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 Helens 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.
Climbers Bivouac Trailhead
This trailhead provides access to: Monitor Ridge Climbing Route the summer climbing route to Mount St Helens Summit, Ptarmigan Trail #216A and the Loowit Trail #216.
Climbers Bivouac has toilets but no water. Tent pads are available for camping on a first come, first serve basis.
Parking at Climbers Bivouac will be limited due to popularity and number of spaces. Motorhomes and travel trailers please park at Marble Mountain Sno Park. Overflow parking is located at Marble Mountain Sno Park, but be advised this parking area access the Worm Flows winter climbing route. Please adjust accordingly and plan for flexibility on your trip.
From Cougar, WA take Lewis River Road/Forest Road 90 east for 6.4 miles then go left on Forest Road 83. Follow Forest Road 83 for 3 miles then stay left onto Forest Road 81 and go about a mile to Forest Spur Road 830. Go right at Forest Road 830 and drive about .4 miles to the trailhead.
Offering picnicking opportunities on the shores of June Lake, this trail is a good choice for families and beginning hikers. June Lake was formed by a 2,000-year-old lava flow blocking a tributary of Swift Creek. The lake is located along the base of a basalt cliff over which a waterfall pours, replenishing the lake’s cold, clear water.
Start by gently climbing through a young forest, following the rushing sounds of a tributary of Swift Creek that flows from June Lake. The lake is soon reached providing a great place to picnic. Continuing, the trail climbs steeply for 0.25 mile to its junction with Loowit Trail #216. June Lake Trail #216B is the shortest access to Loowit Trail #216.
From Cougar, WA drive east for about 13 miles on State Route 503. Take a left on Forest Road 83 and travel approximately 7 miles to the turn off to June Lake Trailhead. Turn left and follow road to the parking area.
During the winter and early spring Forest Road 83 is gated at the Sno-Park.
Trail of Two Forests
View lava casts from 1,900 year old trees. Road clear to site. A Northwest Forest, America the Beautiful Pass, or $5 in the fee tube is required.
This trail loops through two forests that stand side by side, but are separated in age by 2000 years. One forest is old-growth Douglas-fir and western red-cedar and the other is a young forest that was originally engulfed by lava flows from an eruption of Mount St. Helens over two millennia ago. This forest encompasses three-dimensional imprints of trees in the old lava beds called lava casts. The boardwalk trail loops through the two forests, and is kid friendly.
From Cougar, drive east on Forest Road 90 and turn left (north) onto Forest Road 83. Drive 2 miles and turn left onto Forest Road 8303. Continue for 0.5 mile to the trailhead on the left.
Sno-Park: Marble Mountain
Marble Mountain Sno-Park is the starting point for the Worm Flows Climbing Route for Mount St Helens Summit. This is the primary climbing route used during the winter. Marble Mountain Sno-Park offers a trail system that includes 25 miles (snowmobile), and 78.4 kilometers ungroomed (ski). This area is shared with motorized and non-motorized recreationists.
From Cougar, WA drive east on Lewis River Road, which turns into Forest Road 90. Continue on Forest Road 90 until the intersection with Forest Road 83. Turn left on Forest Road 83 and continue approximately 6 miles to the Marble Mountain Sno-Park. During the winter and early spring Forest Road 83 is gated at the Sno-Park.
In this landscape much more stark than the forest below, spectacular views await all visitors. There are three sections of the Lava Canyon Trail distinguished by increasing difficulty. The upper trail is accessible and paved to a waterfall viewpoint. This portion is the easiest and leads you past a series of interpretive signs, which describe the formation of the canyon. The trail begins from Lava Canyon Interpretive Trailhead.
Below the waterfall viewpoint the trail becomes more difficult; it is no longer paved and skirts high cliffs. This segment forms a loop, crossing the canyon on a 125-foot cable suspension bridge. THE SUPENSION BRIDGE IS CLOSED FOR THE 2019 SEASON DUE TO CABLE DAMAGE. The bridge provides spectacular views of the canyon below but may be unnerving to some hikers. The trail returns on the south side of the canyon, crossing a steel bridge upstream of the waterfalls and rejoins the paved trail.
The lower trail is most difficult as it descends steeply into the canyon. If you are uncomfortable with heights, this segment is not for you. Beginning at the suspension bridge, the trail crosses an exposed cliff face followed by a water crossing with a cable grab-line. A 30-foot metal ladder descends a vertical cliff providing access to the canyons deepest recesses and roaring waterfalls. The trail soon intersects Ship Trail 184B which climbs 0.2 mile to a viewpoint atop the Ship, a lava formation that overlooks a long series of waterfalls in the lower canyon. A few tenths of a mile further, the canyon begins to broaden and flatten as it approaches a large alluvial fan spreading into the Smith Creek valley. Here the Lava Canyon Trail ends where it intersects Smith Creek Trail 225. A car shuttle to the lower trailhead permits a one-way downhill hike.
From Woodland, WA take State Route 503/Forest Road 90 east to the well-signed junction with Forest Road 83. Take a left on Forest Road 83 and follow for 12 miles to Lava Canyon Trailhead/Intepretive Site at the end of the road.
This site is south of Spirit Lake at the end of Forest Road 99. This site accesses the area devastated by the 1980 eruption and is a top location to view this area. Looking north, you see log-filled Spirit Lake topped by Mount Margaret. To the south you look upward at Mount St. Helens’ crater and lava dome.
Nearly everything in view is within the area decimated by the eruption. Encounter the blast’s full impact as you transition from green forest to standing dead forest to blown down forest. The landscape in this area is littered with sand and gray rocks from that event.
Windy Ridge Interpretive viewpoint provides access to Truman Trail #207 and Willow Springs Trail #207A.
From Randle, WA travel south on State Route (SR) 131 until the road forks (1 mile). Stay to the right on State Route 131 which becomes Forest Road 25. Travel south on Forest Road 25 for 19 miles to Forest Road 99. Turn right on Forest Road 99 and drive 16 miles until it terminates at Windy Ridge.