Tag Archive | Washington hiking

2017 Big Four Ice Caves Hike

Friday, September 1, 2017

My last summer hike was to the Big Four Ice Caves, outside of Granite Falls. I had one last summer Friday off at the beginning of the Labor Day weekend, so my girlfriend Katie and I took her kids to see the caves.

They are named the Big Four Ice Caves, not because there are four caves, as the number and composition of the caves changes every year; rather they are named for the Big Four Mountain.  The mountain is apparently named that because of the large “4” shaped snow patch visible on the east face of the mountain.  There is debate about whether the “4” forms anymore, but you can see an old photo of it here (scroll down a bit).

The trail starts with a paved path through the woods; you can turn right to head to a grassy field with a picnic area. There used to be an old hotel there, but only the chimney remains. Of course, I didn’t find that out until after – I would have checked it out had I known!

The trail continues over a large aluminum bridge over the Stillaguamish River; it was built after multiple floods kept wiping out the footbridge and the trail. After crossing the bridge, the trail gets a little tougher, heading up the hill, but it is still easy enough for even little kids. The trail is gravel and boardwalk and winds through the forest. The kids enjoyed checking out the stumps and the rocks and the sticks and the mushrooms and the flowers and the pine needles and the moss and… Well, you get the idea…

The Stillaguamish River – that’s a mouthful!


Me on one of the footbridges

The trail comes out of the woods and we were surrounded by whispy white seed pods being carried through the air. A flower was going to seed and releasing all its pods to float on the wind; it was neat to just watch them being carried along. Bonus: the kids loved it!

At this point you can see Big Four Mountain looming above, with its steep granite face. We teased the kids and let them know that we were climbing to the top of the mountain!

We came around one last corner on the trail and saw the caves; they are a fascinating sight! These caves are formed by avalanche snow and ice that slides down the Big Four Mountain each winter and accumulates here.  The caves are made from a huge slab of ice that generally remains year round at the base of the mountain, because it is in the shade. The melting ice creates caves beneath the ice pack.  Of course, the fact that they are melting also makes it extremely unstable.

The surrounding mountains


Big Four Ice Caves

A word of caution here: it is NOT safe to enter the caves, or even go close to them. At least half a dozen people have died here in the last decade, including an 11-year-old girl named Grace Tam who was crushed in 2011 when a giant slab of ice destabilized and rolled down the top of the cave, crushing her as her family looked on. She was standing outside of the cave.  There is no cell service here, and help is a one mile hike down the mountain and a 15 mile drive to reach an area with cell reception.

Of course, we saw lots of people standing right outside the cave, in the cave, and even walking around on top of the cave. Not only adults, but adults with their small children and their dogs. It would be hard to say they hadn’t seen the signs explaining the danger, which are numerous, so we’ll just have to chalk it up to the, “it won’t happen to me mentality.” And it probably won’t, until it does…

Darwin Award Contenders


At least no one died while we were there…

We stayed a safe distance back, and sat on the rocks and enjoyed a picnic with the kids. We talked with them about why we didn’t go any closer, and talked about how other people get to make other choices, and how sometimes those choices have risks. There was a slight mishap with some dropped gum (not mine!) and we decided to make our way back to the car to find some food!

A robin at the caves

The entire hike is 2.2 miles round trip, with a 220 foot elevation gain, so it is easy enough for small children and those who are less physically fit.  Even though it’s easy, the destination is impressive!

On the way back, we did a very brief stop at a mining tunnel that was carved into the mountain around the turn of the last century. A man dug it himself looking for mineral laden ore, although I’m not sure what he was mining for. Like many mining claims, I can’t imagine it was long lived or profitable, but it did make for an interesting pit stop to see a tunnel dug into the mountain…

The mining tunnel

We finished our day with lunch and a beer at RAM – always delicious and a worthwhile stop!

2017 Ape Cave Hike

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!

Shelley and I sign posing

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…

The entrance to both the lower and upper caves

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.

It doesn’t look like much looking down, but that wall was taller than me…

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!

A view of the skylight – close to being done!

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.

The ladder you climb to exit the cave


The exit – we made it out!

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.

The surface hike back


Me! With a really cool dead tree

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!