Ape Cave and the Trail of Two Forests – Forest Service

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We’ve 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.

Ape Cave

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.

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.

At the headquarters, 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, walk up the 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 had an older 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.  We made sure to point these out to our kids.  It was a good chance for a mini science lesson!
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.

Trail of Two Forests

After you finish hiking the Ape Cave, drive up the road another mile and visit 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.

Trail of Two Forests
Trail of Two Forests

One living forest, with trees tall and strong. And one memory of a forest, with trees long gone but not quite forgotten.

Trail of Two Forests in Washington

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


Trail of Two Forests

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.

The Trail of Two Forests is completely wheelchair-accessible and stroller-friendly.  It’s short, but interesting.  There are picnic tables and bathrooms, so it’s a great place to stop for lunch before or after visiting the Ape Cave.

But the best part of the trail is The Crawl.  Where two lava tubes connect, there’s a tunnel, and if you’re brave enough, then you’re welcome to crawl through it.

Trail of Two Forests - crawl through a lava tube

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

Descending into the crawl-through lava tube

Crawling through a lava tub at Trail of Two Forests

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.


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


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 often on dry winter days) is getting outdoors and finding adventure.

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