High in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above the Wet Mountain Valley is La Caverna del Oro (The Cavern of Gold), also known as Spanish Cave. The cave entrance is above timberline at 11,500 feet on the side of a ravine on Marble Mountain. (The 13,266-foot peak is located southeast of the Crestone Peak/Crestone Needle group.) The entrance is usually blocked by a large snowdrift that does not melt until August. Snow often comes to the Sangre de Cristos in September, leaving the cave accessible for only a month or less. A strong wind blows through its subterranean passageways, and it’s floors are covered with ice and mud. The walls weep with water. This is not a pleasant cave to explore since it consists of a series of steep tunnels and vertical shafts or pits. Much equipment and endurance is required to penetrate La Caverna del Oro.
Stories of this cave began before the Spaniards arrived on the North American continent. As passed from generation to generation, legends tell of gold in the cave. Indians discovered the gold and used it as offerings to their gods. Eventually, the gods became angry, and mining in the cave was abandoned. Spanish monks recorded this legend.
La Caverna del Oro was not mentioned again until 1541. Seeking a mythical city, three monks journeyed north from Mexico. After the death of two monks, the remaining friar found the cave with the help of the Indians. He promised to share its riches with them. Once the monk and his fellow Spaniards arrived, the Indians were tortured and forced into slavery. Much gold was brought to the surface from the depths of the cavern. After loading the gold on pack animals, the Spaniards reportedly massacred the Indians.
Another version of this story tells that the Indians revolted against the Spaniards. The Spaniards were forced to construct a fort in front of the lower cave entrance for protection. By using ladders within the cave’s passageways, the Spaniards climbed to the upper entrance and surprised the Indians from behind. The Indians were killed, and the gold was taken to Mexico.
La Caverna del Oro remained hidden until 1811, when a Spanish-American named Baca stumbled across a pile of riches nuggets and gold bars high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. He searched for the source of the metallic but could not find no trace of a mine.
In 1869, Elisha P. Horn explored Marble Mountain and rediscovered the cave. He supposedly found a skeleton near the cave’s entrance clad in Spanish armor. An arrow had pierced the armor, apparently killing its occupant.
The cave remained in obscurity until 1880. J.H. Yeoman located the cave once again and described and ancient fortress at the mouth of a smaller cave a few hundred yards below the entrance to La Caverna del Oro. The walls of the fort were constructed of rock and timbers. Rifle pits surrounded the breastwork. The Spanish legend seemed to have some truth to it.
The cave came back into focus in 1920, when a forest ranger, Paul Gilbert, learned of it from Apollonia Apodaca, a descendant of the first Spanish explorers in the area. Mrs. Apodaca recited the legend of La Caverna del Oro. Her version included the revolt by the Indians after being enslaved by the Spaniards. She also told how people would visit the cave and throw blankets into the entrance. The perpetual wind coming out of the cave would carry the blankets back to their owners. She also added that at a depth of 90 feet, the Spaniards dug a tunnel back into the mountain to reach the gold.
Gilbert and several other rangers located and entered the legendary cave. They were unable to go beyond the top of the first pit because they lacked sufficient rope. They did find a dull red Maltese cross painted on a rock near the cave’s entrance. They also confirmed that a cold wind came from the cave.
The legend of La Caverna del Oro moved further away from fantasy and more toward reality in 1929. An expedition was financed by Frederick G. Bonfils, co-founder and published of the Denver Post. He wanted to see if the legends were based on fact. The expedition consisted of two men, and after they explored the cave, a report was published.
The men reported that the cave’s steep passageways were either covered with water, ice or mud. The intense cold and ceaseless wind nearly froze their wet gloves. At the brink of a deep pit, an ancient log was wedged between the walls. An iron chain ladder was fastened to the log. The chain was very old and nearly rusted through. The walls of the cavern were composed of deep red marble with streaks of gray. The men lacked enough rope to fully explore the cave and were able to only cover a small percentage of its passages. No evidence was found of gold or of mining activity.
In 1932, another attempt was made to explore the cave. This time, the party took a lot more rope. Deep inside Marble Mountain, after descending quite a distance, a lantern was lowered on a rope into a deep pit. At the bottom was a skeleton with a metal strap around its neck. It appeared that some poor individual had been chained by the neck to the wall of the cave and left to die.
News of the exploration was published in the Rocky Mountain News, and it generated so much interest that a second group visited La Caverna del Oro the following weekend. This group of seven men included some of Colorado’s best trained spelunkers. They solved some of the mysteries but added new ones. During the week between visits to the cave, someone attempted to dynamite the entrance shut. Is it possible that this was done t keep people out for fear the legendary gold would be founded. Numerous Indian arrowheads were found at the fort built below the cave’s entrance. This supported the theory that the Indians revolted and attacked the Spaniards.
The party of seven descended the first drop, estimated to be a full 250 feet (later surveyed at 175). At the bottom of this pit, primitive ladders made of tree trunks inset with pegs were found. No nails were used in their construction.
After traveling deeper into the mountain through steep, icy passageways, the party came to another pit. Over the top of this shaft, a wooden structure was built that could have been used to hoist ore. Members of the party could not see the bottom of this pit, even after tossing a flare into the hole. Using a rope, its depth was established at 110 feet. LeRoy Hafen, curator of the Colorado Historical Society, and one other man were lowered into the shaft. Because of an overhanging lip, the rest of the party had to stay on top to hoist the men out. At the bottom, Hafen and his companion failed to find the skeleton, but they did bring up a hand-forged hammer. It was later identified by Hafen as seventeenth-century vintage. Reading out from this level were more passageways. Each ended in yet another deep pit.
Local guides accompanied this party and repeated stories of the skeleton and iron chains attached to tree trunks to form ladders. One legend proclaimed that at the bottom of the cave are two large wooden doors that guard hidden treasures.
A 1935 article published in American Forest magazine reviewed many of the facts about La Caverna del Oro. The article, however, added a new legend. A skeleton, hung on a wooden cross, once guarded Marble Cave near La Caverna del Oro. As the story goes, a trapper wandered near the cave, and to protect their interests, the Spaniards crucified him. For half a century, his bones remained on the cross. Members of the Fremont expedition gave the poor fellow a decent burial. The trapper’s ghost haunts the cave, according to the legend.
A piece of human bone was recovered in 1959 from a pool in the cave. Another expedition found a bundle of dynamite dangling over the first pit. Someone chiseled away part of the Maltese cross, and strange lights have been seen in the vicinity of the cave.
Lloyd E. Parris, in his excellent book, Caves of Colorado, concludes that even now the cave resists all intruders. Everything seems to go wrong with attempts are made to explore La Caverna del Oro. Cavers become sick, or basic caving techniques are momentarily forgotten. Most attempts to solve the riddles only tend to complicate them. Only during recent years has the cave been fully explored. Many of the legends now seem believable, but what about the lost gold? Why didn’t any of the expeditions find evidence of mining? Are there two doors at the bottom of the cave to guard the treasure, as one legend claims? The final chapter of La Caverna del Oro is yet to be written.