Crawling over boulders 100 feet below the earth’s surface, I was consumed by excitement and pitch black. A damp chill clung to the walls of the lava tube and any exposed skin. The only light, the one I carried.
Behind the shadow of the south rim of Mt. St. Helens, ancient lava tubes known as the Ape Caves flow away from the volcano. Hallowed out by its slow flow, the tubes formed over 2,000 years ago and created a spectacular 13,042 feet long tunnel encased by cooled lava – that’s the longest known lava tube in the continental United States.
With two entrances the cave is split into sections for visitors. The lower cave (.75 miles) is an easy walk through an open tube to the end of the flow while the upper section is a more adventurous 1.5 mile long trek over several boulder piles and an 8 foot lava wall. For either trail you’ll want to wear a warm jacket and bring a flashlight or headlamp.
After 2+ hours exploring the lava tube, I emerged into the daylight but the adventure didn’t stop there. Continuing down FS83, we hiked the Lava Canyon trail, a short interpretation loop hike to the Smith Creek trail. This trail continued down the old lava bed – exposed during the 1980 eruption – and along a steep cliff showing off waterfall after spectacular waterfall.
From Portland, drive north on I-5 to exit 21 for Woodland and State Route 503. Continue on this highway past the town of Cougar then turn left onto Forest Service road 83 and follow the signs to the Ape Caves parking lot. A northwest forest pass is required to park. You can purchase a day pass on site for $5 or an annual pass before heading out.
Check out more photos from my trip up Lava Canyon and through the Ape Caves: