Sun and Lava

Sometimes we have memories from places we visited as a child, and they’re really wonderful memories. So wonderful, that when we go back to these places, they can leave us wondering what’s different this time, why isn’t the place as beautiful as how we remember?

And then there’s days like this past Sunday, visiting Gifford Pinchot National Forest, where the reality completely outshines what I remembered from visiting when I was little.

Living down in Battle Ground until I was eight, my family visited a lot of places in the Southwest of Washington and the northwest of Oregon. Things like Multnomah Falls, St. Helens, Portland, Mt. Hood, were all a part of growing up. My fiancee however grew up in the local area, and spent much of her childhood camping and fishing here and up north. So places that I have seen before, she’s never been to. And I haven’t been in a long time.

So on the one day off we had together this weekend, we made the two hour or so drive down to the forest. Our first, and main stop, was the Ape Cave.


The Ape Cave isn’t in fact a cave, nor is it full of apes. Essentially it has a name that doesn’t describe anything about it. Confusing, I know. It’s actually a huge lava tube, formed almost 2,000 years ago. The ape part comes from the nickname of the group who first discovered the lava tube, back in the 1940s. The general belief is that this was derived from the urban legend of big foot roaming the area, but no one knows for sure.

For those of you thinking about going, here’s a few essential things to know:

  • There are two caves, the upper one and the lower one. We did the lower, and most people do. The upper takes easily twice as long, involves a great deal of climbing and crawling, and definitely requires strongly powered headlamps. The lower is much easier, can be walked in about an hour, and you can use a lantern, strong flashlight, or head lamp
  • You MUST have illumination to go in. Even if it wasn’t required, you’d be a fool not to. It’s dark in there.
  • It’s cold. If you go on a blazing hot day like we did, a windbreaker or something as light will probably do. But I’d advise against shorts no matter how hot! On colder days, a thicker jacket is best. I’d say it’s easily 30 degrees colder in the tube than it is outside.
  • You must pay for a pass to park here and at other areas in the forest.


The tube is amazing, incredible in how large it is. To think of how much lava came from the volcano in order to create such a tube, is mind boggling.  It was pretty busy in the cave, being a Sunday, and such a gorgeous day out. But even with all the people, we were able to have a few quiet moments to ourselves to admire the majesty of nature.

And were then promptly scorched by the blazing sun and mild humidity that greeted us when we returned to the surface. Needless to say, the jackets remained in the trunk of the car for the rest of the day.

Our next stop was Lava Canyon, which is about a 15-20 minute drive away, depending on how skilled you are at going around curves. Myself, I am not a pro, so I tend to be slow. My map had told me it was a 50 minute drive, so imagine how pleased I was to find out that was totally inaccurate!

The canyon was once covered in a huge forest of trees and moss, which flowing lava stripped away to expose a gorgeous canyon and river flowing into a waterfall.



It was incredibly warm that day, and let me tell you, the water never looked so good. But a ton of signs telling us how people had died from going too close to the river, were good enough incentive to stay on the trail.

Other people were not so smart. There was a couple siting so close to the water fall, I felt positive my fiancee and I were going to witness a horrific accident. Luckily none occurred, but I believe those two people only survived due to sheer dumb luck. Use your heads, dear readers. Is one moment of refreshing water worth your life?

There are three hikes you can do at the canyon, in theory. The first one is very short and tiny, I’m not even fully sure where it was located. The second one is the one we did, it has a bit of “tough” spots, plus the suspension bridge. If you don’t like suspension bridges, I really wouldn’t recommend this. It’s very stable and hardly moves, but take it from my fiancee who hates them, this isn’t a short one. It’s long, and relatively high up. If you do like suspension bridges, or want to challenge yourself, take this hike and check it out! The view is amazing.


The third, and final hike there is called the black loop, supposedly very challenging, but was closed. I suspect it might permanently be closed, given all the warning signs, and the several notes left by other visitors warning people you can’t hike on it. It didn’t bother me too much though, I didn’t need to take my life into my own hands that day.

We crossed the bridge (not fast enough for my fiancee) and returned to our car. On our drive back down 90, we managed to get an incredible view of Mt. St. Helens. It’s probably the closest I’ve been to the mountain since I was eight.


Our third and final stop in the forest is a charming 1/4 mile boardwalk trail, called Trail of Two Forests. The trail takes you past a bunch of old growth trees, as well as much newer trees that grew from the moss and micro organisms that formed on top of the cooled lava. This walk is short, but really nice to do. It’s fascinating to see all the huge holes where trees once stood before the lava turned them to char.


There’s also a lava tube that you can crawl through to see what the texture is like etc. As we didn’t have head lamps, we chose to skip this fun little adventure this time. But mark my words, one day I will crawl through that like the child I still am inside.

To round off the day we had dinner at Burgerville, which is a staple of the area. It’s a very small chain that serves up real milkshakes, fish and chips, an amazing veggie burger, and a salmon salad to die for. If you’re in that neck of the words, do yourself a favor and eat there, you won’t regret it.

Now I’m home, watching the rain fall, and eager to go on another adventure. Have a place you want me to write about, or think it would be cool for me to visit? Let me know!

Until the next adventure~









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