COUGAR — The drippy, damp, and dark environs of the Ape Cave are quite a contrast — and a world away — from James Whatley's job.
Specialist Whatley was hiking in the cave south of Mount St. Helens on Sunday while on a two-week leave from his post as a forward observer in southern Afghanistan.
"There's lots of grape fields and wheat fields there,'' said Whatley, a Lacey resident. "It's fairly flat and fairly dry.''
It's not flat nor dry at Ape Cave or elsewhere in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which soon will be filled with visitors as Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer.
The snow level is at about 3,300 feet elevation, but varies by widely, with south-facing slopes melting out more quickly.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service reported on Wednesday 70 inches of snow at June Lake (elevation 3,440 feet on south side of Mount St. Helens), 89 inches at Surprise Lakes (elevation 4,250 east of Indian Heaven Wilderness) and 55 inches at Potato Hill (4,510 feet elevation north of Mount Adams).
Several campgrounds are open for the summer already.
Those include Moss Creek, Oklahoma, Beaver, Panther Creek, Lower Falls, Sunset Falls, Trout Lake Creek and Mount Adams Horse camps in the southern end of the 1.3-million-acre Gifford Pinchot.
At the north end, open campgrounds include Big Creek, Tower Rock, Adams Fork, La Wis Wis, Iron Creek and the dispersed sites at Cat Creek and Summit Creek.
La Wis Wis is without water the until the system is repaired. Blue Lake Creek is open, but without water this year.
High-elevation camps including Takhlakh Lake, Olallie Lake, Chain of Lakes, Keenes, Killen Creek and Walupt Lake are scheduled to open by July 1, weather depending.
Snow on the roads will stymie most loop road trips in the Gifford Pinchot this weekend. Here's an update on the major GPNF roads:
• Lewis River road No. 90 is open to about milepost 43 near the Table Mountain trail No. 18 crossing. Merrill Lake No. 81 is open to above Kalama Horse Camp from the west. It is gated closed at Cougar Sno-Park from the east.
• Panther Creek road No. 65 and Carson-Guler No. 60 are open to their junction at Four Corners. Wind River No. 30 is open to Lone Butte Sno-Park.
• White Salmon No. 23 is open north from Trout Lake to the junction with road No. 8031. Randle-Trout Lake No. 24 is open to Atkisson Sno-Park.
• Mount Adams No. 80 is open to a mile past Wicky Shelter. Road No. 88 is open from the Trout Lake side to Flattop Sno-Park.
• Randle-Lewis River No. 25 is gated closed at the junction with Spencer No. 93.
• Road No. 83 is gated closed at Marble Mountain Sno-Park.
Here are half a dozen Memorial Day hiking suggestions, remembering that the high country is still under deep snow.
Siouxon Creek — Siouxon Creek trail No. 130 is one of the best trails in the forest during the spring snow melt. From Chlatchie, follow roads Nos. 54, 57 and 5701 to the trailhead at the end of No. 5701.
Hike four miles to the bridge crossing, turn left and visit Chinook Creek Falls. Bring flip-flops or aquasocks to cross a tributary stream just before the bridge.
Dog Mountain — This is always a good late May-early June hike to one of the best wildflower displaysin the Columbia Gorge. The trailhead is at milepost 53 on state Highway 14. This is a steep hike of about seven miles round trip. A Northwest Forest Pass is required. Watch for poison oak at the lower end of the trail.
This trail will be crowded, as will the parking lot. Hike up the Augspurger trail (west) and down the Dog Mountain trail. They make a loop.
Lewis River — Trail No. 31 along the upper North Fork of the Lewis River is a classic riverside hike. The lower end between road No. 9039 and road No. 90 is 9.5 miles, partly along the big, powerful river and partly climbing away from the water to some delightful waterfalls on tributary streams.
The three miles from Lower Falls Recreation Area to the end of the trail on road No. 90 at Quartz Creek passes four huge waterfalls.
Coldwater Lake — Lakes trail No. 211 skirts along big Coldwater Lake on the north side of Mount St. Helens. The view of Minnie Peak while hiking up the lake is stunning.
The trailhead is along state Highway 504, a few miles west of Johnston Ridge Observatory.