I’ve been to the Ape Cave several times to explore and photograph over the past few years. It has a fascinating history both in a geological sense, and in the way it was discovered and named. This is a fun adventure that most people can enjoy as long as they’re in reasonable physical condition.
Most of the lower cave is easy hiking.
Ape Cave is a popular attraction located near Mount St. Helens. Technically it’s not a “cave” because it’s really a tube formed long ago by lava flow. It’s about 1-1/2 miles long, and the main entrance is roughly at the halfway point which separates the upper cave from the lower cave.
The Parking Area
The parking area is a fee area, so you need either an annual forest pass (available at the visitor’s center about 12 miles up the road) or you can pay $5 on the spot for a single day use. There’s a restroom available here, but it’s similar to what you’d find at any state park. I usually keep some single pack Wet Ones (the anti-bacterial kind) in my pack to wipe the seat down if I have to use these. It’s also good to have some hand sanitizer on hand (forgive the pun) because there’s no running water in these restrooms.
The Main Entrance
The main entrance to the cave is just a short hike up a trail from the parking area. It’s sort of a hole in the ground with a stairway that leads down to another stairway that enters the cave. This entrance is at about the halfway point that divides the upper cave from the lower cave.
View from inside the main entrance, looking back at the first stairway.
The second stairway of the main entrance. Going straight at the bottom leads to the lower cave.
If you continue on the trail past the main entrance, you’ll eventually get to another smaller entrance at the very end of the upper cave. The trail itself is pretty easy hiking, and you encounter some interesting sights along the way. There’s some old lava formations in a few areas. There’s also an open area with some old rock formations. If you hike here in mid to late March, you might find a field of bear grass as you see in the photos.
The trail continues past the main entrance and leads to the upper end entrance to the cave. It’s a very nice hike, about a half hour long.
Bear grass field on trail going to the upper cave entrance.
Lower Ape Cave
To access the lower cave, just continue straight when you get to the bottom of the stairway and you’ll be hiking the lower cave. This is the easier hike which tends to make it more popular with most people, especially those with children.
The lower cave is fairly easy, but still have some rocks to traverse.
The “Meatball” is one of many points of interest in the lower cave.
The lower cave finally ends at a dead end. There’s a space to belly crawl a bit farther, but I’m always too fat and lazy to go any further than this.
Very end of the lower cave. You can see the crawl space behind the guy in this photo.
Upper Ape Cave
To access the upper cave, you must go around behind the bottom of the stairway and you’ll see the cave continues. This is the upper cave. This is more technical than the lower cave. To traverse all the way through the upper cave to the far entrance you’ll be climbing over and between rock piles. I highly recommend a head light and gloves for this area.
One of the first obstacles in the upper cave. You have to climb over the rocks and through the hole on the left.
Near the end of the upper cave is a “lava fall” where lava once flowed over like a waterfall. It’s about eight feet up and you’ll have to climb up it to continue. Unless, of course, you begin your hike at the entrance at the upper end in which case you’d be climbing down.
About The Environment
Though Ape Cave is an easy and family friendly hike by most standards, it is not for everybody. Being underground presents different challenges then a normal hike on a wooded trail. The air is cold and damp all year, so you really need study shoes and a decent jacket. Water drips from the ceiling constantly, so it’s wise to have a hood or a hat. I’ve seen too many people go down wearing t-shirts and flip-flops and are miserable after about the first ten minutes. I also recommend having a good pair of gloves, especially if you’re going to the upper cave. There’s a lot of places you’ll need to grab onto rocks and rock walls to get through.
This scene is typical to what much of the upper cave looks like.
It’s pitch black so you need a good reliable light source, and you should also have a backup light. Some people prefer to use lanterns and flashlights. I recommend using a head lamp because lanterns and flashlights take a hand. In some places, you will need to grab rocks or walls to traverse rocks. This means you’ll want your hands free as much as possible. Whatever you choose to use, be sure it has fresh batteries, or full can of gas if you’re using a gas lantern. Luckily during the summer there’s always plenty of people going through the cave. But, if you happen to be last person down there that day and you lost your light source, you could potentially be stuck down there a long time trying to feel your way out which would NOT be fun. BE SAFE!
Photographing in Ape Cave is fun and challenging.
My list of recommended items to take on an Ape Cave adventure:
Small backpack, headlight, extra flashlight, study shoes or hikers, rain jacket, hat, gloves, bottle of water, spare batteries, sense of adventure.
A quick note to photographers:
Ape Cave is fun and challenging to photograph. Some challenges I’ve found are mainly the lighting and water problems. Working in a pitch black environment is very difficult because it’s like being on the moon. Your light source only illuminates what it’s shining on and everything else is pitch black. There’s no ambient light to illuminate the shadows. Simple tasks like changing lenses, attaching accessories, and even taking things out of a bag can be difficult especially with a flashlight in one hand. This is why I prefer and recommend having a decent headlight to keep both of your hands free for equipment.
Another challenge is the water. There’s constant drips from the ceiling which are way worse if it’s been raining. If you have rain gear for your equipment you’ll want to use it. Shooting in Ape Cave is much like shooting in the rain, only without the light.
The terrain is very rough. Tripods work well, but I’ve found (the hard way) that light stands don’t. If you’re using speed lights they can be difficult to set up because there’s not much level ground. I bought some small tripods, the cheap little ones you get that have the spider-like adjustable legs. These work very well for setting up speed lights because you can adjust your legs separately.
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