I happened across Ape Caves purely by accident. I was on my way to hike around the south side of Mount St Helens, as I had hit the north side a few times previously. I was absurdly early, as the sun hadn’t even come up yet, so I was scoping out the map for other points of interest.
Now, I am a planner in some sense of the words. However, I also have a strong sense of “Ah, screw it,” and just go for it without much planning. This was one of those times. While I had a flashlight, and a headlamp on me, they weren’t exactly the type you would need for a cave.
I did venture into the cave, but quickly realized how under powered I was in the lighting department, and decided to travel about 200 yards down the “Easy” side of it. Like a lot of places in the PNW it’s good to arrive early to avoid crowds. Being able to turn off my lights and be in total darkness and silent was both eerie and awesome.
I decided to retreat and regroup with some better equipment (shameless plug), and possibly another person to tackle the “Difficult” side of the caves, which is actually a lava tube from the mountain. It would turn out to be a very good decision.
I tricked my coworker, Laurence, into coming with me. That way if anything went wrong I wouldn’t die alone. When the Forestry Service labelled it “Difficult” they were not joking. Ape Caves is actually a lava tube from Mount St Helens, so it has two openings.
While the distance isn’t very far, it was one of the most difficult hikes I’ve done, if you can even call it a hike. There were places we had to crawl, others we had to climb up 5-6 feet of rock, all while trying to position our lights so we could see what the Hell we were doing.
While some tight spaces would open to large caverns, easy to get through, others would open to even larger caverns filled with giant rocks that required some strategery and team work to pass. This was definitely a full-body workout and I am happy with my decision to bring someone along. Doing this alone, would have been even freakier.
After emerging, you backtrack on the surface to the parking lot, essentially following the same path back to the parking lot. Once there, the lot was full, with people using the overflow lot. I couldn’t imagine waiting in line through what we just traversed underground.
Afterwards, we went back up to the Summit Trail for St Helens, since Laurence had not been up there yet. I am only mentioning this because on the way back down we encountered a black bear.
We didn’t get a great video of the bear, but he or she was moving pretty fast parallel to the trail, luckily in the opposite direction. It was by far the closest I have been to a bear without a fence in between us or being inside a vehicle. At the time I was more focused on not being eaten, but looking back it was a little freaky.
Luckily the bear could not have cared less about Laurence and I. It did stop once and kind of looked around, but then kept on moving down the mountain. The funniest part was we passed two hikers on the way up and let them know and they acted like we just told them we saw a fawn.
Ape Caves is definitely worth a visit, but I would say a few things that are a must are: teamwork makes the dream work; bring not only a high-powered headlamp, but also a handheld; durable clothing as you will be climbing and crawling on rocks; and take your time.