Visiting Ape Cave in the Winter (Cougar, Washington)
we had quite the adventurous “love day” on monday! since we are moving away from the beautiful pacific northwest in 20 days (but who’s counting) we are fitting in some of the things we have wanted to do but haven’t had the chance.
this consisted of venturing to washington state to explore ape cave in cougar, WA! it’s about 1.5 hour drive from portland and well worth it. we loaded our road trip snacks (i believe being in a car longer than 40 minutes constitutes a road trip and requires snacks) and set out to spend the day together.
the day was much like any other pacific northwest day – dreary, rainy (but not too much rain) and some serious creepy fog the whole way. we were joking about how the small towns we passed through would be ideal for psychopaths who wanted to kidnap a nice, trusting couple like ourselves. i know, we joke about weird things.
we had mediocre planning at best for this adventure. i quickly read before we left that we needed some light to guide our way, it would be 42 degrees F in the cave so bring warm clothes and that we needed a parking pass.
thankfully i visited the US forest service website again while in the car and saw that direct access to ape cave was blocked by snow (we had to park elsewhere and hike in) and also that no lanterns would be available to rent – as we were planning. thankfully i read this right as a we passed a grocery store so we popped in and bought one decent flashlight.
TIP: you need a “sno-park pass” to visit any of the parks when there is snow up in the mountains (as opposed to the $5 NW forest parking pass). we found one at lakeside deli + country store for $22 in the town of cougar, WA. *do not use the porta-potty outback, no matter how bad you have to go.
you know you’re close when you’re greeted by the sasquatch at the RV park.
as we drove closer to the cave, we took a left and suddenly it was very snowy. crazy what a slight rise in elevation will do (i’m talking like 300 feet).
TIP: in the winter, ape cave gets snowed in and you cannot access the parking lot directly in front of the cave. park at ‘trail of two forests’ and be prepared to hike a mile in. it’s a straight shot so you won’t get lost.
we were gleeful to experience the snow as it was unexpected and we both find it magical (i know, i know. if you live in colorado and are reading this…i know it snowed a foot yesterday and you hate it right now). ravery even broke out his antarctica jacket!
not more than 5 minutes into the 1 mile hike from the parking lot to the caves, we stumbled upon these tracks…
did i mention that the ape cave is located in cougar, washington?! queue panic. thankfully my husband has a more productive fight or flight response and got a stick for potential fighting. ha! my hero. i asked him to show me his most fierce face.
cougars (both the animal and older women) got nuthin’ on him, clearly.
it was eerily silent as we walked through the snowy road. we were alone – literally not another soul to be seen.
the farther we walked, the denser the forest grew. this resulted in my eyes more frequently thinking they saw a sasquatch dart behind trees. or a cougar. or that psychopath.
300 feet from the ape cave we saw a massive snowball. who put it there? where did it come from? do sasquatches play soccer with snowballs? so many questions.
the snow started falling harder as we approached the ‘closed for the season’ ape headquarters. pretty picturesque, if i do say so myself.
TIP: again, there are no lantern rentals during the winter! bring at least two, strong light sources per person (and a phone flashlight doesn’t count).
you walk past the cute little building for another 10ish minutes and then find a gazebo filled with all the information about ape cave and the incredibly creepy entrance. before we get into the terrifying cave, let’s learn about what the heck the “ape cave” is anyway.
can we just acknowledge the ‘coming prepared’ section at the bottom? “complete darkness, dripping water and blowing breezings.” i was unprepared for total and complete darkness. the other caves i’ve ventured in all had lighting throughout…silly me.
ape cave is the longest lava tube in the continental united states at over 2 miles in length. according to the signs, it was formed 2,000 years ago as lava poured down the southern flank of mount st. helens in streams. apparently as the lava flowed, the outer edges of the lava stream cooled and formed a hard crust that insulated the molten lava beneath. this mean that hot lava could encase this area and flowed months during the eruption! you are crazy cool, nature.
apparently this is ultra unusual because mount st. helens is the type of volcano that usually erupts lava which is thick in consistency and would block flow so boom.
here is what a prepared caver looks like…
here is my adaptation of how we came – as the “semi-prepared caver:” i am not going to tell you how long i spent editing this photo so just laugh and be impressed.
here is the entrance…at first you are all like “oh wow, nature is so awesome and pretty! how fun and adventurous of us to do this! how lucky we are to be the only ones here!”
and then you walk down those steps and then you are all like “um. this is actually horribly terrifying. i am scared. all of my senses are telling me to run away and stay in the light. why are doing this? are we really the only ones down here?!”
we both panicked. who’s stupid idea was it to see ‘the revenant’ the night before?! of course there were bears hibernating in there. of course we were going to have to sleep in a horse to stay warm. of course we were going to be eaten alive by what i would assume would be a generally friendly sasquatch family but we ruined their hibernation and now they had to eat us.
we both were freaked out – like legit scared.
it was pitch black. dark. dark dark.
i had a friend’s headlamp (thanks robin!) that was not strong enough to serve as a stable guide but still good to provide a little lamp. in my hand was a crappy household flash light that barely cast light. thankfully we had bought the better flashlight and my husband used that to guide our way over the slippery rocks that were covered in “cave slime.”
it was scary. way more anxiety-provoking than when we dined in complete darkness.
TIP: you will find some more metal stairs that lead you down to the cave ground. they will scare you because they look like cages at first. the lower cave to the right should take about an hour to the end and back and the upper cave is longer and you have to climb over 27 sets of rock piles.
i only got one decent photo of the inside that my trusty phone captured. it was constantly misting and massive drops of water were always falling on us.
TIP: wear a hat, gloves, wool socks and not running shoes!
the first 15 minutes were terrifying. we felt like we were hearing things and i kept waiting to lock eyes with another set of glowing eyes. my husband said he would go first, as if that was some kind of bold move. obviously the back is way more brave because i just knew something was going to attack me from the back. i constantly had him shine his brighter light behind me.
apparently this is a huge tourist attraction when it’s not the dead of winter. again, it was just us which was incredible but also made me super nervous like no one had been there in months and something was waiting to eat us.
after 15 minutes, our adrenaline chilled out and we started to appreciate the surroundings as opposed to be super freaked out by then. eventually we even laughed a little!
TIP: make an agreement with your adventuring party not to make jokes, scare each other or say “what was that???” unless something really scary is going on.
here is a photo i snapped of the wet ‘cave slime’ that apparently helps everything work down there. check out the porous lava pocket!
my husband randomly looked down one point and pointed this out:
um. that is TOTALLY old-age-sasquatch hair! we picked it up. it was not attached to anything, it was coarse, longer than dog hair and didn’t feel like human hair. it also didn’t feel like a root or from nature. i’m telling you, it’s from a geriatric sasquatch’s ankle. freeeaky.
legend has it that ape cave is named after nearby ‘ape canyon’ – the place where 4 miners in the 1920s fought the apemen of mount st. helens. you can read one man’s account HERE!
TIP: walk all the way to the end of the “lower cave” and you can see “the meatball” which is a large drop of lava that hardened and appears on display.
after we trekked the “lower cave” my husband was curious about the “upper cave” so we decided to explore a bit in that direction.
the sign we saw in the beginning said ‘difficult walking’ and they were not kidding. you have to climb over 27 boulder piles that are larger than a house! we climbed over one and i was like “i’m doooone!” running shoes are great for running and not great for climbing over boulder piles.
TIP: for the “upper cave” hike, it is unclear whether there is a ladder already at the end of this part or if you need to supply your own in the winter. it seems in the summer months you can exit by climbing a ladder out but on the website it seems to request you bring your own to escape at the end, as to not hike all the way back through. research this!
we climbed back out and were so grateful to see the light literally at the end of the tunnel! we survived and nothing ate us! we agreed that this was one of the scarier experiences we have had together, mostly because the mind is a powerful thing that can play tricks quite easily. overall, i would recommend doing this and if you want a pristine, solo experience – go in the winter!
your drive alone will be worth it. we are pretty sure this is another entrance to narnia…
what do you think? would you like exploring a pitch black cave on your own?
ps. remember to join in for “tell me something good” on friday!