The walls of the cave were fascinating. There was cave slime and interesting colors on the walls and the boulders.
I mentioned before that there are two spots in the cave that are more than just moderate. This is where the cave gets its “difficult” rating. The first spot we came to is about a 7 foot rock wall that you had to scale. Lucky for us, a ranger happened along at that point and let us know where the two footholds are. They don’t seem like they are allowed to help by giving you a boost though… The footholds help you get high enough up the wall that you can hoist yourself over, but you still need some strength to make it happen! I had strained my knee the weekend before, so I was a little worried about it, but managed to hoist myself up and over on the second try.
The second challenge was a bit different. You had to use a foothold to get up on a natural step – that part wasn’t hard – but then you had to scoot between the wall and and rock and then scoot your bum up and over the rock to get up to the higher level. The other option was to just pull yourself over the rock from the foothold, but I wasn’t strong enough for that. In short, if you don’t have the upper body strength, you have to be slender enough to scoot between the rocks. This obstacle was the hardest part of the cave for three short weaklings!
Toward the end of the cave you reach a little garden oasis, where the ceiling has fallen in and allowed light and soil to reach into the cave. There are ferns and other plants growing there. We took some photos there and continued on, since we knew we were getting close to the end!
Due to all the climbing over rock piles, it felt like way more distance than a 1.5 mile hike. The elevation during the hike moves from about 1,900 feet to about 2,400 feet, but you won’t notice the elevation gain with all the climbing over boulders… We reached the end after about 2.5 hours in the cave, which the literature says is the expected time. Admittedly, we took a lot of breaks along the way… We were tired at the end, but we still had to climb out of the cave using a ladder.
Once we were back above ground, we hiked back to the trail back through ashy soil and the remnants of the 1980 eruption all around.
If you go… Dress for a 45 degree cave – there’s no sun to warm you up. Wear pants to protect your legs and closed toed shoes, preferably hiking boots or hiking shoes – trust me on this, you will appreciate the leg protection and parts of the cave are slick. Bring a headlamp; you will want to be hands-free as you climb over the boulders. If you can, bring someone tall and strong! That would have made the obstacles way easier… And lastly – you can do it, mind over matter my friends!
What a fun hike!