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Footnotes in Texas History

A Deep Dive

Explorers map the recent history of the state’s deepest ancient cave

Illustration by Brave Union

There’s a 10-foot-wide river in West Texas that almost no one can reach. That’s because the Sirion River is on private land near Sanderson—and at the bottom of the deepest cave in the state. The Sorcerer’s Cave descends about 570 feet, or as a Texan might put it, “damn near two football fields deep.”

The first part of the cave goes down quickly. Explorers have to negotiate a series of steep, dramatic drops totaling 500 feet—50 stories—to reach the Sirion, so named because one of its discoverers, Randy M. Waters, was a huge fan of author J.R.R. Tolkien. The underground river reminded Waters of the fictional river of the same name. Texas’ Sirion flows a long way through the cave system, descending 70 feet or more and passing over two short waterfalls before disappearing beneath a rock wall.

George Veni, executive director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in New Mexico, is said to know more about the cave than anyone and is credited as the discoverer of its record-setting depth. He said the water of the Sirion is very clean. “You could drink from it if you wanted to,” he said, “though to be perfectly safe, you probably shouldn’t.” The water at that depth might have fallen as rain on the surface decades or even hundreds of years ago, he said, and likely flows another 40 miles into the Rio Grande. If fully explored, the Sorcerer’s Cave could be the longest cave in Texas, Veni believes.

He fondly remembers the day in 1979 when he was rappelling down the cave’s deepest shaft and hollered with delight to his friends above when he realized he had set the depth record for caves in Texas, a record that remains intact today. Since then, he has been one of the primary mappers of the tunnel system.

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Once a cave has a theme, Veni said, the naming of its features continues to be inspired by that theme. That’s why the Sorcerer’s Cave includes a Poltergeist Pit, Demon Drop and Mormoops Chamber, named for the ghost-faced bats that live there. The theme even extends to another cave in the area—the Wizard’s Well.

Bill Steele, another internationally known caver who has explored and helped to map the Sorcerer’s Cave, said it’s a fun cave to explore because of its numerous and substantial vertical drops. For the “properly equipped vertical caver, it’s not dangerous, but for the inexperienced, it certainly would be,” he said.

Steele has spent 45 years exploring and mapping the deepest cave in this hemisphere, Sistema Huautla in Oaxaca, Mexico. At nearly a mile deep, Huautla is nine times as deep as the Texas cave. But Steele said Sorcerer’s Cave is still important beyond its record depth.

Ancient drawings and mortar holes used for grinding at the entrance show it was used as a shelter, with one item dated to the year 700. Human bones found in the Sirion River, almost certainly washed down from above, are the deepest human remains known in North America.

That important history helps form the basis for the caver’s motto: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.