We are in the midst of revisiting several trails that we first hiked in 2012. Next up after our return trip to the Table Rock Wilderness we headed to the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument for a second hike on the Ape Canyon Trail. In 2012 we had done a second short hike along Lava Canyon after finishing the Ape Canyon Trail and this time we decided to add a visit to Ape Cave to the agenda.
At 12,810 feet long Ape Cave is the longest known Lava Tube in North America. It is also one of the more popular places to visit in the monument so we decided to tackle this trail first in an attempt to beat the crowds. A staffed information booth awaits at the trailhead, but we had arrived before it opened for the day.
A short paved trail leads to an kiosk with signboards and the lower cave entrance.
An above ground trail leads past the lower entrance to an upper entrance (or exit).
We decided to hike up to the upper entrance and then descend down the lava tube to it’s end 3/4miles past the lower cave entrance. The trail to the upper entrance passed through the forest before skirting a lava flow and passing some smaller lava tubes that were not part of the cave.
The trail actually did pass over the cave three times before arriving at the site of the upper entrance. We walked passed the entrance initially following a well used path about 50 yards too far before realizing our mistake. There was no sign marking the upper entrance and the hole was much smaller than the lower entrance. It took a moment for us to spot the metal ladder barely sticking up from out of the dark hole.
Climbing down the ladder was interesting as the first 17 steps angled downward before the ladder suddenly dropped straight down for the final 10 or 12 rungs.
The cave extends another .1 miles or so beyond the upper entrance so we turned north and walked to the end before turning around and heading for the lower entrance.
The cave was really neat. The rock surrounding the tube was full of colors and different textures. White portions of rock reflected our headlamps imitating rays of sunlight along the walls and ceiling.
A third of a mile from the upper entrance the trail past under a skylight where green ferns and mosses grew on the rocks.
The lower entrance was another 1.1 miles beyond the skylight. This section of the lava tube was a workout. Ten different rock falls required scrambling over and around piles of lava rock and a pair of lava falls, drops of around 8 feet, proved a challenge to descend. The second lava fall was particularly difficult requiring us to slowly lower ourselves down using small nubs on the cave floor as handholds. The scenery of the cave was worth the effort and we wondered if climbing up would have been easier than coming down as we had.
It was fairly slow going but we eventually made it to the base of the staircase leading down from the lower entrance.
We headed down the lower end of the cave which was, as the sign said, a relatively easy walk. We turned around when the cave had become small enough that we would have had to crawl to continue any further.
We had started to run into a few more people near the end of the lower cave and on the way back to the lower entrance the number of people increased dramatically. We exited up through the lower entrance and headed for the car.
In hindsight we should have descended through the lower entrance as it seemed like it would have been easier to ascend up through the cave and it would likely have avoided the crowds that had formed later in the morning in the lower cave.
We drove from the Ape Cave parking area to the Ape Canyon Trailhead for our second hike of the day. On our previous visit we had taken the Ape Canyon Trail to the Loowit Trail and then followed that trail to a junction with the Abraham Trail which covered a total of 12.7 miles. Our second hike that day at Lava Canyon was only 1.3 miles for a 14 mile total. This time around we had already done nearly 5 miles at Ape Cave so the plan was to stop at a spring along the Loowit Trail in the Plains of Abraham. The small parking lot at the Ape Canyon Trailhead was full so we parked along road 83 and walked to the start of the trail.
We were on high alert as we started the trail due to warnings about local wildlife.
The Ape Canyon Trail starts in the forest next to a lahar created by the Muddy River when the mountains 1980 eruption sent a large portion of the Shoestring Glacier down the valley. Our previous visit had been on a clear day in Mid-September where the views across the lahar to Mt. St. Helens were spectacular.
We were not to be so lucky on this day with our Mt. St. Helens views but the temperature was pleasant and we hoped to see more flowers this time than we had previously.
We did see more flowers along the lower section but we were a little late due to the weather we’d been having this year.
The trail passes through an old growth forest starting at the 1.4 mile mark then climbs a series of switchbacks as it heads up a ridge toward the Loowit Trail. We passed a few viewpoints that had provided impressive views on our first visit but today we had to rely on those memories to picture the mountain.
After 4 miles the trail enters the blast zone from the 1980 eruption. The trail spends winds a half mile through the blast zone above forested Ape Canyon.
A narrow slot at the top of the Canyon frames the creek below and apparently Mt. Adams in the distance. I say apparently because we have not been able to confirm this on either of our visits. In 2012 the Cascade Creek Fire was burning on the slopes of Mt. Adams filling the sky with smoke and clouds were now playing the same role on this day.
The trail ends after 4.5 miles at the Loowit Trail which circles the entire mountain.
We turned right here heading for the Spring .8 miles away. This section of the Loowit Trail passes through the Plains of Abraham, a pumice plain with a barren looking landscape which is really fascinating. Heading NE Mt. St. Helens looms on the left across the broad plain while hills on the right reveal the force of mountains eruption. Trees lay blown down on the hillsides facing the mountain while other sides are striped away exposing various layers of rock. Other areas green with trees and other vegetation.
Flowers are sparse but some still manage to bloom in what looks like the most improbably conditions.
One thing that didn’t change from our previous visit was being greeted by a marmot as we crossed this section. We couldn’t help but wonder if it was the same furry little guy.
When I had added this hike to the schedule I had hoped to find flowers near the spring where we would turn around, but with the timing being so far off this year due to the weather I wasn’t sure what we’d find. It wound up working out even though things were beginning to dry out. We spoted several different types of flowers including a nice clump of bluebell-of-Scotland.
It was no apline wildflower meadow but considering the area it was an impressive display. What surprised us was the lack of water from the spring. Despite it being September on our previous visit a small steady stream of water was flowing down the rocks and into Ape Canyon, but this time the only water was a small pool left filling a depression in the rock.
After resting a bit, and starting to get chilly due to a nice breeze and cooling our sweat, we headed back down. The clouds had only lifted a little as we passed the lower viewpoints and small pockets of blue sky teased us from above the mountain.
It had been a long but interesting day of hiking. It was also our first visit of the year to one of the major Cascade mountains and it had been a good reminder of just how much we enjoyed our hikes on them. Happy Trails!