Has your little one started charting the house – finding crooks and crevices you didn’t know existed? Are you prepared to open their imaginations to true exploration? Well then, grab your coats and lanterns and take your little scout for an unconventional adventure: Spelunking at the Ape Caves. Journey to a whole new world through ancient lava tubes and the darkest dark. Whether you want to tackle a gentle lower cave or high-adventure upper one, there are plenty of options for little legs and longer ones. Be prepared to hold little hands as your kid gasps and scrambles (maybe hold tighter if they are a true explorer!).
Need to know: Exploring the caves requires special preparation. All visitors should bring-
• Three sources of light – Clean-burning lanterns (propane or white gas), or flashlights with strong batteries and bright bulbs.
• Sturdy shoes/boots – The lava tube floor is uneven and covered with jagged rocks.
• Warm clothing – The temperature remains near 42ºF/6ºC year-round. It can also be windy and wet in the lava tube.
A Northwest Forest Pass is required. A Sno-Park Pass is required during the winter season starting Dec 15 and visitors will need to park at the Trail of Two Forest Sno-Park.
Get there: From Portland, take I-5 North to Exit 21. Travel east on Highway 503 and USFS Road 90, approximately 35.7 miles to the junction of USFS Roads 83 and 90. Turn left onto USFS Road 83 and proceed another 2 miles to the junction of USFS Roads 83 and 8303. Turn left onto USFS Road 8303 and proceed another mile on USFS Road 8303 to parking lot of lower entrance to Ape Cave.
Travel time: About an hour and forty minutes from downtown Portland.
What to do: For a casual caving experience more suited to younger kiddos, the lower cave with its level, well-graded floor is the route of choice. This cave provides a two-mile round trip, 200-foot-elevation-gain, out-and-back exploration. The floor is composed primarily of volcanic ash and is easy to navigate—a good route if you just want a taste of cave dwelling.
For the older kiddos looking for a challenge, trek to the upper cave. The upper cave is a rugged three-mile, 400-foot-elevation-gain, loop hike. The first 1.5 miles of this option are spent in the cave before climbing out of a small hole near the end and returning on a traditional hiking path. Along the way, you will navigate 27 boulder piles and climb an eight-foot-high lava falls. This route requires patience and scrambling ability from any good explorer. Within the first couple of minutes, you’ll get a good sampling of what you’re in for.
Know of any other sites to take little explorers? Let us know in the comments!
— Adam Sawyer (super dad writer and photographer too!)