If you’re looking for some climbing, some slime and some Bigfoot lore, the recently-reopened Ape Cave at Mount St. Helens may be the sweet spot. The pitch-black cave provides a trek into where lava pulsated some 2,000 years ago.
If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a bat — or perhaps a Sasquatch. The Ape Cave, nearby Ape Canyon and the mountain as a whole are cloaked in the lore of Bigfoot, Sasquatch, the Apeman, or what some have called “hairy apes.”
To prepare for the excursion, spend the drive out to the National Volcanic Monument brushing up on the epic 1924 battle in Ape Canyon between a gold mining crew and a score of “hairy apes.” Kelso Resident Fred Beck recounts a key piece of Mount St. Helens’ Bigfoot history: the tense standoff between himself and the apparently angry creatures, one of which reaches into his cabin to take hold of an axe.
Find the story under “The Classics” at bigfootencounters.com.
Your trip may or may not include a violent Sasquatch encounter, but you’ll get your fair share of views, from the seraphic skylight where lush ferns drape into the barren cave, to the ancient lava fields now hosting blankets of moss and lichen. Pay attention to the lava rock below your feet, where ridges appear frozen mid-flow.
U.S. Forest Service rangers told The Chronicle this week that more of these lava tubes likely exist below the surface of the mountain. Deer mice and bats now dwell where molten rock used to flow.
When you descend into the darkness, take the “upper cave” path for a longer journey (about a mile and a half), which demands a bit of scrambling. And while you should keep your eyes on your footing, make sure to catch a glimpse of the glittery — and oftentimes slimy — ceiling. Lava stalactites punctuate the rocky walls, which transform from broad openings to small, watch-your-head crevices as you walk.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Ape Cave is the third longest lava tube in North America at 2.5 miles. It was discovered in 1947 by Lawrence Johnson, a logger, but was only explored a few years later by a troop of Scouts, who lowered themselves into the cave and named it after their sponsor, the St. Helens Apes.
The genesis of the cave itself stems from a kind of eruption that was unusual for the Cascades: a basaltic eruption, which involves fluid lava. It’s the only known basaltic eruption of the volcano, and it sent lava pouring down the south side of the mountain.
On your way out, stop at the Trail of Two Forests, where a boardwalk trail meanders through a young forest situated on a mossy lava field.
Gaping holes and tubes show where trees once stood, until burning lava surrounded the trunks, making near-perfect casts that visitors can now climb into. One tunnel, formed by fallen trees encompassed in lava, provides a claustrophobic crawl space for the brave-hearted.
Rangers also told The Chronicle that a special, unmarked “Lake Cave” is situated behind the restrooms at the Trail of Two Forests. And while the interwebs claim the secret gem is real, reporters traversed several overgrown trails and were unsuccessful in finding it. Perhaps we had our leg pulled.
Be sure to reserve your spot at recreation.gov, and bring your coat and plenty of light sources.
To get to the Ape Cave from Interstate 5, take Exit 22 and turn left onto Dike Access Road. Continue onto old Pacific Highway and then take a slight left on East Scott Avenue. Take the second exit at the traffic circle onto Lewis River Road where you’ll travel for about 30 miles. Continue onto Road 90 before eventually turning onto National Forest Road 83. Take a left at National Forest Road 8303 and follow the signs to the cave.