Caving Snail Shell Cave

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Snail Shell Cave

Cave Details

Type of Cave
Horizontal Cave
Accessed Length
2000 Feet
Safety Notes
This cave serves as the drainage system for the entire Stones River watershed, so, note that this cave should NOT be accessed before or after rains as it may be impossible to enter or exit and is subject to flooding.
1.7 Miles north of Rockvale and 1.7 miles southeast of Windrow, 300 yds east of the Snail Shell Cave Rd, in dense cedar woods in a large sinkhole 225ft in diameter, and 75 feet deep, sitting at 700ft elevation.



Geographic Location


Snail Shell Cave is the largest cave in one of the most extensive known cave systems in Tennessee. Together with Echo Cave and Nanna Cave, it forms a vast underground complex of which 8 miles of passages have been explored (fig. 104). The main channel of the cave is occupied by a stream which is ponded in huge lakes, the larger of which holds between 1 million and 2 1/2 million gallons of water. The actual flow of water is slight, except after heavy rains, when portions of the cave are apparently completely inundated and the stream becomes a raging torrent.

Snail Shell Cave system is a vast underground dendritic network, draining a relatively level limestone plain in which surface streams have made only shallow incisions. Sinkholes dot the low surface interfluves, leading downward into the underground system. Lapiez, sinks, and limestone pavement characterize the surface, which is either bare rock with a scattering of grasses and cactus, or dense cedar thicket with under¬brush of catbrier and young black locust


The main stream is believed to originate in "the Gulf" (35°46'23"N x 86°34'27" W.), a depression 800 feet long, 150 feet wide, and 50 feet deep. At the north end of The Gulf a surface stream flows over a 15-foot cliff and descends rapidly to the bottom of the sink to enter a low open-ing. The stream apparently flows northeastward through Nanna Cave and Snail Shell Cave. Echo Cave is probably a tributary. Upon leaving the lower end of Snail Shell Cave, the stream comes to the surface again in the "Blue Sink" (85°47151"N. x 86°37'18"W.), a large water-filled de¬pression 200 feet in diameter and 35 feet deep. The final resurgence of the main stream is probably at Overall Springs (35°48'10"N. x 86031'20"W.), which is the source of Overall Creek, a tributary of Stones River. Al¬though all connections between the caves and sinks are conjectural, the known extent of the explored portions of the caves is in accord with the suggested pattern.

The mouth of Snail Shell Cave is a sinkhole, with nearly vertical walls, 125 feet in diameter and 60 feet deep. The cave stream, which flows across the bottom, may be followed upstream or downstream. Ex-ploration is possible only with small boats.

The upstream section is continuously penetrable for about 8,400 feet. For the first 2,000 feet the passage averages 12 feet wide and 20 feet high (above water surface), and the water averages about 10 feet deep. At 2,000 feet there is a breakdown, which one must cross on foot. Beyond the breakdown the water is shallower (3.5 feet) for several hundred yards, but eventually it becomes quite dccl) again. At about 3,000 feet one must crawl beneath a massive llowstone formation, which nearly blocks the passage. The typical cross section for this part of the cave is a V-shaped canyon, 6 to 10 feet wide and 20 feet high. Dripstone forma-tions, especially draperies and rimstofle, are al)Ufl(laflt. For the last half mile the upstream portion becomes wider and lower (20 feet by 10 feet), and the water is deeper. Near the end is a narrow gorge, with sharply scalloped walls and dee1) potholes in the bottom. At the present limit of upstream exploration a siphon blocks further progress. The upstream section trends west-southwest.

Near the downstream mouth are two parallel passages, one occupied by the stream, the other wide, with a sandy floor, finally becoming nar¬row and muddy. At 5,700 feet the ceiling becomes too low for further penetration. About 1,000 feet from the end is a large room, 60 to 80 feet wide, 20 feet high, and 300 feet long, well decorated with dripstone. Two east side passages link the main channel with a larger, subparallel stream passage, "The Grand Canal" (fig. 105). The Canal is 50 feet wide, 20 feet high, and half a mile lang. At its upper terminus the ceiling dips down to water level, and downstream the Canal is abruptly constricted into a narrow slot choked with debris. Water flows from the Grand Canal into the main channel through the upper of these linking passages, and in the opposite direction through the other link.

Near the upper end of the Grand Canal are two southwest lateral gal-leries. The upper one of these, "Salamander Avenue," is almost choked with a gravelly fill near its entrance, but the fill has been progressively re¬moved toward its terminus, where the passage is 20 feet wide and 10 feet high. Salamander Avenue is 1,250 feet in length and ends in a small grotto, probably near the bottom of a sinkhole. "Venetian Avenue" opens 10 feet above the level of the Canal stream. The floor is gravel or bare rock. The avenue rapidly increases in size, to a maximum cross section 40 feet wide and 20 feet high. It contains no stream. Venetian Avenue has been explored for 2,500 feet to a point where it becomes much lower and branches into two crawiways. Large and beautiful drip-stone formations—flowstone and a drapery—may be seen in this passage (fig. 106).

Downstream in the Grand Canal a lateral crawlway extends for sev¬eral hundred yards to the bottom of a sinkhole entrance. The location of this second entrance to Snail Shell Cave has not been determined on the surface. It lies approximately 0.8 mile northeast of the main en¬trance, in very dense cedar woods.


Image Gallery

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Editor reviews

Snail Shell Cave 2012-02-19 01:16:58 Shane Lewis
Overall rating 
Safety Rating 
Fun Factor 
Big Nuts Tilt 
Reviewed by Shane Lewis    February 19, 2012
#1 Reviewer  -   View all my reviews

Worth seeing, but be sure you know what you are doing, or go with someone who does. It has been opened and closed to access over the years


Good Points
Amazing Drainage Cave, allowing you to see underground rivers in action.
Bad Points
Potentially dangerous, and subject to rapid flooding, producing a number of casualties over the years
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