Ape Caves in Washington: Interesting Facts, Plus a Virtual Tour!

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at www.caves.org or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

People who are particularly interested in the lava caves or lava tube should visit the Ape Caves in Washington. It is situated along the southern flank of Mount St. Helens, which last erupted in 1980. When it comes to its elevation, it has 350 ft. gain and 2450 height. The total roundtrip length of this cave is 2.8 miles which makes it the third-largest lava tube in North America.

Besides viewing what kind of cave forms after a volcanic eruption, visiting the Ape Cave offers the chance to see wildlife. 

This is one reason it often has heavy traffic. Tourists use it for hiking and nature trips. But if you are a caver and would like to have a more peaceful time, visit this cave during the winter season. You will have so much time and space to explore its history and natural beauty. 

The only problem you will have during the winter season is the parking lot gets snowed. It can be immensely difficult to find a good parking spot.

So what can you expect when taking a tour of Washington State’s Ape Cave?

A young man walks through the lava tube found in Ape Cave.

When Visiting Ape Cave

When you read the description, it feels quite large. However, it can be hiked down and back in an hour. It is like you are on a short date with your significant other. When you flow through the caves, you are lost in its beauty. It is tough to concentrate on anything else. 

But before you visit this cave, make sure everyone in your party understands the rules and restrictions. The conditions for visiting this cave are strict because it has a delicate ecosystem – you are not allowed to have food or bring pets. 

Similarly, smoking is strictly prohibited; if they find you smoke a cigarette inside a cave, they can ban you. Apart from that, collecting any type of rock or touching the walls isn’t allowed as well. The main reason for this restriction is that the walls and the roof of the cave harbor cave slime, which is not only used for research purposes, but it is also a food source in this cave’s ecosystem.

The Ape Cave features an area called the "Meatball", which is a block of lava that was caught between two walls.

The most important feature of Ape Cave is the ‘Meatball’. 

It is one of those places where you see the block of cooled lava that fell from the lava tube. Thousands of visitors specifically visit the Ape Cave just for this reason, as in most other caves, it is impossible to see cooled lava on the surface of the floor. 

The signs of the lava aren’t just on the floor; they can be seen on the walls of this cave too. The flow marks that you see on the roof and walls are formed by the dripping of the lava.

Geology and History of Ape Cave

Keep in mind, the main entrance of the cave isn’t immediately visible.

You have to follow a short trail that leads to the information kiosk. 

This information kiosk has all the details about the geology and history of this cave system. It also tells you what was the actual origin of its name. Once you get all the details, you start your journey; you descend into the lava tube. There are two staircases that you use to head down to the lower cave. On the stairs, you walk under 30-foot ceilings. This tells you the magnitude of this cave and gives you early feelings about how it was formed. 

When we entered this cave, we personally felt that history is repeating itself. The Ape Cave shows its spectacular views right from the beginning. 

A bit of sunlight pierces downward from a hole above a passageway in the Ape Cave.

Be careful…

There is a lower section in this cave also which is hard to explore if you have limited physical mobility. It requires you to crawl down as far as a human body can go.

Though the attractions start right from the beginning, the first major feature you observe is the 90-foot wide room. It is like a surprise factor since after crossing the stairs, you don’t expect to have a room inside a cave that big. Next, you have three large rock piles. You have to cross them carefully especially if you are with children because they are known as the ‘breakdowns’. They have sharp edges that can cut your skin and hurt you badly. You can also use side passages if you are interested in exploring this area. The passages are clean and don’t create any kind of trouble.

You can view a 360 panoramic view of the wide cave here.

After crossing the large rock piles, you come to the first frozen lava fall. It is a thrilling experience to observe an actual lava fall. On top of that, you climb it using footholds which give you an exciting experience. After this experience, the next highlight of Ape Cave is ‘Skylight’. It is a wall that is covered with green moss and ferns. The path in the first Skylight leads to the second Skylight. The second Skylight actually has a ladder that leads to the upper exit. 

You can probably imagine the trip in your head right now. It’s definitely not a beginner-level cave, so be prepared to have some difficulty along the way. This is the reason why we don’t recommend the Ape Cave to those who have mobility issues. It is for physically active cavers and tourists. However, the overall experience this cave provides is matchless.

Planning a Trip to Ape Cave in 2021

The Ape Cave authorities are now offering advanced reservations in 2021. 

Their main aim is to allow a limited number of people due to Covid-19 restrictions. The tickets are released on a first-come, first-serve basis. Therefore, it is a good idea to contact them beforehand. The reservation fee is $2 (non-refundable), and the actual entrance ticket costs $220.  

We know this price tag appears expensive but you will get a guided Ape Caves Tour, see all the attractions with the guide, learn about this area’s geology and history, enjoy lunch and get headlamps for exploring the cave, stop at the top vistas to have a breathtaking look of Mount St. Helens. 

They also offer you hotel pickup and drop-off in Portland.

All in all, it is a great cave and hands you a breathtaking experience. But unfortunately, it is not very family-friendly. This is perhaps the only drawback of this cave. 

Don’t forget to keep a good-quality flashlight with you also as the tunnels of Ape Caves get quite dark and cold. You will need a good source of light, especially if you do not have one of the provided headlamps or your own. We highly recommend something like the ThruNite LED Flashlight shown below. It is very bright and has a beam that reaches over 300 feet (93 meters). It is also water-resistant and durable enough for rough conditions.

ThruNite LED Flashlight Archer 2A V3 with Lanyard

Measuring at 6 inches long and less than an inch wide, this small flashlight is scaled down so as to easily fit in any size of hand. It's extremely portable, easy to use, and powerful enough for just about any everyday situation. For more large caves, you may want something stronger, though.

You won’t need a lot of gear, but it’s still a good idea to come prepared. Remember, no food or pets, and be very careful if you are bringing young children. Having knee pads and elbow pads, as well as fully covering your arms and legs with a good caving suit is a good idea!

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