I’m just miles away from one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in modern history.
Mount Saint Helens. 1981. A blast that re-shaped the landscape in Washington.
Thirty years later -- I’m crawling through a two-mile-long lava tube on its lower slopes. The Ape Cave, named for the Boy Scouts who explored it. Since then, hiking the Ape Cave has become one of the best reasons to visit Cougar, Washington. Some parts are epic in scope, with smooth, uniform walls – so perfectly formed and regular that it’s hard to believe that hardening lava and gravity were the only forces at work.
Other times, Sarah and I are on our bellies slithering through tight passages – or gingerly stepping over tall piles of volcanic rubble.
Go the Right Way
We are traveling the wrong direction, by the way. Most people start at the main cave entrance near the parking lot. They head upslope, emerging through a huge skylight. We did the opposite, taking the trail through the forest, crossing a snowfield (yes, even in late May), descending into the skylight.
Heading down, we discovered, is actually harder. There are a few steep chutes that would actually be easier to climb then descend. My size is an asset here, allowing me to stretch to footholds that are harder for Sarah to reach.
But with our Petzl headlamps illuminating the cave, we move along – swiftly, even. We meet a few groups headed the opposite direction. One group raised our hackles a bit -- someone in the party was smoking – an annoying faux pas. A French family lamented how long they’d been underground, but trudged on.
Things to Wear and Bring
And further we went. The cave, by the way, was cool. I wore a heavy pair of hiking pants, a base layer, a First Ascent Serrano jacket and a Marmot rain jacket. Condensation was falling from the cave ceiling during the entire two-hour trip from top to bottom, so the rain jacket was perfect.
The headlamps I mentioned – indispensable. But bring other light sources and batteries, too. You won’t need gloves, despite what some people might tell you. A bottle or two of water is a good idea. If you have a small tripod, bring it for some long-exposure photos.
By the time we finished, the rain was falling heavier topside. We tried to drive around for a better (that is to say any) view of Mt. Saint Helens. But it was thoroughly socked in by fog. We wound up having an excellent pizza at the Kelso Theater Pub. If you’re looking something to munch on in Kelso, you can also catch a movie while satisfying your hunger. The Theater Pub also has a nice selection of local microbrews.
The Ape Cave isn’t a hard journey – it’s not technical or as tight a fit as other caves I’ve visited. But it’s fun, and a really cool example of volcanism at work. It’s length can make it a touch monotonous, especially if you’re hungry. But I enjoyed it, and I would recommend to anyone who’s OK being separated from the sky for a few hours.