Visitors find unearthly experience inside Mount St. Helens

Txus Paul stood in the warm sunshine and peered down into the dark, dripping mouth of Ape Cave.

It was 73 degrees — short-sleeve shirt weather — on the top step of the 36 steps that lead into the 12,810-foot cave.

Ape Cave is the longest lava tube in North America.

At the bottom of the steps, it was 42 degrees, and lantern-toting cave explorers saw their breath as they stepped into the clammy darkness.

Paul, originally from Barcelona, Spain, marveled at the cave, which is in the southern part of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, part of the sprawling Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

“We live in Portland now, and we planned a short getaway with our two kids to Mount St. Helens,” Paul said. “It’s a very appealing area, and there is so much to see so close to home.”

Paul’s family started its trip in the Mount St. Helens blast zone at Johnston Ridge Observatory, where they were 6 miles from the gaping crater from the 1980 eruption. Ape Cave, which is south of the blast zone, is in a part of the Gifford Pinchot that was spared the devastation from that eruption.

Ape Cave formed thousands of years ago, during a different kind of eruption from Mount St. Helens. Hot lava flowed out of the mountain and into a valley near what is now the town of Cougar.

The lava cooled on top while the hotter, deeper lava continued to flow down the grade. The cool lava created the top of the cave, which remained open when the liquid lava ran out the downhill end.

Ape Cave is one of the most popular spots on the Gifford Pinchot. Thousands of visitors bundle up in winter jackets and tote lanterns and flashlights down the stone steps to the cave.

But the Gifford Pinchot is a playground for millions — 1.8 million people came to the 1,368,300-acre forest in 2007 — and there are countless things to do and places to see.

The Gifford Pinchot has world-class hiking trails.

Mountain bikers hit the Plains of Abraham, Lewis River Trail and Siouxon Trail.

Snowshoers, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers and back-country skiers and snowboarders visit the Gifford Pinchot’s Sno-Parks throughout the winter.

Mountaineers climb Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens.

Horseback riders saddle up at the Kalama Horse camp — and other horse-friendly trailheads.

The Cispus River gives whitewater rafters and kayakers thrills and chills.

Hunters go after deer and elk in season.

The Gifford Pinchot offers some of the finest huckleberry picking on the planet.

The list goes on.

For 100 years, the Gifford Pinchot has been so many things to so many people.

“You’re not going to see anything else like it anywhere else,” Allan Tahayeri of Portland said after climbing out of the cave.

To Paul, Ape Cave, Mount St. Helens and the rest of the sprawling, scenic Gifford Pinchot sums up the sights and majesty of the American West.

“Coming from Europe, we had maybe one-eighth of all this,” she said as a gray jay perched on a nearby branch. “When you drive around here, you experience the immensity and beauty of this country.”