Exploring Ape Cave & Lava Canyon – Mount St. Helens National Monument

Trip Report:
Group Leader: Mark Hougardy | Organization: Eugene-based hiking group | Date: late-June 2022 | Duration: 3 days | Hiking Distance: 9 miles | Participants: 5 | Type: Hiking & Tent Camping

This trip demonstrates perfectly why I don’t “just do a trip” for a group without having a solid knowledge of the area. This was organized as an exploratory trip (meaning I had not been to these locations before and neither had the participants). Since all 5 of us are members of a local hiking club, and skilled hikers/backpackers in our own right, this was known to all up front, but still, this trip was a gentle reminder that local knowledge is needed for providing the best experiences. We had a good time and learned a great deal, but had I known more about the area the trip would have been exceptional.

This trip was to visit the southeast side of Mount St. Helens, in Washington State.

Day 1: The group arrived and we had time to explore the quiet tent-only campground and some local trails near Cougar, Washington. We had dinner, talked around the campfire, and some stayed out close to 10 pm as the mid-summer sun stayed long into the evening sky.

Having lunch at Lava Canyon.

The morning of Day 2 began with birds blasting the campground with calls at about 4:30 am! The group had a relaxed morning, though several commented they had not slept well that night. Possibly this was related to being tired, or we were talking, but while driving to the hiking area we missed a turn-off and went the expected distance down a road to realize we needed to backtrack. This delay caused us to start about an hour and a half late. Driving back, we learned there was a significant absence of Forest Service signage in the area related to general features like river crossings, sights, overlooks, etc. We finally made our destination of Lava Canyon and hiked around the upper trail area. Prior to the trip, we knew the suspension bridge was out of commission, though we had hoped to hike downstream to the Ship Rock area, sadly this trail was also closed. Hiking back, we crossed over the main footbridge and ate lunch overlooking the beautiful glacial-blue Muddy River. Leaving, we made a stop at the bridge overlooking the 1980 lahar flow with Mount St. Helens looming in the background.

Viewing the waterfall at June Lake.

We drove to the June Lake parking area and began our hike to June Lake. The plan had been to continue to Chocolate Falls for a 5-mile loop, but about 2 miles in, little issues were quickly adding up into larger concerns [such as starting the morning hike late which made starting this long hike begin well after lunch, hiking over sections of lava fields that had now heated up in the afternoon sun, half of the group being tired, several with not enough water, the leader not having the best map, having to cross glacial melt steam late in the day, and increasing signs that at some -including the trip leader- were dehydrated]. The trip leader made the call to stop the hike soon after June Lake. This was an unhappy call to make but hopefully avoided an injury. Driving back to camp, we located where the earlier signage mistake had been made – a sign had been misinterpreted. We also visited the Ape Cave turnoff to better know where to go the following morning and we discovered the sign along the road identifying the turn for Ape Cave was completely missing! Finding the turn, we stopped for 20 minutes at the Trail of Two Forests Interpretive Site where a 2,000-year-old lava flow from Mount St. Helens ran through the forest, around trees, solidifying around the trunks and leaving tree wells. The group ended our day back at the campground and had an early evening.

Looking up the lahar, Mount St. Helens is in distance. For scale, note the people walking in the lahar.

On the final day, we departed camp at 8:45 am and visited Ape Cave for our 9-9:30 am time slot to arrive. We parked in a lower lot as the official signage in the area was poor and did not direct us to the upper lot. Finally, we began our adventure up the difficult 1.5-mile upper cave route. Progress was slow as there was a significant amount of bouldering across rock falls, several tight places, and a harder than it sounds narrow 8-foot wall that had to be scaled. There were a few scraped knees, but the group arrived at the end of the lava tube; our completion time was 2 hours and 15 minutes. We walked 1.5 miles back to the visitor center through the forest for farewells and then drove back to Eugene. We had hoped to get ahead of any surge related to the Fourth of July weekend holiday traffic but still managed to hit bumper-to-bumper traffic through Portland, making drive time from Ape Cave to Eugene 4 hours.

Looking up at the skylight – Ape Cave

Hiking & Camping at Mount St. Helens – Eruption Celebration

Our visit to the Mount St. Helens National Monument was timed to the 38th anniversary of the May 18, 1980 eruption.

Trip Report:
Volunteer Leader: Mark Hougardy | Organization: Eugene-based Hiking Club | Dates: May 2018 | Duration: 3 days | Participants: 10 | Type: Hiking, Multi-day Camping

Our group rendezvoused at the Silver Lake Visitor Center off the I-5 where we enjoyed lunch and listened to an interpretive presentation by a ranger. Osprey flew overhead. Afterward, we continued about 20 miles up the road to the sediment retention dam. This massive structure holds back a reservoir of volcanic mud 13-miles long, a half a mile wide, and 200 feet deep. Several Army Corps of Engineer Rangers were inspecting the structure and they graciously talked with us about the dam’s history. Later that afternoon we proceeded a few miles up the highway to the laid-back Eco Lodge Resort where we pitched our tents and then hiked to the reservoir. The surface looked solid, but it quickly sucked unsuspecting walkers down to their ankles. In the ash and mud, there were tracks of raccoons, elk, and footprints of some enormous birds, possibly eagles. That evening we enjoyed dinner and some down-home hospitality at the lodge’s café. Before bed, we sat around a warm campfire. The next morning we ate a hearty breakfast then drove about 25 miles to Coldwater Lake. The lake is an enormous body of water that had not existed prior to the eruption. On that day, a wall of ash and rock several hundred feet deep blocked the creek causing the newly formed basin to fill. At the Johnston Ridge Observatory, we were told the facility was closed due to a power failure. We hit the Boundary Trail and hiked several hours through the apocalypse-like blast zone. In the distance, the massive volcano began to emerge from the clouds. On top of Harry’s Ridge, we walked along the snow line until we looked directly into the crater of Mount St. Helens. Below us was the hauntingly beautiful Spirit Lake. This is the location where long-time resident Harry Truman refused to leave his home. After the blast, he would live forever as a legend. A very sinister cloud suggested it was time for us to go. Our hike had been 8.8 miles and roughly 2,000 feet of elevation gain/loss. At the visitor center, we discovered they were open, but the power went out again after about 5 minutes. In the evening, we enjoyed a tasty home-cooked meal at the café and heard stories from the lodge’s owner, Mark. He had witnessed the eruption when he was 20. We enjoyed another humorous nightfall telling jokes and stories around the campfire. In the early morning, raindrops pecked at our tents. After breakfast, we thanked Mark and his family. As we left for home the rain started to pour. We had been fortunate with the weather, and to enjoy such a great time at the volcano.

Visiting Mount St. Helens During the 2013 Government Shutdown

“Due to a lapse in federal funding this Recreation Site is CLOSED.” This was the sign that greeted us at the Johnston Ridge Observatory Visitors’ Center at the Mount St. Helens National Monument in Washington state.

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We could not believe it; our 2 families had spent months of planning, each of the parents had taken time off work, everyone managed their household budgets, 3 kids juggled school homework, plus everyone had to deal with the expenses related to lodging and traveling.

Although much was closed, we made the best of it. The children were not deterred by the closure, they were very content just to be outside, run, play and have a great time, though for them the eruption of Mount St. Helens was ancient history.

For the parents, we remembered the eruption, we understood that the younger ones needed to see the volcano, touch the exploded trees, walk on the landslides, witness a forest that had been laid flat 30 years ago.

We stayed in the area for 4 days, camping, exploring, hiking, and talking with locals – who were very eager to unleash their frustration about the shutdown and tell us how much income that had lost from canceled bookings. Even though it was the end of the season the late bookings are what helped many small businesses move into the black with their earnings for that year.

Each day we made a pilgrimage to Johnston Ridge in hopes of seeing the volcano, but a thick layer of clouds always obstructed our view. On the last day, our patience was rewarded. At first, we were in the clouds and could only see several hundred feet, then in less than 30 minutes the skies cleared and we were treated to open vistas. The views were amazing.

blog-2013-10-20-img2A view of Mount St. Helens.

blog-2013-10-20-img3A close-up of the smoldering crater.

Note: The federal government shutdown lasted from October 1-16, 2013.