Caving Adventure – Spelunking at the Ape Cave

August 20, 2013 ♥ Posted in: Journal, Travel by Kristina Horner

Last week, I went caving for the first time over at the Ape Cave in Mt. St. Helens, Washington. I’m a total beginner and I had absolutely no idea what to expect – but I had the time of my life! I know that some caves out there require helmets and climbing gear/ropes, but Ape Cave is a bit easier than that – which surprised me, as it’s the longest continuous lava tube in the continental United States (running a full 13,000 feet). Ape Cave definitely required you to be agile and in good shape, but even a cave diving novice could work their way through it.


Before you jump headfirst below the depths of the earth, you’ll need a few important supplies. I passed quite a few people in crappy sneakers and t-shirts, and trust me – you don’t wanna be that guy. If you’re planning a spelunking trip, here’s what you’ll need:

  • Waterproof jacket
  • Long sleeve shirt (it’s a chilly 42 degrees year round down in that cave so you’ll want to dress warm – but not too warm, as you’re doing a lot of climbing)
  • Waterproof pants
  • Gloves (absolutely necessary)
  • Hat (again, again, absolutely necessary)
  • Hiking boots or shoes with great traction
  • Headlamps (I can’t stress this enough, you’ll need your hands free quite often so having a light source strapped to your head is crucial – and I’d suggest at least 50 lumens. Mine was 65)
  • Another high powered flashlight that can fit in your pocket when you need both hands for climbing (Mine was 265 lumens)
  • At least 2 liters of water per person
  • Some sort of backpack to hold excess supplies
  • Extra batteries. I can’t imagine losing power while you’re down there. Yikes.

The cave itself has two sections, the Upper and Lower caves. The lower cave is relatively easy, takes only an hour to walk down and back at a moderate pace and is home to the famous “meatball”, a large circular rock that got lodged between a skinny upper section of the cave. They give informational guided tours through this section, it’s great for kids, and it’s mostly flat walking. If you’ve got your little sister or Grandpa along, this is a good option.


The Upper Cave is the really exciting one, though. It’s a big jump in difficulty level – this one is a mile and a half long, and when you combine that with the above ground hike back, the full trip will run you 2.5 to 4 hours, depending on how quickly you take it. There’s a lot of climbing over large piles of rocks (one of rangers informed us there were 27 piles to be exact, but we sort of lost count after we took that wrong turn at Albuquerque). Word to the wise, when you hit the first big confusing open area, don’t go left. Go right. After that, it will always be clear which way to go.

For those who were curious, going left will take you down a path that gets smaller and smaller until you start to wonder why you signed up for this hike in the first place because this is going to require some serious crawling and then, oh wait, this path doesn’t even go anywhere. Guess we have to go back.

Anyway, this is what it looks like down in a lava tube:


It’s gorgeous, and scary, and totally worth the amount of sweating and small dizzy spells you might encounter while underground. We all turned our lights off at one point, of course, which is one of the most disorienting things I have ever experienced. True darkness is immensely terrifying, especially when you can’t even see your fingers though you’re waving them inches from your nose. Closing your eyes or leaving theme open – it all looks the same that far underground. Standing in utter blackness like that, hearing only the shallow breathing of your hiking buddies and the drip drip drip of the cave slime… that’d make you crazy after awhile.

About 2/3 of the way through the cave, there’s a wall of rock about 8 feet high that stands between you and freedom. I read some reviews about this wall before embarking on my own journey, and I have to admit: it was my biggest fear about the whole thing. Apparently there used to be a rope there but it’s long gone – though one handy foot hole does exist about halfway up. Luckily my boyfriend Joe has retained all of his childhood playground climbing abilities and easily pulled himself up. With a hand up from him, I was able to make it up as well with relative ease. I’m 5’10” though, so if you’re shorter and equaling inept at scaling SHEER WALLS OF ROCK, make sure you’ve got at least one super agile climbing buddy along to help you.

The next noteworthy thing along the journey is the skylight. It’s about twenty minutes from the end of the cave; a welcome sight yet such a tease. You get a quick glimpse of daylight, but there’s no way out at this point (and people have gotten injured trying) – so you have to continue onward, back into the darkness.


All in all, I highly recommend Ape Cave, and if you’re intrigued by caving but don’t live in Washington – look up some caves near you! Be sure to do your research though… there are all sorts of different experience levels of caves, and you should know what you’re getting yourself into before you set out to do it. I had a great, great time, and I can’t wait to go again! If you’re interested, here’s the video I made of my experience:

Have you ever been spelunking? Where did you go? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments! 🙂

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Hillary says:

Ironically, my coworker Mary suggested this hike to me yesterday. She went this weekend. I’ll have to try it out some time!

Lenka says:

This is definitely going on my bucket list. It seems kind of scary but at the same time totally exciting 🙂

Emma says:

Same here! Looks amazing 🙂

Sy says:

That looked like a lot of fun! I’m wondering, can anyone just head down there? (When I was in the U.S. every place seemed a bit over-concerned with safety from fear of being sued.)

I’ve once been 60m underground in a cave where you had to use climbing gear, helmets and do a lot of twisting and lying flat on your stomach to get through some really tight spaces. After that I realized that I’m definitely not claustrophobic, and also there is something very calming about being deep underground, cut off from the rest of the world.

Kristina Horner says:

It was a relatively easy cave comparatively, so yeah – they tend to let anyone down there. And yeah – I had the same experience! It was awesome.

Janna says:

I’ve been to the Ape Cave- only the lower one because I was, like, 10 at the time. Lots of fun, and I totally want to try the Upper one soon!

Emily says:

I went to Ape Caves just a few days before you! And had a very similar and very cool experience. It was way more difficult than I thought! I also secon the recommendation for gloves, because I didn’t have any and my hands got scraped up by all the rough lava rocks. Still totally worth it though!

Manly says:

Alot of people say quickscoping should be like? real life. But its not… its a game

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