Spelunking in Washington State
Washington state’s impressive wild places range from snow-capped mountains to dripping rainforests and fog-shrouded fjords. Its caves are often overlooked, but they offer distinct opportunities for adventure.
In Washington, spelunking, or cave exploration, is accessible to most able-bodied visitors. You’ll need a sturdy pair of shoes and a headlamp to explore the state’s most memorable caves.
The Lava Tubes
The Ape Caves of Mount St. Helens are actually two ancient tubes that once were pathways for lava. The caves are named after the Mount St. Helens Apes, an outdoor club whose members explored the area. Visitors can park at the tubes and descend via ladders and stairs into the damp, dark, cold caves. There are no light sources in the caves, so you need to bring a headlamp to see.
There is one steep section that requires climbing and is only recommended for the most fit and experienced visitors. However, the caves are otherwise flat once you descend the ladder or stairs. Rangers lead guided cave walks in summer, and the caves are open year-round.
The Ice Caves
Not hospitable for spelunking within them, the Big Four Ice Caves sit at the bottom of a massive, sheer mountain of the same name in the Cascade Range. As ice falls from the stone above, it collects into a hollowed-out structure through which an icy wind flows year-round.
Hikers can easily access the caves after a short, 2.2-mile round trip trail that’s mostly flat. Though the deep blue of the caves’ interior is tantalizing, visitors should stay away from their openings, especially if the sun is beating down on the mountains above; avalanches have resulted in fatalities from the collected ice melting.
The Limestone Cavern
Gardner Cave is a limestone cavern of stalactites and stalagmites — what you typically imagine when you think of a cave. The cavern sits in Crawford State Park in northeast Washington and is the state’s third-longest limestone cave, measuring 1,055 feet long.
Impressive cave formations, rim stone pools and flow stone greet visitors almost immediately upon entering. Park rangers offer free guided tours.
The Volcanic Boulders
Boulder Cave is a volcanic formation in central Washington, near the town of Yakima. Millions of years of lava flows deposited boulders over soft soil, which over time was eroded to form a hollow space reaching 400 feet deep. It’s a relatively small cave, but its depth makes it a dark spot, so you’ll need to bring your own light source.
You’ll hike on a 2-mile path to reach the entrance; both the hike and the cave are easy to explore, so they’re suitable for any traveler. The cave is also home to Pacific western big-eared bats, which hang from the cave’s ceiling during daylight hours.