Ape Caves excursion satisfies the most adventurous of explorers

More than 2,000 years of history and over 13,000 feet of lava tubes exist in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest near the base of Mt. St. Helens for all to explore.

More than 2,000 years of history and over 13,000 feet of lava tubes exist in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest near the base of Mt. St. Helens for all to explore. Last Sunday, a group of Portland State students explored the dark confines of the tubes for respite and a first-hand lesson in geology and natural history.

Students were led through the subterranean tubes known as the Ape Caves by Campus Rec’s Outdoor Program, one of the oldest university-sponsored outdoor recreation programs in the nation.

The caves provide adventure-seekers an opportunity to hike through the longest lava tubes in the continental U.S. and the third-longest in North America, and the Outdoor Program gives students the chance to discover such attractions.

PSU’s Outdoor Program has a tradition of providing students with chances to visit Oregon’s most interesting terrain. Next year marks the 45th year of operation for the program, and they are running stronger than ever. Trips are already available to students through the end of November, with another trip to the Ape Caves scheduled for Oct. 31.

Trip leader Briana Uherek-Cummins said trips such as the Ape Caves excursion can help mellow out the most stressed of PSU students, herself included.

“This is probably the best way to balance your life with a heavy academic load, Uherek-Cummins said. “On the weekends, being able to go out and explore some caves or maybe raft a river or climb a mountain.”

The Ape Caves trip is a prime example of students being able to escape their heavy workloads, if only for a day, with Campus Rec’s help. Trips vary in length, but most will have you home by the late afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday. There are also different types of trips depending on the level of adventure sought. Though the trip through the caves is difficult, it is nothing most can’t accomplish.

While the idea of the Ape Caves earning their name from wild primates might sound interesting, it is not how the caverns received their unique designation. The name was inherited from the daring group of people that first explored the cave—a local Boy Scout troop.

Lore has it the tubes were first discovered in the 1940s, when a logger found a large sinkhole that made an entrance to the caves, but they were not explored until years later. In the early ’50s, a scout troop led by Harry Reese was the first to lower themselves down the 17-foot overhang that led into caves. The troop was allowed to name their discovery and they chose to name it after their sponsor, the St. Helens Apes.

However unlikely it is that apes will be spotted in the caves, there are those that believed in sightings. Nearly 90 years ago, a group of miners reportedly had an encounter with a family of Bigfoot-like creatures in the surrounding forest. Much to the disappointment of some, there were no signs of Bigfoot during Outdoor Program’s trip last week.

According to literature at the sight and the U.S. Geological Survey, the lava tubes were formed during an unusual basaltic eruption of Mt. St. Helens roughly 2,000 years ago. When the lava flowed down the side of the mountain the surface cooled to create a crust, which insulated the molten lava beneath. The lava then began to erode the ground to create the beginning of a tunnel.

The lava flow pushed through the rock for months and gave us a beautifully carved out underground path of stone. What is seen in the Ape Caves today is nothing shy of incredible, and it easily proves to be one of the marvels of the Northwest.

The hike led by the Outdoor Program begins with a short walk to the entrance of the caves, and along the way is detailed information about their discovery as well as the organisms living inside. Visitors learn the glittery effect the walls seem to have is the result of an endangered fungus that grows only inside the caves.

“It was interesting to see the walls, they looked like plastic,” said Bridget Ireland, a student on the trip. “The walls just didn’t look real to me.”

The walls appear waxy due to the intense heat of the lava that carved them. Although cavers are encouraged to not touch the wall because of the fungus, curiosity seemed to get the best of most on Sunday.

The entrance to Ape Caves is a wide-open pit, with a staircase to help you down to the beginning of the trail. Once inside, hikers have the option of taking an “easy” route that is just shy of a mile roundtrip with less of an incline than the other section of the cave, or the more adventurous main route, which promises to be more challenging.

The upper cave, the more difficult of the two, runs for about a mile and a half and has its share of difficult spots to climb through. Years of stress and cracking have caused parts of the ceiling to collapse, giving hikers the task of climbing over a few treacherous piles of rocks along the way.

“I thought it was beautiful. It was slightly more challenging than I thought it would be, but it was really fun and definitely worth the effort,” said Taylor Jean Hutchisson, another student on the trip. “I have never seen anything like it before.”

The challenge should not deter anyone from hiking Ape Caves, but preparation is important. A helmet and sturdy pants are encouraged, and a flashlight and a warm jacket are required. The difficulties you face in the Ape caves only add to the sense of accomplishment that you feel when you reach the end.

An eight-foot wall forces visitors wanting to advance to the next corridor to grip the walls and use footholds to continue. Other features of the cave include the “Big Room,” an open area that is the product of a collapsed ceiling, giving hikers a beautiful view of the 88-foot dome hollowed out in the cave.

As the end of the cave nears, hikers are teased by a beam of sunlight that is visible from inside, which provides perspective as to how dark it is inside. Trip leaders added more perspective farther down the caves when they stopped everyone in a safe place and had the group all turn off their flashlights.

With no natural light coming into most of the cave, visitors could wave their hands directly in front of their faces and see nothing. Matching the caves’ eerie darkness is the absolute silence that the Ape Caves offer.

The temperature inside the caves is roughly 42 degrees, no matter the time of year, and groundwater is constantly dripping from the ceiling. While most Oregonians will not be affected by the dampness, it does feel odd to be inside a cave that rains.

While the experience of being inside the Ape Caves is priceless, the feeling of seeing sunlight again and being back above ground is a relief. Being with a group of people helps enhance the trip and the Outdoor Program does a good job of making things feel fun and safe.

“I know they always tell us about the outdoor recreation program, but you never really take it to heart,” student Savannah Julian said after emerging into the open air. “I am really glad I did the trip and I would totally do another one.”

The Ape Caves trip is only one example out of dozens of others being offered this year by the Outdoor Program. A variety of trips are available to students, and they all promise to leave participants with a sense of accomplishment. No matter what the trip, leaders will to their best to ensure you have at least as much fun as they do.?

Upcoming Outdoor Program trips

  • Ape Caves exploration: Oct. 31
  • Smith Rock climbing trip: Nov. 5-7
  • Sea kayak Lower Columbia River: Nov. 6
  • Hamilton Mountain day hike: Nov. 20