Backpacking took a bit of a standstill this time around. I had some volcanic scenery to take in. Around February I learned that there’s a tunnel system lurking below our notorious mountain where lava once flowed. It’s the third longest lava tube in the United States at 2.6 miles. It features an easy section for some even-breathing walking, and a difficult section for those willing to climb up and over obstacles in the dark.
First off, let me appologize for the image quality. Dark caves aren’t friendly to cameras. I also missed some great photo opprotunities to show off some of the cooler portions, if I wanted a clear photo at all I had to enable flash. Flash is a disturbing nuisance to everyone, so I opted to just let it go.
Despite my recent words about it, I went in with a group this time around. As such, some of this group wanted to just take the easy trail. So that was up first. The easier trail follows along a wide and open tunnel system and stays that way up until a certain point. You have some rocks to contend with, but it’s mostly carved out pretty well. Lava is apparently a fantastic architect.
After a while of meandering through dark tunnels (It’s more fun than it sounds), you run into the first landmark: The Meatball. The name is a little more interesting than the actual feature. A lump of rock survived the lava’s fury and decided to hang out on the ceiling for people to admire it. I never thought I’d run into an arrogant rock, but there’s a first time for everything.
Continuing down the path eventually brings you to a decision: Keep going, or don’t keep going. If you keep going, your comfort level with enclosed spaces is going to be tested a little bit. If you don’t keep going, you’re missing out on a bit of a fun crawl.
I plunged in head first here, and the more hesitant group members were egged on by fellow lava-tubers with promises of $20. They of course ran away once we all piled into this claustrophobic nightmare. I personally like enclosed spaces, so I was right at home. Everyone else was having a good laugh as we made our way through this last stretch.
When I got to the end, I was welcomed by a very small chamber and a dead end. I didn’t go into the chamber because there really wasn’t much point as there wasn’t anything back there. After a while of standing around and staring at it, we heard voices down the tunnel and decided to vacate before the next group decided to push through and trap us.
The group then split in half. One team decided to linger around for a bit and look at the easier half in more detail, and the other half decided to go look at the more difficult portion of the trail.
I was actually surprised when I saw that the signs weren’t kidding when they said ‘difficult’. Most of this portion was climbing over rock piles, but there were a couple portions where your climbing skills were really tested.
Don’t ask me how this happens, but apparently lava-falls exist. This makes sense on land where there’s terrain features providing the opportunity, but I don’t understand how it happens under ground. Needless to say, *I met face to face with the remnants of a lava-fall, and it meant we had to climb up a smooth 10 foot wall. There was one hole for one foot, and your other foot became a third wheel not knowing what to do with itself. The gooey wet surface of the rock doesn’t help much. You can make it up, but it’s a bit of an unexpected turn of events.
*Due to a queue and group members needing help up the wall, I didn’t have a chance to take a picture. I have to borrow someone elses. If you’re that someone else and don’t want me using it, I’ll happily take it down. One of the many downfalls of crowds here, we’ll cover that later.
Pretty much the entirety of this portion of the trail is climbing over one rock-hill after the next. The fact that you’re doing this not only underground, but in a place that used to house lava makes it a really cool experience. If you keep your eyes open you may spot some chambers you didn’t expect, I know I did. There’s some pretty hairy spots here, so keep that in mind if you want to bring your kids along on this portion. I saw quite a few here and they were getting by alright, just make sure they’re up to it.
I was pretty surprised to hear that this is only a 2.6 mile trek, it felt like we were down there covering at least five miles. By the end of it we had been down there for about three hours, but the really cool views didn’t help that.
After being teased a little bit earlier on in the trail, we finally see an opening with an exit ladder leading us back to the surface. As much as we enjoyed the experience, it was a welcome sight.
Once you emerge from the ground screaming (kinda felt like this [‘Descent’ spoiler alert]) , you’re welcomed by a one mile walk back to the upper parking lot. It’s a very nice walk with great scenery. You can really see where the volcano had made its mark, but you can also see what nature is doing to reclaim the land.
Obviously the Lava Tunnels are really cool, there’s no denying it. I’ve been into a few caves in my day, but this easily beats anything I’ve ever done and kinda left a “I want to try spelunking out” taste in my mouth along with the very fine dust that inevitably tries choking you. The way I saw the ‘difficult’ section was Spelunking without Spelunking, the same way climbing up a mountain on a recreational trail doesn’t make you a Mountaineer. You’re underground, and you’re climbing and squeezing through narrow passages. Enough to make a tourist feel adventurous but in the safest way.
The benefits of being underground are the temperatures are pretty much constant. The only reason I was ever cold or hot down there were dependent on my activity. On the easier trail I was a little chilly because I was barely moving. On the harder one I got pretty hot and took my jacket off.
It’s great that people were as enthusiastic about this place as I was. It really is. But the crowds were pretty horrendous. It’s not that I didn’t expect this given that it’s labor day weekend, but it kind of told me that this would be a better experience during the off season. It isn’t so much the crowds that bothered me, it’s what the crowds decided to do. You had a lot of people shouting, clapping, and whistling to make sure that their echo still exists. And they’re likely to do it as long as you’re anywhere near them. I opted to let these kind of folks pass by me, but noise really travels down here. While letting people pass is a good way to eliminate the problem, you’re going to be waiting for a while.
Litter is pretty bad. And unfortunately that doesn’t just mean trash. There were times where I was 90% certain I had walked past a pile of human waste, and this was confirmed when I got back up. The volunteers and employees here hauled 25lbs of feces out of this cave last year. Maybe the only bright side to this was they at least had the sense to do their business off the main path, but it was still very disappointing. That paired with the fact that I was constantly catching glimmers of soda and beer cans, as well as a trail of cigarette butts.. it was just a pretty sad downfall to the experience. Of course it was a great experience regardless, but you know, screw these people.
Lastly, bottlenecks. Like the lava-fall, there’s areas here that are going to slow traffic down in the tunnels and you’ll start to see queues forming just to push through. To make things worse, you can walk through the tunnel two separate ways, so you had oncoming traffic to contend with as well. This isn’t so much a problem when everyone’s patient and understanding, but there were times where people were less than nice about it.
Getting the Most
I really think this would be an amazing experience with less traffic. There were a couple times where my group was isolated enough to where we could turn off our lights and just sit in the quiet dark for a while. It was a really cool experience, and it could be even cooler if you had longer stretches to do this. If you decide to go, absolutely try it out. I’d also like to think that the waste problem isn’t as much of an issue at this point in the year.
The unfortunate part of this is it’s not as accessible during the winter. It’s open, but you have to park at a separate parking lot and hike up in the snow. I don’t know what the trail conditions are like at that time, but I’ve heard of people snowshoeing to the caves, so be prepared for it.
The area surrounding Mount Saint Helens is really beautiful. My group snagged a couple of camp sites near Swift Reservoir. I’m not huge on out of the car camping, but I really enjoyed it here. There was plenty of space to sprawl out and have a bit of privacy even. The reason I’m mentioning this at all in the article is that I was expecting much less out of a campsite but was very surprised with how great it was. And apparently this wasn’t even one of the nicer areas.
I had that patch of land all to myself. There were two other tents at this site and we all had plenty of room to space out a bit to minimize noise disturbances. Obviously things vary sometimes and you might not have as great of an experience, but I was happy.
The Reservoir was a short walk away from the campgrounds, and it was nice enough. My hopes of being able to see the volcano from here were shattered, but I enjoyed it nontheless. The beach sprawled out for quite a ways, so it was easy to have your own bubble of space. The water wasn’t too cold, and it was actually very clear.
It would have been an excellent place to swim, but unfortunately I get spooked out by large/deep bodies of water so I opted not to. Being able to see the sheer drop-off didn’t help. But it was beautiful enough to make me think about it at least. There were quite a few people who had the same idea. You’re otherwise going to be walking past people fishing mostly.
As I mentioned before, there’s a bit of a drought right now. The water line receded quite a bit so a lot of areas had to close the boat ramps. But it made the water a bit more accessible by foot as long as you don’t mind a field of tree stumps. I thought it was kind of neat.
Because I’ve Been Talking for Too Long..
I’ll wrap this up. Ape Cave was awesome, the reservoir was awesome, and I had a decent experience at the camp site. There’s a slew of things to check out around Mount Saint Helens, so much that I didn’t even have enough time to go see the volcano itself.
It really is a cool destination, and I’m really interested in going back for a backpacking trip at some point. There’s some interesting terrain out there that can change pretty drastically that would make for a great trek. Whatever you do here, you’re going to enjoy it. Even in the rain.