Ape Cave and the Trail of Two Forests – Forest Service

We had the Ape Cave on our list for several years, but we kept waiting for our kids to get older.  It seemed like we always had a baby around, though, so finally we just went.

Ape Cave isn’t in Oregon, but it’s close enough for a day trip or overnight.  It’s located on the backside of Mt St Helen; the nearest town is Cougar, Washington.  We stayed in a hotel and drove up the mountainside in the morning.

We drove past the Ape Cave parking lot another mile so we could have lunch at the Trail of Two Forests.  You’ve GOT to stop here…the trail is short and easy.  It’s stroller friendly and great for kids.

A $5 day pass is required.  You can buy one in Cougar or at the Ape Headquarters.  We used our America the Beautiful pass which allows access to all federal parks.


Lava surrounded the trees and left “lava casts” of the trees.  Today they are holes in the rock-solid ground, some several feet deep.


Much of the trail is on a boardwalk, partly to make it easier to travel over rough spots and partly to protect the lava tubes and the delicate plant life around them.


Get up close and personal by crawling through a lava tube.


A ladder descends into the tube.


Our daughter in the tube.  It was a tight enough squeeze for my husband that he only went through once, but our daughter thought it was a blast and she went several times.

After exploring the Trail of Two Forests, we headed down to the Ape Cave parking area.  In mid-July, parking was crazy and we parked roadside a 1/4 mile down the road.  Take your own headlamps and take plenty of warm clothing, including pants for your kids.  The temperature year-round is 42°F and that feels amazing after 96°F above, but it also gets cold really fast.

There’s no fee for hiking the cave (other than the $5 day pass for parking).  You can rent lanterns for $5 each.  We rented lanterns, but I wish we’d taken our own headlamps.  The lanterns are the old-fashioned kind with glass globes; they’re breakable and they’re HOT.  Not safe for kids, plus we didn’t have both hands free for navigating the path or helping our kids.  Headlamps for all of us would have worked much better.  The Ape Headquarters also has snacks, water, and souvenirs.

From the headquarters, we walked up a path to the entrance of the cave.  This is the entrance for all hikers, but once at the bottom the stairs, you can go two directions.  One is an easy 1.6 mile round trip.  The other is a more difficult hike that’s a bit longer.  We took the easy way.

Descending into the Ape Cave


Once inside, we stopped to put on jackets.  Year-round temp in the cave is 42°F.


Cave photos are hard and I only use an iPhone, but we set off into the dark unknown.  Each adult carried a lantern…and a baby.


The Ape Cave is the third longest lava tube in North America, at 13,042 feet.


Some rocks have phosphorescence.


Most of the cave is pretty smooth, but observant visitors will find plenty to interest the kids.


I carried our 4-month-old in an Ergo carrier.  I filled the pockets of the carrier with snacks and hats.


Look for the “Meatball” formation…a ball of lava that rolled through the tube until it got stuck.


My husband carried our 1-year-old in a frame pack.  Its pockets were full of extra clothing, all of which we eventually used.


Our little hikers had a blast.  So will yours!

We made it to the bottom of the cave, where sadly, vandals had painted huge words in reflective paint all over the walls.  Hopefully by now, it’s been removed, but it was sad to see the extent to which people will go to leave their mark.  We turned around and headed back to the entrance.  The hike took us about 2 hours and we were all happy to warm up in the sunshine after the coolness of the cave.

Cost: $5 parking pass (or a Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful pass)
Amenities: water, snacks, and souvenirs at the Ape Headquarters.  Lantern rentals.  Pit toilets.
Our kids ages at the time of visit: 9, 4, 1, and 4 months
Gear needed: baby carrier, warm clothes, headlamps, water, sturdy shoes


I’m a middle-aged mom of 3-6 and sometimes more, depending on day. I’m out of shape and usually exhausted. Our favorite summertime activity (and sometimes on dry winter days) is getting outdoors and finding adventure.

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