Explore the Ape Cave at Mt. Saint Helen’s National Volcanic Monument, the third longest lava tube in North America. Open from the beginning of May until October 31, trek through this dark and cold cave on an excursion that you don’t want to miss. Divided into two portions, the lower caves are family-friendly and an exciting time for kids.
Note: From September 15, 2022 through the end of the operating season (Late October), Ape Cave Headquarters will be closed Monday-Wednesday. Operations at Ape Cave Headquarters will only be open Thursday-Sunday. Ape Cave itself is still open with your reserved timed-ticket, but you will need to be prepared with all items you need, including multiple light sources, if visiting while Ape Cave HQ is closed.
History of the Ape Caves
The Ape Caves were discovered by a logger in the late 1940s and then explored by a team of scouts in the 1950s. What they found in the cave, when exploring, were various rock formations that stretched 13,042 feet down the tunnel. Stalagmites hung from the ceiling of the caves, created from basaltic eruptions over 2,000 years ago. Basaltic lava flowed up and down, fast and slow, evident from the patterns on the wall. Eventually the lava stopped flowing and the lava tube was formed.
Getting there and parking
Head about 2.5 hours south from the Johnston Ridge Observatory to Cougar, WA and follow directions to the Ape Cave. Parking can be a little tricky on weekends, but with the timed ticket entry, spots open up frequently. The paved parking lot is split into two lots. We parked in the further lot to explore the trail that included a bridge over a preserved lava flow.
Visitors will need to make a $2 reservation for entry into the site and purchase a $5 parking pass through recreation.gov to enter the Ape Cave. Two-hour timed-entry passes are necessary to hike the cave. Print out your reservation and pass ahead of time because there is no cell phone reception at the hiking location.
What to bring
Bring a rain suit, raincoat with a hood or a weather-proof warm jacket. It is cold (42 degrees F) and damp down in the cave. Be aware of temperature changes and water dripping down from the ceiling. Wear waterproof boots as well- it will help when the kids want to jump in the puddles, but have many more steps to reach the end of the trail. Gloves are also helpful to keep warm and when scrambling over rocks.
There is no light at the end of the tunnel – bring bright lights. A headlamp and a flashlight is necessary for the trip. Some families might bring glow-sticks, which is a fun accessory, but not enough light for the tunnel. When open, the visitor center rents flashlights at $5/each.
Upper cave vs lower cave
The upper cave is about 1.5 miles long and is known as the more challenging portion. I would avoid it with little ones. Little walkers will have to scale over rock piles, while the cave narrows significantly as you ascend uphill. Hikers then have to climb out through a horizontal metal ladder. Older, experienced children, may be able to handle the challenge with some assistance. Be sure to bring a headlamp and gloves to protect hands from getting scraped by the rough rocks as they climb over them.
We trekked through the lower cave, which has a wider path. Begin your adventure by stepping down the stairs into the dark abyss and immediately feel the temperature drop. Zip up your jacket and flood the cave with light. Follow the path, taking note of the patterned walls, sculpted rocks, formations and maybe a bat or two.
The lower cave is a mile long, out-and-back hike, and contains stalagmites, puddles, and an enormous boulder that hikers affectionately call “the meatball boulder”. The boulder is not hard to miss, but be sure to look up!
Making it interesting for the kids
Initially, our son was not excited about going on this hike. The cave is a constant 42 degrees F, pitch black, and began with some unstable muddy terrain. We worked hard to turn it around for him. I started to do the “Elsa Call” from Frozen 2 and alternated that with his favorite song,”The Floor is Lava” by the Kaboomers. Then, I explained that we were walking on lava and Batman probably lived at the end of the cave. That absolutely motivated him and kept him going.
Before entering and after exiting the caves, Park Rangers request that you brush your shoes at the many shoe cleaning stations around the park. This helps keep the bats healthy from white-nose syndrome, a disease that is known to kill the bat population.
It is required that each person brings two flashlights, that excludes your phone. Rangers also request that you do not touch the walls or ceilings of the cave, since this disrupts the cave’s natural biome. The cave has a slimy layer that serves as the basis for the food chain and should not be disturbed. As always please leave no trace and pack everything out with you.
Some kids may find this hike a challenge because they are facing their fear of the dark, but with a little help, encouragement, and a game or two, the hike is amazing and enjoyable! Add in a song for good measure and your family will be grooving through the tunnel.
Know before you go
- Reservations for a 2-hour time period must be made for entry into the cave
- The NW Forest Pass or the America the Beautiful Pass can be used for entrance, but a timed, 2-hour reservation, must be made as well
- Be sure to dress for cold weather, wear hiking boots, and bring gloves
- If carrying a child, a helmet might be a good idea so the child doesn’t get hurt when maneuvering around rocks
- Bring flashlights and headlamps
- The lower cave is more kid-friendly than the upper cave
- Explore the Trail of Two Forests, nearby