Ape Cave sheds light on geology

Want a real adventure without flying halfway around the world for it? Well there is an interesting and exciting place to go about two and a half hours south of Seattle that will give you a day’s worth of adventure that you’re sure to remember.

Your journey will take you to Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to the Ape Cave. I am amazed at the number of lifelong residents who have never heard of the Ape Cave. It is definitely worth a visit, but you must also be in pretty good physical condition and take appropriate equipment to do it.

The Ape Cave was created by an eruption of Mount Saint Helens approximately 1,900 years ago, but was only discovered in 1946 by a logger.

Shortly after he discovered it, the cave was extensively explored by a local group of young outdoorsmen who called themselves the St. Helens Apes. The cave was named for the group. In 1979, it was designated as a National Recreation Trail, and in 1981, was declared part of the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument because of its unusual geologic interests.

Ape Cave is the longest intact lava tube in the continental United States at a length of 12,810 feet. The cave consists of two portions. The upper cave or upslope, which is approximately 7,000 feet long, is recommended for well-equipped and physically-fit explorers. You will be traversing along rock rubble called “breakdown,” which is caused by the collapse of passage walls and ceiling (there has not been a collapse in recent times). The lower cave, or down slope, is approximately 4,000 feet long and ends in a sand fill. It is easily traveled and recommended for most visitors.

Our adventure at Ape Cave was with our good friends Sam and Kris Artino and our families. Sam had previously been to the Ape Cave and introduced us to the experience.

Naturally, we didn’t choose the easy route. Our trek through the upslope was a physical and mental challenge. One thing you need to know before you embark at the main entrance: You are going to be in total darkness for your whole trip.

You will be amazed at just how dark it is when you turn your lights off. It is essential that you take at least two and preferably three independent light sources. Flashlights with new batteries are a must, and you can supplement with lanterns, but you need to plan on at least three hours worth of light.

Whatever you choose to take, keep in mind you are going to have to periodically free your hands to climb over obstacles and formations. If you are taking kids, equip each of them with glow sticks so you can always keep track of where they are at if your light should go out. The tennis shoes with lights that activate when the kids walk are great for this trip.

Preparation is essential for this trip. Never go alone and always leave your travel plans with someone. Because lava is a great insulator, the temperature inside the cave stays at about 42 degrees year-round. A constant breeze at about 7 mph blows through, so wearing a sweater or jacket is recommended. Sturdy shoes or boots are a must since the lava can be very uneven, rough and sharp in places. A hard hat or helmet is not a bad idea either because bumping your head on the lava is not fun.

A trip to Ape Cave is an exciting experience. The cooling lava produced interesting shapes and designs. When visiting, it is important to remember to not take mementos or cause damage.Remember the explorer’s motto: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints and kill nothing but time.”

Jerry Vaughn, president of World Voyager Vacations in Federal Way: jvaughn@

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