In what could be the last great motorcycle riding weekend of the year (for Seattle, anyway) my pal Aaron and I decided to check out the changing colors around Mt. St. Helens – and visit a place of total darkness.
Humans are the only primate you’ll find at the Ape Cave – the odd name comes from the Boy Scout Troop who helped explore the cave after it’s discovery in 1947. The “Mount St. Helens Apes” as they were called, got the name from “brush apes” thought to be in the area. Brush apes are better known today as Sasquatch or Bigfoot.
How was this place formed? About 2,000 years ago lava poured down Mount St. Helens. As the lava flowed, the outer edges of the lava stream cooled forming a hardened crust which insulated the molten lava beneath. This allowed the lava to remain hot and fluid encased in this “lava tube” and continued flowing for months during the eruption. The end result was the creation of this spectacular 13,042 foot long lava tube.
Got it? Okay, let’s go spelunking.
The entrance is accessible enough – a stairwell leads you into the cave. Your choice here is to go north to the more difficult upper cave or south to the easier lower cave. We decided to go north.
We came upon this fellow with a powerful led light array he was using to light up the caves and take photos. He explained what he was up to and even had me hold his light for him. We left the cave dweller to it – and continued deeper into the darkness.
Aaron surveys the first of many, many rock falls – some of which took careful planning to get across. You won’t run into these in the lower cave, but prepare to work up a sweat even in the 42 degree cave by the time you’ve climbed over your third or fourth rock pile.
Aaron found a cozy place to take a break. He turned his headlamp off, but the reflective piping on his motorcycle pants gave him away.
It’s a dark, cold and wet place, but life goes on in the cave.
It’s hard to capture in photos, but the ceiling glows as you’re headlamp moves around the various rooms. There is life on the ceiling and on the walls. Every room you enter ends up looking like a planetarium with the way your light catches the sparkling mold growth.
The upper cave reintroduces plant life with a couple of “skylights” that have broken through the cave. After 1 1/2 hours of nothing but headlamp-created light, it is a nice break to remember what life was like before you decided to spend your afternoon in a cave.
The final feat is climbing a ladder about 15 feet out of the top of the cave and back into civilization – and then hiking back to the parking lot.
Back on the road
The roads of Gifford Pinchot National Forest are twisty, well-marked and mostly car-free. This time of year you’ll deal with plant matter on the road, but stay in the tire tracks and you’ll survive it.
Our final photo stop was at the Windy Ridge Overlook. We snapped a few photos there and hit the road – the ride back to Seattle would be done in the dark.
Great pictures as always! Interesting read on the formation of the cave.