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January 4, 2012

Mt. St. Helens: Lava Canyon and Ape Cave

Near Windy Ridge Spirit Lake is still jammed with dead trees left from the 1980 eruption. Mt. Rainier appears over the ridge.

Most visitors to Mt. St. Helens approach the National Monument from Castle Rock Washington.  Highway 504 takes tourists from the Interstate 5 corridor to the Coldwater and Johnston Ridge vantage points.  Someday we too will see the mountain from the Johnston Ridge Observatory.  But it wouldn’t be this time.  The Highway 504 route never seems to work with our road trip’s itinerary.  Once again in 2011 we stopped as we had before on the northeast and south sides of the mountain.  The funny thing is, in my fixation with some day seeing the volcano from the Johnston Ridge Observatory, I’ve been blind to just how much good stuff remained to be seen in the places near where I’d already been.

On the south side of Mt. St. Helens we survived climbing the mountain and had an easy day mountain biking the Lewis River Trail.  The climb and the Lewis River ride were firsts for us.  Mountain biking the classic Plains of Abraham and Ape Canyon Trails and hiking around the blast zone at the Windy Ridge Viewpoint were well-deserved repeat visits.  This time through the area we also visited two other places we’d never been to, Lava Canyon and Ape Cave.

The main route to the Lava Canyon trailhead is Forest Road 83.  In 2006 flooding washed out this road.  When we visited in 2008, though you could bike it, the road was closed to vehicle traffic.  Since then the washout has been repaired and now Lava Canyon’s parking lot is full again with vehicles.  What seemed remote and forgotten in 2008 is a popular tourist area in 2011.

Mt. St. Helens’ 1980 eruption rapidly melted the peak’s snowpack and released a torrent of mud.  Raging down the mountainside the volcanic mudflow or lahar scoured and revealed Lava Canyon.  The canyon had been carved long ago but until 1980 was well hidden deep beneath the trees.  Subsequent to the lahar, years of water have power washed the area clean.  Today a clear stream plummets down a chain of falls snaking through the polished black rock slot canyon.  Lava Canyon Trail offers easy views of the white water sluice from both its path and its exposed bridges.

Mt. St. Helens viewed from the Lahar Viewpoint. The notch in the mountain top is where the mudflow started.

Looking out of Ape Cave (HDR)

Not too far from Lava Canyon is Ape Cave.  In 1947 a subterranean passageway was discovered by accident by a logger, Lawrence Johnson, when his truck fell into a sinkhole.  Surely this was a bad day for Mr. Johnson.

In 1950, a Boy Scout troop, the St. Helens Apes, explored the cave further.  The Apes discovered that the cave was about two and a half miles in length.  It turns out that Ape Cave is the longest continuous lava tube in the continental United States.  Lava tubes of this sort are unusual on explosive stratovolcanoes like Mt. St. Helens.

Lava Canyon Trail

The cave was ultimately named after the Scout troop.  In turn the troops name had been inspired by accounts of ape-like creatures reported to inhabit the area.  Thus indirectly Ape Cave was named after the legend of Sasquatch a.k.a Bigfoot.

Much of the length of Ape Cave is open to hikers.  From the information center, the lower cave is a three quarter mile-long hike.  The more challenging upper cave trail is 1.5 miles long.  Without good batteries in our headlamps we weren’t going to see much in the unlit cave.  We could have wandered through the cave by Braille but we can pretty much get the same experience at home going to the bathroom in the middle of the night with the lights off.  Instead, we just did a short out and return in the margins of the light at the edge of the entrance.  Only later did we get an idea of what the inside of the cave looks like from a grainy flash photo snapped more out of curiosity than purpose.  Next visit we promise to bring better lights.

The boardwalk at WIndy Ridge (l) and the suspension bridge at Lava Canyon (r)

We returned to Mt. St. Helens to bike and climb and found more to see and do.  Mount St. Helens has a density of natural wonders as impressive as most National Parks.  It is the type of place that pleads for return visits.  And now we know there is at least one attraction that remains for us to see in the area.  Perhaps on next visit to the Mt. St. Helens area we too will see Sasquatch.

Visitor's lights trace lines at the entrance of Ape Cave

A poor flash picture inside Ape Cave

Mt. Rainier looms ominous in the distance.

Trees left dead by the 1980 eruption float on Spirit Lake.

The forest slowly regrows amongst the dead trees left by the 1980 blast.

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