This weekend, I wanted to go camping. However, between my two friends and I, we barely had enough money to fill up a tank of gas and buy some mac-and-cheese. The question was, where could we go that would be beautiful, cheap, AND available last-minute? After much last-minute scrambling for food and supplies, we started driving south with no plan other than to find a good camping spot. After some detours to various state parks where all the campsites were full, we decided to make our way down to Mount St. Helens. On our way into the park, we realized that to go to the official campsites, we had to have a Northwest Forest Pass. At the time, we were pretty unaware that it only cost $5 for the day and that you could pay with a card (none of us had thought ahead and brought cash…).
Solution? We found a service road which wound up one of the slopes next to the mountain. After some rough driving on some old dirt roads, we stumbled on an unbelievable campsite with a perfect view of the mountain and some little trails all around that we could explore. There had been several spots along the road that were clearly used for camping, so we knew we were following the Leave No Trace principles and since we were on National Forest land, it is legal to camp on any previously used campsite. After an evening of exploring the trails around the area and experiencing some awesome views, we settled down with some mac-and-cheese and summer sausage. Like the smart people that we are, we’d only brought one 2-person tent for the three of us, so my friend ended up sleeping in her hammock, which turned out to be a bad idea because it started to rain at about 2 am and she had to move to the car. At least it was a large car!
The next morning, we woke up pretty early and packed up camp. We were intent on seeing the Ape Caves which two of us had never visited. We drove down the mountain and since it was early (10 am-ish), we had no trouble finding parking. We sucked up our pride and paid the five dollars for a day pass and started in on the caves. We decided to do them backwards in order to avoid being stuck behind groups of people. This meant that we hiked about 1-2 miles out to the far end of the caves and then came back through the lava tunnel to the parking lot. I highly recommend going this way because not only do you get to hike a lot of it on your own, but when you emerge from the caves, you don’t have to hike back at all to your car.
The caves themselves are pretty unbelievable. They are essentially a super long lava tube (2.5 miles) and happen to be the longest lave tube in the continental United States. It’s pitch black, so make sure to bring a light source with WORKING BATTERIES. Also, it gets pretty cold down there, so make sure to bring layers. Finally, there is one section that is slightly difficult to climb down, so it’s helpful to have other people who can work with you to get everyone down.
As I was leaving the caves, I heard one guy turn to his friend and say “It’s pretty crazy this is right in our backyard!”
–Natasha Way, SCA Intern
Transport – Take I-5 South and get off at Exit 22 – Take Old Pacific Hwy towards Cougar to Lewis River Rd – follow signs for Ape Caves
Price – Need Northwest Forest Pass for parking ($5 for day pass – can buy at Ape Caves entrance)