Choose to avoid the booze: Wind Cave National Park

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Hrair H. Palyan
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
(Editor's Note: This feature story is part of the "Choose to avoid the booze" series that focuses on the numerous activities in the Black Hills area that are available to Airmen as an alternative to irresponsible drinking.)

From the outside, Wind Cave National Park appears to be an ordinary natural attraction, but four Ellsworth Airmen discovered things are not always what they seem during their exploration of the sixth largest cave in the world.

The group began their trip the morning of July 2. With their bags packed and directions in hand, they set off on a one and one-half hour drive to Hot Springs, S.D.

"I've never really driven outside the local area before," said Airman 1st Class Ryan Branch, 28th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, and one of the four Airmen who visited the cave. "I looked at this trip as an opportunity to take a break from what I usually do during my free time."

Branch described the calm feeling he experienced when first arriving at the 33,851-acre national park.

"Work on the flightline is rewarding, but it can be stressful at times," Branch said. "Getting out there and witnessing Wind Cave firsthand was just what I needed. It helped me put things into perspective."

Upon arrival, the group began learning about the history of the park through various exhibits and informational displays before exploring the depths of the cave during the Fairgrounds Cave Tour.

Fatrina Nicholson, WCNP ranger, led the Fairgrounds Cave Tour. She said that in the past, several people attempted to establish mining grounds in Wind Cave. She explained that the most noteworthy individual was J.D. McDonald, who was hired by the South Dakota Mining Company in 1890.

"Their attempts to mine were unsuccessful," Nicholson said. "Later, McDonald and his family realized they could make money by giving cave tours and selling formations from the cave. They worked on improving the entrance and expanding the passageways for tours."

Later in the tour, Nicholson continued to provide information about the history of Wind Cave and showcased several of the cave's natural formations including Cave Popcorn and Flowstone.

"One of McDonald's sons, Alvin, was well known for exploring and mapping the cave," Nicholson said. "He was one of the first people to give tours to visitors - often spending hours in the cave with only a candle for light. Alvin eventually developed pneumonia and was unable to overcome his illness because he refused to take a break from exploring the cave."

Airman 1st Class Theodore Zielinski, 28th AMXS defensive avionics technician, and one of the four Airmen who visited the cave, said this trip proved to him that there's still plenty of things to explore in the Black Hills area.

"People travel from across the world to see what Wind Cave has to offer," Zielinski said. "I encourage people to take a break from the base, get together with friends and co-workers and plan a trip to enjoy and experience the local area."

In addition to cave tours, WCNP has a number of nature trails, picnic areas and indoor exhibits that feature wildlife that live near Wind Cave. For more information or to schedule a tour, call the WCNP Visitor Center at (605) 745-4600 or visit