Get Outside in a Cave...Mt. St. Helens Ape Caves
The full experience at Mt. St. Helens Ape Caves includes the easy exploration of a spacious lava tube, followed by more difficult travel through a smaller, longer, and more rugged lava tube to an exit. Then, enjoy an easy return hike winding through shady forest and crusty lava formations.
Mt St Helen's Ape Caves
Before you go, make sure everyone in your party is aware of the restrictions and conditions: No food, pets, smoking, or rock collecting. Do not touch the walls, which harbor cave “slime”, a food source in the cave’s delicate ecosystem. The temperature is a constant 42 degrees F. The ceilings are drippy, and there may be puddles. Bring 2 or 3 light sources and spare batteries. No cave can ever be considered completely safe.
A short distance from the parking lot, enter the large cave entrance and descend two staircases to the floor of the cave and the signed junction between Upper and Lower. The data listed above for mileage and elevation gain exclude the lower cave, combining only the upper cave and the return trail. You may find that you hike more miles if you explore the Lower Cave as well.
Head into the Upper Cave. It's a 1.5 rugged miles one way, requiring significantly more time, caution, and some physical agility. It is a more interesting route though, with the lava tube shape, size, and geology changing frequently. Not far from the staircase, the passage encounters its first of many rock piles. You must climb up, over, or around the abrasive rocks, taking care not to twist an ankle or, in some places, bump your head.
At about 0.8 mile is the narrowest part of the passage, and the crux move: a slick, wet, 8-foot lava fall. Some people need assistance scaling it, as there is only one significant foothold.
Beyond the lava fall are a couple of rock formations that require some physical ability to climb over or to squeeze around. Then at about 1.2 miles is the Skylight, a hole in the ceiling which allows in the first natural light since the entrance. The Skylight is neither a safe nor legal exit.
The affixed metal ladder at about 1.4 miles is the Upper Entrance, and your exit. You may choose to continue the final 500 feet beyond to the natural end of the lava tube. The ceiling is only about 6 feet high in places, so take care. Then retrace your steps to the ladder and head up topside.
The return trail is marked for travel in snow. Simply follow the blue diamond markers affixed high on tree trunks. When snow not present, keep an eye out for other small caves and pockmarks in the rough lava. The trail drops gently the 1.3 miles back to the Main Entrance.
If the Upper Cave is a bit too rugged for you, consider exploring the Lower Cave. It's a broad lava tube that descends gently to its end. The floor is flat (though a bit uneven at first), then sandy later on, from a mud flow that filled the lower portion centuries ago. The end of the cave now is where the sand has filled in to within a couple feet of the ceiling. The Lower Cave is an easy walk, for a 1.5 mile round trip, that houses a popular geologic anomaly known as the Meatball.
Note: Some people hike the trail uphill, then enter the cave via the Upper Entrance. There are two concerns about this: Firstly, the lava fall is easier to ascend than to descend safely. Additionally, from the main entrance, you immediately experience climbing over and around rock piles, enabling you to decide whether the Upper Cave is more than you wish to attempt.
WTA Pro Tip: At 13,042 feet long (about 2.4 miles), Ape Cave is the third longest lava tube in North America. It is sometimes referred to as Ape Caves (plural) because the main entrance is between its two ends, referred to as the Lower Cave and Upper Cave.
Ape Cave was formed nearly 2000 years ago from lava streaming down the southern flank of Mount St. Helens. As the outer edges cooled into a hardened crust, the inner molten lava was able to drain away before it hardened, leaving behind a tube. After discovering the cave in approximately 1950, a logger told his spelunker friend. That friend explored the cave with his sons and their friends, who called themselves the Mount St. Helens Apes. Thus the name of the cave. poles are a big help for the knees. Depending upon the time of year, it is also possible to glissade down part of the mountain (but be cautious).
From I-5 exit 21, travel north and east on State Route 503 (Lewis River Road). At 23 miles from the freeway, continue straight on Spur 503. At 31 miles, Spur 503 becomes Forest Road 90. Cross a bridge over a canal, then 2.6 miles later, turn left on FR 83. Travel 1.7 miles then turn left on FR 8303. Travel the final mile to the parking lot and Ape Headquarters Center. The parking lot has room for 50-60 vehicles, including bus and RV spots. There are vault toilets and garbage cans, but no drinking water. When it’s open, Ape Headquarters Center offers rental lanterns.
If the road is gated at the Trail of Two Forests junction (e.g. early in the season), you will have an additional half mile or so to walk, depending on how close you can park. A Sno-Park permit is required from December 1 through March 31, a Northwest Forest Parking Pass for the rest of the year.
Badger Peak Trail
Gifford Pinchot National Forest 10-mile round-trip; elevation gain 1,600 feet with a high point of 5,664 feet. The best spot in the Dark Divide roadless area for dramatic views of Mount St. Helens and the blast zone.
From I-5 north, take exit 21 to Cougar. Drive through Cougar along the north side of Swift Reservoir. At the end of the reservoir, continue straight onto Road 25. Be sure that you DON'T take Road 90. Stay on FR-25 for 17.1 miles until you see the sign for Mosquito Meadows turnoff. Take a sharp right onto a gravel road (FR 28) and drive 2.3 miles. The Mosquito Meadows trailhead is on the right side of the road.
A couple parking spots are available on the side of the road but if you're looking for a campsite, continue 1.2 miles down FR 28. A great campsite with tent spaces, parking, water, even a fire pit is located off to the right.
Note that Day Hiking: South Cascades says to continue past this trailhead and follow FR 2816 but the road is impassable further on.
High Rock Trail
Gifford Pinchot National Forest 3-mile round-trip; elevation gain 1,400 feet with a high point of 5,658 feet. A steady climb to a lookout with views of Rainier, Adams, and St. Helens.
From Elbe, about 40 miles south of Tacoma along State Route 7, follow SR-706 east for 10.1 miles. When you pass Ashford, it is approximately two more miles to your next turn, a right onto Kernahan Road.
Follow the road 1.4 miles. Here it curves to the left, and becomes Skate Creek Road, which you follow for 3.3 miles. Turn onto FR-84, a smooth dirt road. Note that the sign for FR-84 is not visible when approaching the trailhead this way. After turning onto FR-84, continue on for 6.5 miles. Stay right when it forks. You are now on Road 8440. 2.6 miles along 8440, the road levels off and gets broad enough to park a dozen or more vehicles. This is Towhead Gap. Park here, at elevation 4320 feet. No pass is required. High Rock and the cabin are visible from the east side of the parking area.
It is possible to drive up to Towhead Gap from the other side, using Road 85, but take caution! Road 85 is considerably worse than Road 84; a couple of the potholes on Road 85 large enough to cause trip-ending damage, even to a high-clearance vehicle.
Strawberry Mountain Lookout Trail
Gifford Pinchot National Forest .75-mile round-trip; 500 feet elevation gain with a high point of 5,464 feet. Drive most of the way to view the volcano from this awesome lookout sight.
From Tonasket, take Highway 20 east for 24 miles to County Road 4953 (Bonaparte Recreation Area). Take this road 5.5 miles to where it turns into Forest Service Road 32.
Proceed down FR 32 for three miles to the junction with FR 33. Turn onto FR 33 6 miles to the junction with the FR 3300-050. Take FR 3300-050 left for 0.2 mile to the trail sign on the left across from the Lost Lake Guard Station at the Lost Lake Campground entrance.
Tongue Mountain Trail
Gifford Pinchot National Forest 3.5 mile-round-trip; elevation gain 1,300 feet with a high point of 4,750 feet. Hike through groves of pine trees to a lookout where Adams, Rainier, and St. Helens are all magnificent on the horizon.
From Randle, drive 1 mile south on Forest Road 25 and then turn left (east) onto FR 23. Continue south on FR 23 for 9 miles, then turn right onto FR 28. Continue 1 mile and turn left onto FR 29. Four miles down FR 29, turn left onto FR 2904, and in another 4 miles look for the trailhead on the left (north) side of the road-opposite the Juniper Ridge Trail -at about 3600 feet elevation.
Sunrise Peak Trail to Jumbo's Shoulder
Gifford Pinchot National Forest 7-mile round-trip; elevation gain 2,000 feet with a high point of 5,500 feet. This steep trail takes you through fall-foliage meadows to a view of the volcano.
From Randle, turn south onto FR 131. At the first major fork, take the left-hand branch, which is FR 23. Proceed along paved FR 23 for a little more than 23 miles to a junction with FR 2324. Turn onto gravel FR 2324 and proceed 5 miles, then turn left on spur road 063.
Go another quarter-mile up this steep, rough spur road to the small trailhead parking lot. The official name of the trail is the Sunrise Trail #262. The hiker-only route up to the peak is #262A.
Juniper Ridge Trail
Gifford Pinchot National Forest 8 miles round trip; elevation gain 2,000 feet; high point 5,611 feet. A classic hike with dramatic views of volcanoes and the Cispus River below.
From Randle, travel south on Highway 131 (Forest Roads 23 and 25). After a mile, veer left onto Forest Road 23 and proceed for for 8.1 miles to the junction of Forest Road 28. Continue on Forest Road 28 for 1 mile and turn left on Forest Road 29. Follow Forest Road 29 for 4.1 miles and turn left on Forest Road 2904. Follow Forest Road 2904 for 4.2 miles and arrive at the trail on the right at Lambert Saddle.
Hamilton Butte Trail
Gifford Pinchot National Forest 1.5 mile-round-trip; 900 feet elevation gain with a high point of 5,772 feet. This area was buried in pumice when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980. A great short hike.
From Randle, drive 1 mile south on Forest Road 25 and turn left (east) onto FR 23 (Cispus Road). Continue to a junction with FR 22. Turn left onto FR 22, drive 4.1 miles, and turn right onto FR 2208. Continue 2.6 miles and turn right onto FR 78. Follow FR 78 2.5 miles to FR 7807. Bear left and continue on FR 7807 for 3 miles to Spur Road 7807-29. Drive to the trailhead at the end of the road.