In 2009 Congress designated the Fort Stanton Cave and 25,080 acres surrounding it as a National Cave Conservation Area to protect the Fort Stanton cave complex. In total, there are 12 known caves on the grounds of Fort Stanton State Monument. The designation protects the land and caves beneath from activity on the surface, like drilling or mining (other than existing claims).
The Bureau of Land Management manages the property. Portions of the cave systems are open on a limited basis to the public. Exploring the caves requires a permit from the BLM Roswell Field Office. It is a good idea to call and check the status of the caves ahead of time. The BLM closes them frequently to protect the resident bat population from White Nose Syndrome (WNS).
Fort Stanton Cave
Fort Stanton Cave is an extensive limestone cave located on the land previously used as the Fort Stanton Reservation. At over thirty-one miles long, it is the longest cave in the park and the third longest cave in the state, which makes it one of the longest caverns in the U.S. Based on cane torches and other evidence found within the cave, the Jornada Mogollon and Apache explored the cave long before Europeans arrived.
Soldiers from Fort Stanton discovered the cave. A patrol of the 1st Dragoons explored the cave in 1855, equipped with .44 caliber pistols and musketoons. They descended on ropes, carrying canteens, and bulky haversacks of supplies, using whale oil lamps to navigate the dark passageways. They returned several times, using the cave for military drills.
The soldiers were training to patrol the dark, cramped caverns, because there was a rumor that the Apache had a sacred cave somewhere in the Guadalupe-Sacramento-Capitan mountains. They wanted to find and destroy it to demoralize the Apache. The Army launched an official exploratory expedition in 1871, sending a small contingent of soldiers approximately 8 miles into the cave. They took a boat with them to cross an underground lake inside (the lake no longer exists due to the lower water table).
Snowy River Cave
The most famous feature of Fort Stanton cave complex is the Snowy River cave, a mostly level passage with a bright white crystal calcite formation covering the bottom that looks like a river of snow. Cavers suspected that there was another large passage somewhere near the Fort Stanton Cave, but it took three decades of searching, and a 45-foot vertical shaft, to access it. In 2001, a team of experienced cavers descended deep into the Fort Stanton cave. They followed a small flow of air, hand digging a narrow passage through a dirt wall. As they burrowed through a narrow opening, they discovered the crystalline cavern.
Slow moving, limestone rich ground water crystallized the limestone into a white calcite. The formation filled the passageway for miles, like a long, crystal trail. The discovery of the new section of the cave precipitated a name change for the Conservation area, which is now rthe Fort Stanton-Snowy River National Conservation Area.
Snowy River National Conservation Area
Exploring Snowy River isn’t easy. The cave ceiling is so low in some areas that explorers have to wriggle through tight crevices. However, in other areas the passage is 100 feet tall and 40-50 feet wide. Cave scientists have identified more than 50 microbes in the passage, including new species.
In 2007 a group of cavers exploring the cavern discovered that Snowy River occasionally has clear water flowing through the passage, its maximum depth defined by the edge of the pure white calcite formation on the mud floor and limestone walls. The calcite on the cave floor is delicate, varying from fractions of an inch to four inches thick. Explorers have gone to great lengths to keep the formation clean and minimize damage. Due to the scientific importance of the Snowy River passage, and the extremely fragile formations, the cave is not open to the public.
Fort Stanton Cave Study Project
Most of the exploration and research at Fort Stanton-Snowy River NCA has been conducted by the Fort Stanton Cave Study Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting exploration, public education, scientific research, and environmentally sound management of the caves within and surrounding the Conservation Area.
Over one hundred volunteers have donated time, effort and expertise over the last fifty-five years to study and protect the geologic treasures within the caves. The cavers with this project were the ones that discovered Snowy River in 2001. They send teams of experienced cavers multiple times each year to conduct research and to continue mapping. They have named the noteworthy features encountered along the way. For example, one room, where stalactites vibrate and hum, is called “Harmony Hall,” another passage involving a particularly narrow passage is called the “Crawl from Hell,” and an area with blood-red calcite portion was dubbed the “Velvet Underground.”
One of the Longest Caves in the World
Geologists consider Snowy River the largest calcite formation in the U.S., though there is no definitive way to measure it. The map of the passage already extends beyond the conservation area, snaking toward the Sierra Blanca Mountains. Though mapping is incomplete, scientists recognize that Snowy River is one of the longest caves in the world. The complex, combined with Fort Stanton cave, is 31.5 miles so far, longer than Carlsbad Caverns. However, it is worth noting that neither Snowy River or Carlsbad Cavers has been fully explored. It may be premature to decla
re either the longest, biggest, and/or most impressive, because both continue to yield new discoveries.
Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area
Fort Stanton, NM 88323