Snail Shell Cave Management Plan

Approved 26 January 2002

Revised November 10, 2007


Snail Shell Cave is located on approximately 80 acres near Murfreesboro, Tennessee owned and managed by The Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc. (SCCi) The preserve was purchased by the SCCi in order to protect and preserve the cave and its ecosystem, and to ensure access for qualified cavers, researchers, and other persons interested in speleology.

The purpose of this management plan is to document the resources to be managed and protected at the preserve, and to establish a set of rules and procedures to aid in the protection of Snail Shell Cave and those resources. Management and supervision of the preserve will be the responsibility of the Snail Shell Cave Preserve Management Committee, as established and directed by the Board of Directors of the SCCi, and shall be conducted in accordance with this plan as adopted and amended by the Board

Snail Shell Cave

Snail Shell Cave is one of the most biologically significant cave sites in the Southeastern United States. In 1999, the cave was named one of the Top Ten Most Endangered Karst Communities by the Karst Waters Institute following its nomination by The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee. Primary threats to the cave include trespassing and vandalism, logging, and factors related to the encroaching sprawl and development from the nearby city of Murfreesboro.

Snail Shell is the longest continuous cave in the Tennessee Central Basin region, with more than 9 miles of surveyed passages. It is part of a system of caves comprising more than 13 miles of known passages. The main entrance, which is located on the subject property, is a huge sink about 100 feet wide and 200 feet long. The sink is a microhabitat containing and extraordinary number of rare and endangered plant and animal species, including the Tennessee Milkvetch (Astragulus tennesseensis), Glade Cress (Leavenworthia exigua), Limestone Fameflower (Talinum calcaricum), and the Big Mouth Cave Salamander (Gyrinophilus palleucus necturoides). The cave itself is home to the Southern Cavefish (Typhlicthys subterraneus) and the Gray Bat (Myotis grisescens) as well as Cave Milliedes (Trichopetalum sp.), Cave Snails (Elimia sp.), Cave Beetles (Pseudanopthalmus acherontis) and Blind Aquatic Snails (Goniobasis sp.). Many other non-ranked or listed species of plants, mammals, invertebrates, and amphibians have been recorded in Snail Shell Cave, offering a good indication of the diversity of the habitat.

The Murfreesboro area population has climbed steadily in recent years, and there have been a number of incidents of pollution and vandalism directly affecting the caves and karst. In 1995, for example, an 85,000-gallon diesel spill southwest of Murfreesboro contaminated area groundwater. Another detriment to Snail Shell’s biological integrity has been the heavy traffic on the property and in the cave, primarily by non-cavers and unaffiliated cavers who are not aware of the cave’s significance and delicate nature. Previous owners have found it difficult to control access and prevent vandalism, accidents, and abuse of the property. Damage from ATV and ORV use has created erosion problems around the main sink and elsewhere on the property. There have also been a number of rescue incidents at the cave involving inexperienced and improperly equipped visitors.

SCCi has established a good relationship with local cavers, and is prepared to put an end to the unauthorized access, vandalism, and abuse of the cave and property. A committee comprised of local NSS and SCCi members, several living just a few miles from the cave, will handle management of the property. SCCi will work with the surrounding landowners and the local law enforcement agency to curb the abuse and protect the site. An important part of this effort will be pro-active site visitation and monitoring, establishing a landowner presence on the property. We have found that this is the single most important factor in preventing vandalism on cave preserves. SCCi will also work with the local community to interpret the site and educate area residents about the importance of caves and groundwater to their community. By establishing a partnership with local residents and officials we can develop and sense of commitment and responsibility in the area residents, achieving long-term protection of the cave and its resources.


During the 1950s Dr. Thomas C. Barr, author of the Tennessee Division of Geology’s Bulletin #64, Caves of Tennessee, along with his caving partners explored the Snail Shell Cave system and described the cave system:

“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. 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 ½ 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.

The 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 underbrush of catbrier and young black locust.

The main stream is believed to originate in “The Gulf,” a depression 300 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 opening. 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,” a large water-filled depression 200 feet in diameter and 35 feet deep. The final resurgence of the main stream is probably at Overall Springs, which is the source of Overall Creek, a tributary of Stones River. Although all connections between the caves and sinks are conjectural, the known extent of the explored portion 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 and downstream. Exploration 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 deep again. At about 3,000 feet one must crawl beneath a massive flowstone formation, which nearly clocks 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 formations, especially draperies and rimstone, are abundant. 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 deep 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 narrow 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, subparalled stream passage, “The Grand Canal.” The Canal is 50 feet wide, 20 feet high, and half a mile long. 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 galleries. The upper one of these, “Salamander Avenue,” is almost choked with a gravelly fill near its entrance, but the fill has been progressively removed 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 crawlways. Large and beautiful dripstone formations – flowstone and a drapery – may bee seen in this passage.

Downstream in the Grand Canal a lateral crawlway extends for several 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 entrance, in very dense cedar woods. ”     Barr, Thomas C., Caves of Tennessee, Tennessee Bulletin of Geology, Number 64.

Not much is known of the history of Snail Shell Cave prior to the last century. Some arrowheads and other artifacts have been found at the mid-point of the main sink. Any evidence of Indian inhabitants may have been washed away during repeated flooding of the lower portion of main entrance sink. Evidence of Woodland Period Indians has been found near other entrances of the Snail Shell Cave system.

The land above the cave consists of a cedar glade, with dense stands of cedar underlain by a carpet of mosses and ferns. There are also large areas of bare limestone pavement and a variety of other karst features including sinkholes, fissures, and sinking streams. In years past, residents of the area have harvested the cedar for various uses and converted some of the surrounding land to pasture. While there is no active logging in the immediate area today, a sawmill is still located not far from the cave.

In later years, modern caving exploration began documenting the cave. According to records, the cave has been surveyed three times with the latest effort producing the most accurate and comprehensive map. The first survey in 1966 by A.L. Zack and G.K. Moore was a simple line plot and displayed a fair amount of passage. A second survey in 1976 titled “Lower Snail Shell” by Robert McCurdy, Phil Steidl, Nick Crawford, and eight assistants revealed more passage but was still incomplete. The most recent survey, which is now in the TCS database, was initiated in 1977 and completed in 1981 revealed a total length of 9.071 miles and a depth of 144 feet.  Much of the survey was accomplished by the use of boats in the cave.

During the 1950’s, Thomas C. Barr conducted an extensive biological survey of Snail Shell Cave. It was the first of its kind for the cave and is still considered a valuable source of information.

Sometime in the mid- 1960s to late 1970s, a commune was established on a large karst pavement area near the cave. At the site is a group of stones arranged in the shape of a salamander approximately 15 feet long and 5 feet wide. A peace symbol also fashioned from stones is located in the center of the salamander. This artwork suggests the commune members were aware of the cave and its inhabitants.

In late 1988, the U.S. Department of Energy initiated the Superconducting Supercollider Project. John Hoffelt, from the Nashville Grotto, and other cavers conducted dye traces to provide evidence in support of the project’s relocation to a more appropriate site. The project was subsequently relocated to Waxahachie, Texas where it was later canceled.

William Owen Scott Sr. purchased the property including the main Snail Shell entrance sink on March 21, 1939 for $600.  Mr. Scott passed away in 1982, leaving the property to his wife, Josephine, and his children Cathy Scott Molnar and William Owen Scott Jr. Owen Scott became an NSS member (#10169) as his interest in caves grew. In February, 2002 the property was purchased by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc. and the Snail Shell Cave Preserve was established.


While Snail Shell Cave has been studied by a number of researchers over the years, no comprehensive resource inventory has been done. The SCCi encourages the development of a plan for such an inventory. A partial list of the natural and cultural resources known to be present on the preserve includes the following:

Geology and Hydrology

Snail Shell Cave is part of the Overall Creek Drainage Basin of Rutherford County, TN. The Snail Shell Cave has four known entrances; however the entire system includes several other caves within the drainage basin. It is well-documented that the Snail Shell Cave system formed in the Ridley limestone formation of Ordovician age (450-500 million years old). The cave does not penetrate to the Murfreesboro limestone due to the lower confining Pierce layer. The Ridley aquifer occurs in the lower 10 meters or so of the Ridley formation which is a total of about 34-40 meters thick. It is in this aquifer that most of the karst features occur. The surface area is characterized by gently rolling to flat plain with some nearby knobs, and shallow karst features such as sinkholes, springs, swallets, caves entrances, etc. During periods of heavy rain, the area around the Snail Shell sinkhole is subject to dramatic flooding, as this system handles millions of gallons of water.

Snail Shell Cave is part of an underground and surface drainage system which trends roughly 12 miles SW to NE and roughly 9 miles NW to SE. A dye trace study was conducted by karst hydrologist Dr. Nicholas Crawford of Western KY University, and the results published in 1988. This was an extensive dye trace study involving 17 different dye injection sites and over 50 locations in four drainage basins were monitored. This study was conducted as part of the research for the proposed USDOE superconducting supercollider in the late 1980’s. This study produced both a drainage map of the system noting key karst features in the system, and a potentiometer map of the aquifer. The map
reveals that several caves and other karst features are a part of this system, as well as the Overall Creek surface system. Many of the contributing features to the system lie outside the property boundaries of the current (2001) purchase.

Further details regarding the nature and extent of the cave and the drainage system can be found in both Barr’s account and the Tennessee Cave Survey files, as well as in the files of the SCCi. Copies of relevant reports, papers, studies, and maps are kept by SCCi and are available for inspection upon request. Copying or distribution of such material requires the consent of the authors.

Archaeological, Historic, and Cultural

No formal study of the archaeological, historic, or cultural resources of the preserve has been done to date, and little information is available. The SCCi would like to encourage and support qualified researchers in the study of the cultural, historic, and archaeological resources of the Snail Shell preserve. Research proposals are welcome, and may be submitted to the Board of Directors for consideration in accordance with the SCCi guidelines and policy for scientific research. See the section below on Scientific Research for additional information.


Several biological examinations of the Snail Shell Cave system have been made over the years. The most recent biological documentation (surface and subsurface) on file is a 1997 report by The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee, prepared for the nomination of Snail Shell Cave as a Top Ten Most Endangered Karst System. Species noted in this and other reports include:

Scientific Name Common Name
                Typhlicthys subterraneus Southern Cavefish
                Gyrinophilus near palleucus Cave Salamander
                Scoterpes sp. Cave Millipede
                Pseudanopthalmus acherontis Cave Beetle
                Elimia sp. Cave Snail
                Goniobasis sp. Blind Aquatic Snail
                Sinella sp. Cave Springtail
                Caecidotea sp. Cave Isopod
                Stygobromus sp. Cave Amphipod
                Phanetta subterranea Cave Spider
                Astragulus tennesseensis Tennessee Milkvetch
                Leavenworthia exigua Glade Cress
                Talinum calcaricum Limestone Fameflower


It is the intention of the SCCi that the Snail Shell Cave preserve be kept in its natural and undeveloped state, and that it be managed for the purposes of conservation, resource protection, recreation, and scientific study. The Snail Shell Cave Preserve Management Committee has been created by act of the Board, and is charged with the implementation of the management plan and the policies and procedures set forth below.

Access and Visitation

  1. Due to the unique and sensitive nature of the cave and property, at least one member of any group entering the cave must be a member of the SCCi or the National Speleological Society. Visitors must notify the management committee before visiting the preserve, and will be provided with the combination to the gate so that they may enter the property and park in the designated area. While membership is not required for each person visiting the Snail Shell Cave Property, the SCCi strongly recommends that visitors be members of the SCCi. Membership in the National Speleological Society is also encouraged.
  2. Please keep noise to a minimum and be discreet while changing clothes. Fireworks, explosives, loud music, and other noisemaking activities are prohibited. All visitors to the preserve are expected to be considerate of our neighbors, and refrain for disturbing them, especially at night. The preserve is a natural area, and should be treated with peaceful and quiet appreciation.
  3. To minimize the impact to the cave, the SCCi requests that groups entering the cave be limited to twelve (12) people or fewer, with a minimum group size of 3 people.  Arrangements for group camping or caving groups larger than 12 people must be made in advance by contacting the SCCi Snail Shell property managers at least two weeks before the desired date. The SCCi and the Preserve Managers reserve the right to refuse access to Snail Shell Cave to anyone.
  4. All plants and animals on the Snail Shell Cave Preserve are to be respected and observed from a distance, and are never to be removed. Avoid disturbing wild life and plant life.  Cave flora, fauna, and cultural resources are to be left undisturbed.  In addition, do not touch, break, or remove formations from the cave. Do not cut trees or brush for firewood or any other purpose. Anyone found defacing the cave or formations, or causing harm to the plants and wildlife of the preserve will be subject to prosecution under both state and federal laws.  For any questions or concerns or to report vandalism or other abusive activities at the preserve, please contact the SCCi Snail Shell Cave Preserve Management Committee.
  5. Park only in the designated area, and drive only on existing roads. Do not block access to roads or gates. Parking along Snail Shell Road is not allowed – you must obtain the combination and park in the designated area inside the gate.
  6. The road gates are to remain locked at all times, except while entering or leaving the preserve. Keys, combinations, and locks are not to be duplicated, distributed, or modified except by persons authorized by The SCCi Board.
  7. Camping on the property is permitted for SCCi or NSS members and their guests. Campers must request permission when contacting the property managers for access. Campers must carry identification and proof of membership in case of inquiry by property managers or law enforcement personnel. Camping is not permitted inside the cave or in the entrance sink. Campfires are allowed in existing fire rings at the designated camping area only, and are never permitted inside the cave, in or near the entrance sink, or within 100 yards of any sinkhole or cave entrance on the property. Bring your own firewood – do not collect or cut firewood on the property. Human waste should be buried in a shallow hole at least 100 yards from the camp area, the entrance sink, cave entrances, or water sources. Do not bury toilet paper or leave it lying on the ground – it will be dug up and scattered by animals. Pack it out for proper disposal off-site.
  8. Please remove any trash that you bring to the preserve. Also, please help keep the cave and preserve clean by removing any trash left by others.
  9. Spray-painting, carbide marking, and all other types of graffiti are never permitted. Vandalism and abuse of the cave or the surface areas of the preserve will be prosecuted.
  10. Modifications of the cave or preserve, including placing bolts or artificial anchors, marking or constructing trails, cutting trees or brush, and other similar activities, are prohibited without written permission from The SCCi Board. Alterations to the natural morphology of the cave and surrounding landscape, such as digging new entrances or passages, can have dramatic effects on the cave microclimate by changing temperature, humidity, and water flow.  This, in turn, can have negative effects on the cave life.  Therefore all digging or blasting on the property or in the cave is prohibited without written permission from The SCCi.  Persons violating this policy will be subject to prosecution under state and federal laws.
  11. To avoid parking and over-use problems during caving conventions and special events, access to the property will be limited during those events to trips organized through the property management committee.
  12. Rappelling is permitted only at the high wall on the West side of the sink. All rigging must be attached to natural land anchors. Trees must be padded to prevent further damage. To prevent up-rooting, abrasion, and soil compaction, do not rig to any tree located within 20 feet of the edge of the pit
  13. ATV’s are not permitted on the property without written permission from The SCCi Board.  Any permissible ATV use is restricted to the established road.
  14. Hunting is not permitted on the property without written permission from The SCCi Board.  Discharging firearms into or near the sinkhole or cave entrances is never permitted.
  15. Use of the cave or property for any type of commercial activity, including guided or commercial caving or other recreational activity, is not permitted.
  16. No collection of specimens, artifacts, or any type of natural or cultural resources from the preserve or the cave is permitted without written permission from the SCCi Board.

Scientific Research

The SCCi supports an open exchange of ideas and welcomes research proposals, provided preserve rules are followed.  Research conducted at Snail Shell Cave has involved biological, historical, and archeological aspects of the site and has provided a greater understanding of the cave’s significance.  Students and other researchers are encouraged to submit their written proposals to the SCCi Board for consideration.  The safety and security of the plants and animals of the preserve are always the first concern when reviewing any research requests, therefore any proposal that might alter the cave environment or harm the cave in any way will not be considered.

No collection of specimens, artifacts, or any type of natural or cultural resources from the preserve or the cave is permitted without written permission from the SCCi Board.  Requests for permission to collect specimens or conduct research activities which may involve the disturbance or removal of natural or cultural resources including wildlife or artifacts may be submitted to the Board for consideration in accordance with the policy for SCCi policy and guidelines for research activities. All researchers are required to follow federal and state laws and regulations regarding specimen collection and must obtain any applicable state or federal permits. Researchers are requested to provide a copy of any information or reports generated from their studies at Snail Shell Cave to the SCCi.


As a general rule, The Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc. does not advertise or publicize its preserves. Snail Shell Cave is well known in the local community and has been the scene of a number of rescues and other incidents. The Management Committee may develop and recommend to the Board any articles, presentations, programs, or other forms of publicity that it feels may be beneficial to the preserve or the SCCi by developing or improving community relations, preventing vandalism, abuse, and accidents, or promoting appreciation of caves and cave conservation. In accordance with the SCCi general policy on publications and announcements, all articles, presentations, programs, or public statements from the Management Committee or other SCCi group or person regarding the preserve must be reviewed and approved by the SCCi Chair, and will be made or presented by a person or persons designated by the Chair.

Emergency Management

Due to the history of rescues and safety-related incident at the cave and on the property, the SCCi recognizes the importance of its relationship with the Rutherford County emergency management services agencies and organizations. Permission will be granted upon request for cave rescue training activities on the property, and the Management Committee will be expected to maintain a good working relationship with local rescue and law enforcement organizations. The SCCi has established policies and procedures for emergency management on its preserves, and expects it property managers to understand and follow them.


A ‘kiosk’ or other display explaining the access and management policy and providing contact names and telephone numbers shall be constructed and maintained at a suitable location on the preserve. A durable sign describing the Tennessee Cave Law will also be posted at the main entrance sink.

A suitable parking area will be prepared and maintained, so that visitors will be able to park off the main road.

Existing paths and roads on the property may be repaired and maintained, but no new roads or trails will be constructed except by approval of the Board. The path down into the entrance sink will be marked and stabilized to minimize damage to plants and wildlife.

The Conservancy will contact and work with other landowners in the surrounding area to protect the cave and water quality, and will strive to become a good neighbor and a member of the community.


Snail Shell Cave is a unique and fascinating place, and the benefits of respecting and protecting this cave are immeasurable.  The SCCi, with the development of this management plan, wishes to balance the needs of the cave system with the recreational and scientific needs of people.  By observing these rules, it is our intention that Snail Shell Cave be protected and conserved in its natural state for future generations to explore and enjoy.

The Board of Directors of the SCCi reserves the right to modify this plan and its policies as it deems necessary.  The SCCi and the Preserve Managers have the right to refuse access to Snail Shell Cave to anyone.  Anyone found defacing the cave or formations, or causing harm to the plants and wildlife of the preserve will be subject to prosecution under both state and federal laws.  For any questions or concerns or to report vandalism or other abusive activities at the preserve, please contact the SCCi Snail Shell Cave Preserve Management Committee.

Snail Shell Cave is an important natural resource. It is the intention of the SCCi that it be available to responsible and qualified individuals for exploration, recreation, education, and scientific study, and that SCCi members, area residents, and members of the caving and scientific communities interact and work together within the larger community of speleology to preserve, enjoy, study, and protect the cave and its ecosystem.

Commercial Use Statement
The Board of the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc. (SCCi) reaffirms its standing policy that bans the commercial use of our properties, and specifically, prohibits any activity where a charge of any type is made. Should you have any questions, contact the SCCi Chair at