Several years ago my husband and I took an anniversary road trip on the Oregon Coast, and although we were supposed to spend our last day exploring Ape Caves in Washington, a series of lava tubes formed by Mt. St. Helens, I was pregnant and exhausted at the time so we opted to skip it.
Fast forward 5 years later we found ourselves back on a road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway with our kids this time – and we were determined to visit these elusive lava tubes near Mt. St. Helens. Elusive to us anyway as the drive to get there will pretty much always be out of your way!
On our way to visit Mt. St. Helens and Ape Caves, we discovered these lava tubes in the Trail of Two Forests. Although they are really nothing like Ape Caves, I absolutely recommend stopping quickly to see them. You’ll feel like you’ve fallen right into the Hobbit!
What are lava tubes?
Very simply put, a lava tube is a natural tunnel creating by flowing lava. Of course there is a whole science behind it, but it’s essentially a tunnel or cavern created by lava underneath the surface. Ape Caves is one of those such lava tubes.
Fun Facts about Ape Caves:
Ape Caves is one of the longest lava tubes in North America stretching over 2.5 miles long!
You can choose between two different paths inside Ape Caves. (or choose both!)
This popular lava tube was discovered in the 1950’s!
Where is the Ape Cave Visitor’s Center?
You’re going to want to start at the Ape Headquarters Center in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. You can see a basic map here. Trust me when I tell you that your GPS will stop working deep in the forest, but don’t fret – you shouldn’t get lost if you follow the map! (and I get lost easily!)
You can rent lanterns there if you need but I recommend just bringing your own gear. There are vault toilets there as well which I highly recommend you use before hitting the trail!
Does Ape Cave cost money to enter?
It’s only $5 per vehicle to enter the area! Or you can of course use a National Park Recreation Pass too. We were very fortunate on this 9000 mile road trip that I had my 4th grader with me! You can learn how to get a FREE National Park Pass for 4th graders here!
Ape Cave Hiking Trails:
There are two hiking trails in Ape Cave that you definitely need to know about:
The lower cave is a one way hiking trail (meaning when you get to the end you’ll need to turn around and hike the same path back) that is about 3/4 mile. When you enter the cave, at the bottom of the stairs, the path is clearly marked as you see in the photo above.
As long as you can climb stairs down, you should have no problem at all hiking this trail. It is relatively flat with no major climbing involved. As I mention below, I HIGHLY recommend two light sources PER person. You do NOT want to be left in the dark in Ape Cave!
My entire family of 5, including my 4 year old, easily enjoy the Lower Cave trail.
How to say this – unless you are an Olympic athlete, don’t do the Upper Cave. Ok, just kidding…..sort of. My boys (ages 10 & 12 at the time) and I have been in 40+ caves – mostly show caves, but a few adventurous ones along the way. We consider ourselves fit enough and plenty adventurous. There is a reason the visitors center clearly stresses the strenuous nature of this cave – but NOTHING truly prepared me for how difficult it really was.
The cave trail is only 1.5 miles through the cave and then 1.5 miles back (above ground) once you exit the cave. DO NOT LET THIS FOOL YOU. The 1.5 miles took us a ridiculously long 4 hours after climbing over 27 boulder fields increasing 640 feet in elevation and teamwork grunting over an eight foot rock wall. YOU WILL GET DIRTY.
Most of the path is NOT smooth and you will spend the entire time trying to climb very large boulders hopping around in the dark. Of course we were the slowest bunch in the cave that day but it’s no easy feat.
A few hours in we made it to the 8 foot rock wall and there is almost NO place for good footing. I literally had to wait until some poor high school kid lent me his thigh so I could climb on him and roll myself up the rock wall after pushing my not-so-small tweens up the wall. Just wow.
Although we each had one flashlight, one of our lights did stop working in the cave and it was really difficult to share a flashlight with two people while climbing boulders in the dark. It was truly an adventure for the ages, and the first cave trail I will never do again.
Like I said, we’ve done plenty of cave exploring trips but there’s something about being in the dark for four hours in a rough terrain that does something to you!
My FAVORITE Spot in Ape Cave:
OK – so there was one amazing thing about the Upper Cave trail (aside from coming out with some serious bragging rights!). This photo.
This ABSOLUTELY STUNNING view is found towards the end(ish) of the Upper Cave trail. I’ve been in dozens of caves – most of which have been show caves or simple state park caves to explore on my own. The HOURS of darkness definitely hit me by the time I made it to this point of the cave. This is NOT AN EXIT. It is simply an extremely welcome ray of sunshine as you hike inside the lava caves.
As you can see in the photo above the path is not a nice clear path – and to be honest the path you see above is probably some of the easiest in the Upper Cave trail.
What You Need to Hike in Ape Cave:
TWO flashlights per person
SMALL tight backpack
granola bar (if medically needed)
Regardless of whether you are hiking inside the Lower Cave or Upper Cave I HIGHLY and firmly recommend at least one water bottle per person as well as two light sources PER person. A few band-aids in your pocket wouldn’t be a bad idea.
As we were on a 9000 mile road trip we only had what we had brought from home the month before so we only had one light per person. Unfortunately one of our batteries did die while we were hiking and two of us were forced to carefully share one flashlight to climb over boulder fields. It wasn’t easy.
I do NOT recommend bringing a nice camera. Since my husband and I had split inside the cave earlier I ended up hiking with my DSLR. It DID make it out in one piece (surprisingly!) but it made my climbing much more difficult.
NOTE – you are not supposed to bring food inside the cave so I do NOT recommend eating however due to health issues I did have a granola bar in my backpack that stayed sealed for the duration of our hike inside the cave. It was simply there as an extreme emergency measure.
This is the exit of Ape Cave (or entrance of Ape Cave if you took the hardest way in!). One thing I wasn’t prepared for was how far we had to hike back to the parking lot after exiting this point. You guys, we were EXHAUSTED. I hiked with my two boys which were 12 and 10 at the time of the hike. Man they were troopers – probably better than me.
In fact I’m pretty sure everyone in the cave passed us, evidently I was literally the slowest one in the cave system! I am no fitness buff but I definitely considered myself fit enough until I met this cave! It did me in! BUT I finished the trail and am darn proud of it! It was an amazing experience for sure.
If you’re thinking about a trip to Ape Caves and the Trail of Two Forests – you absolutely must go – even if you stick to the Lower Cave trail. I promise you it’s an adventure you’ve never had before and it’s worth savoring! My kids still consider it one of the coolest things we’ve ever done.
If you’re looking for another unique adventure just a few hours away, check out the Peter Iredale shipwreck on shore before it disappears completely!