Ape Cave & The High Cascades

The Cascades are a mountain range which runs parallel to the Rockies through British Columbia and down to the northern sections of California. Known for their exceptionally high peaks and tremendous glaciers, the Cascades are some of the largest mountains in the country. Impressive enough already, they put it over the top by also housing a wide array of stratovolcanoes, some of the largest in the world. Most notable are Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Rainier, the fourteen thousand foot tall giant which dominates the mountain range. Ancient lava tubes and ash formations pepper the landscape, as well as more recent damage from the 1980’s eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Old growth subalpine forests cover the valleys, and huge sheets of ice coat the tops of the volcanoes, hiding the devastating power safely out of mind. Hundreds of miles of backroads take you up into the mountains and down through the valleys, every so often catching a glimpse of one of the volcanoes, or the Cascade’s other towering summits.

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Mt. St. Helens is perhaps the first notable thing any journey to the Cascades should include. This eight thousand foot hulk actually lost over a thousand feet of it’s summit during the 1980 eruption, when the entire north face of the mountain was blown completely off, resulting in the largest recorded landslide in history with nearly a cubic mile of debris. The caldera has been widened immensely, and formed a sloping crescent of sorts, like the top was simply scooped off at an angle. Since the eruption it’s glacial packs have returned, highlighting the mountain from every angle. Good views of St. Helens can be hard to find, some of the best are off the road which travels north through the heart of the Cascades, but a lack of pull offs makes actually sightseeing a little treacherous. Even so, every so often you’ll round a corner only to be blasted back by the visage just over the trees, the gargantuan form of the volcano looming out across the horizon.

Unfortunately, our time in the Cascades was incredibly limited, and we really only had enough to see or do one thing whilst travelling through the mountains. Though we did manage to see St. Helens and Rianier, we were never able to stop and get footage of them. Actually seeing each volcano requires at least a day per, as not only are they quite far removed from civilization, but as with most National Parks, the roads within are about as far from direct as it gets, and you should plan for a good amount of travel time even after you’ve reached the destination. The Mt. St. Helens visitor center is actually located in the town of St. Helens, whilst the Mt. Rainier one is located in the forests at it’s base. Getting to either isn’t easy, although there are more roads around Rainier than St. Helens, and it’s also not as far from an actual highway.

That being said, we decided to spend what little time we had exploring the lava tubes of Mt. St. Helens and the surrounding area. Lava tubes are a type of cave formed when magma forces its way out from beneath the ground, exploding outwards with varying levels of force. Occasionally, the outer layer of the flow will harden, creating a shell in which liquid magma is still flowing. After the eruption ceases and the molten rock has all drained out, you’re left with the tube-like shell, which now forms a cave into the heart of the volcano. Ape cave is a lava tube in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, just south of Mt. St. Helens. It forms the longest continuous lava tube in the continental United States, and the third largest in North America as a whole. It travels over two and a half miles down into the mountains, and sees over one hundred and fifty thousand visitors a year. Something of an oddity to find in the Cascades, as stratovolcanos build themselves up vertically by hurling massive amounts of rock and debris into the air, which falls back down and accumulates. As opposed to shield volcanoes, which form their mountains via long gradual flows, normally where you might find a lava tube. As such, Ape Cave is something of a unique environment, and a certainly a hike you won’t soon forget.

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The first thing you should know about Ape Cave is that it’s dark. Understandable, it’s a cave. But it’s really dark. The only light is that which you and others like you have brought themselves, there are no interior lights of any sort, and not even any railings or the like. It’s almost completely undisturbed, save for the thousand of visitors it gets. In any case, be sure to bring a flashlight as you will absolutely need it. Ape Cave is also incredibly cold. Both obvious things for anyone who’s ever been underground this far, but I feel it’s still worth mentioning. Outside, in July it’s usually a humid eighty five degrees, not the kind of weather you would even think about leaving the house with a jacket in. Once you get down into the cave however, it drops considerably, resting somewhere around forty degrees, cold enough to warrant hypothermia warnings for unprepared hikers. It’s also quite damp, with large amounts of condensation pooling on the ceilings and walls. Needless to say, a jacket of some sort is a requirement. Past that, while you totally can go all out and prepare for a day of caving, all you really need to enjoy the cave is a flashlight, a jacket, and some good shoes. Cellphone lights work too, but not as well, and if you end up eating it somewhere in the cave, you don’t want your phone breaking your fall.

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The caves change in shape and diameter every dozen feet or so, shifting randomly as you hike downwards into a mountain.The ground is incredibly deceptive, its bumpy and ridged, never flat in any place for more than a foot or two. However it’s also very damp, with puddles collecting inbetween the ridges and in the recessed areas, giving the brownish stone the look of mud, or at least something you might assume would have some give to it. Let me assure you, it does not. You can’t imagine a more rough and unforgiving terrain, coupled with the fact that it’s pitch black, and you’ll spend the entire hike with the flashlight on your feet, just trying not to find out what a lava tube tastes like. That being said, I recommend you take some time to stop every so often when there are no people around, to really take in the grandeur of what you’re doing. Hiking into a volcano. Just imagining that once, right where you’re standing, millions of tons of molten rock was blasting through on its way to the surface, metals, minerals, precious stones, all ejected like waste from beneath the crust of the Earth, spilling out into the forests and valleys.

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As you walk through the miles of tunnel, you’ll encounter a variety of colors along the wall that look like they’ve been painted on by human hands. Patches of yellow water that make you wonder if someone tried to take a hotdog down into the cave, a silver lining on the walls that looks like it’s been slathered on in copious amounts, an attempt to hide some graffiti or tarnished area. Even the occasional offshoot, where a steam of lava broke free from the shell to blow a hole in the tunnel wall somewhere, depositing minerals as it goes. The entrances to these offshoots are coated a deep maroon, with yellows and oranges showing up within if you have a bright enough light. It’s so cold by this point that you can see your breath every time you exhale, the chill of the cave stays with you even after you leave, hanging around even in eighty degree heat like a phantom. Venturing further still, you’ll enter some larger areas where the tunnel widens and increases dramatically in height. The cealing becomes vaulted as the tunnel almost appears to split into a double-decker lava flow, two tubes travelling vertically parallel through the mountain. Even rock bridges can be seen spanning the thin gap between the upper and lower section, their shapes odd and twisted, with globs of mineral stuck to the the spindly lengths of the bridge. After reaching one such area, we decided to do some delayed shutters as people walked past with flashlights in hand, the results were phenomenal, as can be seen in the featured photo. If you have a camera capable, make sure to snag one of these on your journey through the cave.

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Once you’ve gotten the hang of the terrain and a feel for the caves, the remainder of the hike becomes second nature, and even the cold seems to fade from notice. Many people who come to the cave are unprepared for the rigors of hiking it, and turn back about halfway or so, which is usually the most populated area. If you continue on, chances are you’ll only see another group every few minutes if even that, left mostly to yourself as you wander through the back ends of the winding tube. Turn off the flashlight and darkness takes you immediately. Not a single beam of light makes it around the corners and through the cave, you could be an inch away from the wall and never know it. Thankfully, there are no splits in the lower section of the cave, so finding you way back to people wouldn’t be impossible in the event of a battery dying, just really hard on your knees.

A dark layer of water covers the walls this far down, condensation hangs from every point and jutting angle, just waiting to fall into the open mouth of some unsuspecting tourist. There are no bats or creatures living in this part of the tube, and the only other life you’re likely to encounter is the occasional gnat, who got really, really lost. The ground in the final sections of the cave begins to form a strange shape, almost like rails along the center of the path. The cave beings to shallow out and you know you’re reaching the end, even bending to stoop through a few low passages; though you’ll never be required to crawl so that’s a plus. Finally, after the cave narrows into something of a triangular shape, you’ll see the end. It’s basically a wedge, laying at the end of the tunnel. Due either to collapse or simply the point where the lava began cooling, the end of Ape Cave forms a neat prism where the roof essentially slopes downwards until it hits the ground, leaving about a foot of space inbetween until it just runs into a dead end at the opposing wall. Though at this point you can indeed get down on all fours and crawl through the remaining feet of the tube, there’s not a lot of point to it, and should only be attempted by experienced cavers. There’s a lot of places to get hopelessly stuck, and not many visitors make it out this far.

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All in all, it’s an unforgettable hike. It really is one of the most unique places available to the public to explore anywhere in the states, but it’s just one small segment of what the Cascades have to offer. I truly wish I could tell you all about Mt. Rainier, the forests and valleys, the glaciers and the crater of Mt. St. Helens, but I wouldn’t be telling you anything wikipedia couldn’t, and that just doesn’t feel right. Our experience in the Cascades was limited to be sure, but exploring the lava tubes of Ape Cave was more than worth the journey, and the mountains were just a bonus. While well worth seeing, the Cascades can be difficult to get to, and require a lot of time to see. Plan accordingly, and be ready for rough roads, rough trails, and neverending forest. However, if you think you could brave that for lava tubes, fifteen thousand foot tall mountains, ancient forests and volcanic glaciers, then the Cascades are the place for you.

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