“It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt,
It lies behind stars and under hills,
And empty holes it fills,
It comes first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien,
For centuries caves have filled and twisted mans imagination, brimming with the unknown and the unseen, a world beneath our world. Walking through the Ape Cave of Mt. St. Helens my imagination permeated and illuminated every crack and crevasse, every image of every horror movie and Gollum riddled scene races through my head at every corner. With my head lamp shut off I can not see my own hands, other than the occasional reverberation of fellow travelers and cave admires voices, I only hear the echoed drips of water sifting through the earth and landing in puddled corners of the cave and my own breath and footsteps. This somewhat ominous scenery is at the same time very peaceful, I image this is the closest feeling to being dead or unborn that any breathing human can experience.
The Ape Caves are located just outside of Cougar, WA in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. After arriving at the parking lot and seeing that it was full of “Glampers” (my term for people who like to experience great things through a car window or tv screen instead on their feet in the thick of it) we decided to skip the main entrance and head down the trail to the “exit” and go in backwards. This way, at worst, we would only be passing annoying touristy types and not joining the herd.
After an easy two mile hike over lava rocks and through beautiful forests we arrived at a small hole in the ground with a ladder leading into the cave.
Once you descend the ladder, you find yourself in one of the few chambers that is illuminated by the sunlight creeping through the hole skylight above.
The cave is actually a lava tube formed during a massive lava flow sometime around the year 80 CE. It widens and shrinks in different spots, some parts are only a little over 6 feet high and 8 feet wide, while other areas range up to 50 feet high and 50 feet wide.
The terrain of the cave is a mix of sandy runways and piles of giant boulders, making navigating pretty sketchy and fun with nothing but a headlamp. (you can rent a propane lantern at the ranger station if that interests you, but carrying a 5 pound swinging torch over rocky outcroppings didn’t interest me)
After about 3/4 mile walk you come to another skylight and a break from the claustrophobic darkness.
The actual date of the discovery of the cave is not known. Estimates range from 1946 to 1951. Sometime in those years, a logger from Amboy, Washington was the first man to find the cave. Lawrence Johnson was in the area of the main entrance when he noticed a tree growing at an odd angle. When he investigated, he found a large sinkhole that opened into a dark tunnel. Johnson walked into the tunnel, tossing pebbles ahead of him until he found himself at the edge of an overhang; ahead was a large, pitch black, echoing cavern. When his day’s work was finished, Johnson returned to the cave with the rest of his logging crew, as well as all the lights and tackle they had with them. They reached the edge of the lip, but no one was willing to lower himself into the darkness.
Johnson contacted Harry Reese, a local community leader and an avid caver: a few days later, Reese and his sons (members of a local Boy Scout Troup who called themselves the Mt. St. Helens Apes) were the first to explore Ape cave. These young men extensively explored the cave throughout 1952. Interestingly enough, they found no evidence of previous human exploration.
The rangers warn of bats throughout the caves but even after searching the entirety of the cavern, we found no sign of any bats.
The caves stay a cool 42 degrees (F) year round, so if you’re planning on visiting, even in the dead of summer, bring a sweater of some sort.
After about two and a half miles and about two and a half hours of hiking and climbing through the cave we arrive at the main (tourist) entrance. The cave continues down for another 3/4 mile, this part was extremely easy hiking, a sandy path to the end, and this is why most tourists and visitors only “explore” the bottom portion of the cave, this part was also littered with beer bottles and cigarette butts and the ignorance of “weekend warriors”. I highly suggest you experience the entire cave and if you’re not big on idiots and looky lou’s I suggest you do the cave in reverse as we did, we were never in the company of others for more than a few minutes as we passed and it was extremely more enjoyable this way.