Thursday, January 19, 2012

Explore lava tubes on Ape Caves Trail

Ape Caves entrance. Photo courtesy USFS.

Volcanic geological feature created during eruption 2,000 years ago

Who says a hike needs to be through the woods or to a mountain peak? It also can be through a cave – and for kids, that’s one cool adventure!

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument offers just such a hike, the Ape Caves Trail, which include a pair of 2000-year-old lava tubes. At 12,810 feet, the Apes Caves are among the longest known lava tubes in North America and the world.

For Americans, Mount St. Helens marks the most famous volcanic eruption in modern history. The May 17, 1980, explosion sent ash falling across the continent. These tubes prove that eruption was only one of many that have occurred on the southern Washington mountain.

The Ape Caves sit south of and in the shadow of Mount St. Helens. To reach the trail from Interstate 5, take Exit 21, heading east on Hwy. 503 and Forest Service Road 90 for 35.7 miles. Turn left on FS Road 83 for 2 miles. Turn left on FS Road 8303 for 1.2 miles, parking near the Ape Caves main entrance.

The entry is a stairwell that divides the lava tube into two passages. The lower cave, to your southeast as you descend the stairwell, is quite easy for preschoolers to handle. The upper cave is more difficult but fine for older elementary school children.

Sphere of cooled lava
You’ll need very sturdy hiking boots, warm clothing (the temperature averages 42 degrees year round), and three sources of light (should you forget, during summer you can rent lanterns at the interpretive center). No pets or food allowed in the lava tube. Be forewarned that some young children may find the cave frightening.

The lower cave makes for a 1.5 mile round trip. Among the features are the Railroad Tracks, a shoulder or levee that formed along the lava flow’s side. Stalactites and stalagmites made of lava line the tube’s ceiling and floor. The Meatball, a sphere of cooled lava, sits wedged above the cave floor. It fell from the tube’s ceiling while lava still flowed through the cave, was carried downstream, and came to rest when the tube grew too narrow.

Returning to the main staircase, you either can ascend to the surface or continue through the upper cave. If choosing the latter, you’ll add 2.2 miles to the hike.

The upper cave is much steeper than the lower passage and will require clambering over piles of basalt, or lava rock that collapsed from the ceiling after cooling and cracking. In all, there are 27 piles and an eight-foot lava falls to scale. You’ll need at least two and probably upward to three hours to negotiate the upper passage.

A ladder at the lava tube’s upper end returns you to the surface. From there, the easy, above ground Ape Cave #239 trail passes a skylight – or hole in the lava tube – then heads down slope to the main entrance and then the parking lot.

Trail of Two Forests
Should you only hike the lower cave, consider stopping on your drive back at the Trail of Two Forests, right on FS Road 8303. A boardwalk trail only a quarter-mile long, you’ll walk through an evergreen forest and over black lava. Watch for impressions of the ancient forest engulfed by the same lava flow that created the tubes.

Late May through October is the best time to hike the caves. Avoid going during winter, however, as the parking lot is snowed in and you will need to snowshoe a mile from the Trail of Two Forests. In addition, a “sno-pass” also is required, raising the hike’s cost. You’ll need a forest pass to enter during the summer; a variety of pass options from one-day to year-round are available. One-day – aka a family pass – costs $8 per person with those younger than 16 free. The year-round pass is a good deal as it gives you free access to any Forest Service unit in Washington and Oregon for just $30.

By the way, the Ape Caves Trail wasn’t named for Bigfoot, sightings of which abound in the Mount St. Helens area. The name comes from an outdoors club nicknamed the Mount St. Helens Apes that discovered the lava tube in the 1950s.

Read more about day hiking with children in my guidebook Hikes with Tykes.