The Fort Stanton - Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area (NCA) was established in 2009 to protect, conserve, and enhance the unique and nationally important historic, cultural, scientific, archaeological, natural, and educational subterranean cave resources of the Fort Stanton - Snowy River cave system. The NCA includes approximately 25,080 acres.
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The NCA was once known as the Fort Stanton Military Reservation. In 1855, the U.S. Army established Fort Stanton as an Infantry and Cavalry post in the east-central New Mexico Territory to protect settlers in the region. The historic fort and its buildings are managed by the New Mexico State Monuments Division, Museum of New Mexico. The lands surrounding the fort are managed by the BLM. Within the NCA is Fort Stanton Cave, at over 26 miles, the third longest cave in New Mexico, the 20th longest cave in the U.S., the 76th longest in the world, and the largest cave managed by the BLM. This cave was explored by soldiers posted at the fort as evidenced by their inscriptions, units and dates within the cave. Visit www.fortstanton.org to learn more about the area's history.
Snowy River is a significant passage within Fort Stanton Cave. In 2001, this large diameter passage was discovered after over 30 years of cavers investigating strong air flows coming through breakdown in the cave. Snowy River receives its name from a bright white crystal calcite formation covering the bottom of the passage. Snowy River is the longest cave formation in the world. Today, approximately nine miles of previously unknown passage have been mapped, without reaching the end. Exploration continues in a “science first, survey-as-you-go” manner.
Fort Stanton–Snowy River NCA is located at an elevation of about 6,300 feet above sea level in the eastern foothills of the Sierra Blanca Mountains of south central New Mexico. The surface landscape of Fort Stanton includes rolling hills, mesas, and both seasonal and perennial streams with grasslands, pinyon/juniper shrublands and ponderosa pine forest habitats. The sub-surface caves of the area continue to be discovered and explored. Rainfall averages 15 inches annually, most of it coming during the monsoon season of July, August, and September. Thunderstorms are a common occurrence and lightning poses a hazard to hikers.
Temperatures range from an average summer high of 85 degrees to winter lows averaging 19 degrees. Fire restrictions and/or closures are sometimes implemented in the NCA - check this website for updates. Please be alert for rattlesnakes during warmer weather.
Activities and Facilities
This unique NCA has many opportunities for hiking, caving, horseback riding, mountain biking, camping, visiting cultural and historic sites, picnicking, hunting, wildlife viewing, nature study, and photography. Drinking water and toilets at the equestrian trailhead and cave campgrounds.
Fort Stanton NCA has 93 miles of sustainable horseback, mountain biking, and hiking trails that wind through open meadows and canyons. Trails are marked with flexible fiberglass markers with the trail name or an arrow attached to the marker. Cross-country horse and foot travel is allowed. Mountain bikes are strongly encouraged to stay on established trails to protect the rider as well as the landscape. The trails offer great views of the surrounding Sacramento and Capitan Mountains. The majority of the trails start at the equestrian trailhead on NM 220 where you will find hitching rails, water for your animals, and a vault toilet.
Rio Bonito Petroglyph National Recreation Trail
Hike the Petroglyph Trail along the Rio Bonito and glimpse into the past. At the midpoint of the trail, in the river bed, is Petroglyph Rock. Etched on this rock are depictions of an ancient people known as the Jornada Mogollon who have long since left the area. Very little evidence has stood the test of time, but here on the Petroglyph Trail remains a link to the culture and lifestyle of these ancient people.
The trail can be reached from NM 220, west of the Sierra Blanca Regional Airport. Follow the highway signs stating “Upper Rio Bonito” to the bottom of the hill and turn left for approximately one mile until you reach the trailhead (high-clearance vehicles are recommended). The loop trail is approximately 2.1 miles in total length and is easy to moderate hiking with a few hills and areas with loose footing. Plan to spend approximately one hour on the trail.
Historic Fort Stanton
Historic Fort Stanton is one of very few intact frontier forts in the West. Many of the original fort buildings still stand. From 1855 to 1896, the fort played host to some of the most colorful units and personalities of the West, including the 9th Cavalry, and the 24th, 57th and 125th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers, Billy the Kid, Lew Wallace, Colonel Kit Carson, and General “Black Jack” Pershing. The post was also a Merchant Marine hospital & tuberculosis sanatorium, and World War II prisoner of war camp. In 1953, the fort and 1,320 surrounding acres were transferred from Federal to State ownership, becoming a state hospital and training school until 1955. Today, the fort area is active with other state activities and the Fort Stanton Museum is open on a daily basis (http://fortstanton.org/).
Fort Stanton Cave
With 19.33 miles of mapped passages, the cave is normally open for recreational caving under permit from April 15 to November 1. However, due to the threat of White Nose Syndrome (WNS), which has killed 8 million bats in the eastern and southern states, and has been identified in nearby western Oklahoma, the cave has been placed in a recreational caving moratorium pending research and monitoring of the unwanted arrival of WNS.
The cave is widely known for its rare velvet formations, and there are also interesting helictites, aragonite, selenite needles, and various forms of gypsum. During the winter months the cave is closed to protect hibernating bats. The cave is gated to protect other unique resources and to prevent unsupervised visitation. To check the cave status regarding recreational caving, please contact the Roswell Field Office or the NCA Office. If the moratorium has been lifted, you may visit this undeveloped “wild” cave by obtaining a permit from the BLM Roswell Field Office. You must provide your own caving equipment and observe the rules of conduct within the cave. Download a cave permit application and information on White Nose Syndrome for Bats, or it can be obtained from the Roswell Field Office.
Very slow moving ground water dissolved the grayish-brown limestone in which the cave is formed and recrystallized that limestone into a white-colored mineral called calcite. Through numerous infillings of ground water saturated with calcite, followed by draining and drying, repeated coats of calcite were laid on the bottom of the cave through the entire five miles of Snowy River passage that has been surveyed to date. This unique white crystalline deposit glistens like snow and may be the largest calcite formation in America. Several endemic microorganisms have been discovered in this new section of the cave. In this sunless environment, species living here do not get their energy from the sun. Instead, they chemically break down rock. In the process, they create chemical byproducts that could have pharmaceutical uses. There are also several species that have formed symbiotic relationships with each other.
Continuing exploration and scientific research will help us better understand the formation of caves in this area, improve our understanding of groundwater hydrology of the region, and increase our knowledge of the biology of the cave. In the years to come, many new biological discoveries are anticipated. Due to the scientific importance of the cave, the Snowy River passage is not open to the public. BLM is planning interpretive products in the future so the public can enjoy and better understand this unique resource.
The Fort Stanton NCA is open to overnight camping with a 14-day maximum length of stay. To camp, vehicles may pull of any of the dirt roads, but no more than 100 feet from the road. There are two small formal camping areas: The Equestrian Trailhead on NM 220 and a the small Cave Campground near Fort Stanton Cave entrance.
- Equestrian Trailhead - This site consists of a large parking area, vault toilet, and facilities for staging horseback riding. There are eight RV hookups with electricity and potable water, and other potable water outlets. Groups and individuals may camp in the parking lot and grounds along a loop road immediately east of the parking lot.
- Cave Campground - Several tables and fire rings are located here, as well as a vault toilet. The access road is graveled.
There are 22 miles of designated roads within the NCA. Vehicles are limited to designated routes which will be marked with signs stating open or closed.
Location / Access
From Capitan, NM, drive on US 380 east 4.25 miles to NM 220. From Lincoln, NM, drive west 7.7 miles to NM 220. Drive south one mile to the equestrian trailhead. The historic Fort Stanton is approximately one mile further on NM 220. BLM is investigating the opportunity to provide visitor services information about the NCA at Lincoln, Capitan, Ruidoso, and at the historic Fort Stanton.