President Barack Obama and the vacationing first family landed here Friday evening in the iconic valley framed by sheer granite cliffs, becoming the fifth sitting president – and the first in more than 50 years – to visit the famed park.
Marine One touched down at 7:49 p.m. after the short helicopter ride from Castle Airport in Atwater. Earlier in the day, the Obamas had visited Carlsbad Caverns on their first stop en route to Yosemite.
Obama’s route to Yosemite – through Castle and then to the Ahwahnee Meadow near the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel – was the same taken by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.
Curious onlookers were shooed away ahead of the Marine One landing, leaving only National Park Service employees to send up a raucous cheer as Obama emerged from the helicopter.
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Teddy Roosevelt first visited the park 113 years ago, and famously camped overnight with naturalist John Muir. Other presidential visitors included William Howard Taft in 1909 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 before Kennedy’s 1962 visit.
Obama will conduct a little business while here.
His visit comes just ahead of the centennial anniversary of the national park system on Aug. 25. In remarks scheduled for Saturday, he is likely to encourage Americans to visit national parks and talk of coming challenges – including those from climate change.
As Obama nears the end of his presidency, he wants to make public lands relevant to all Americans, to think big on conservation and to continue to invest in public spaces because they return important economic benefits to the communities that surround them.
But most of the weekend likely will be devoted to pleasure.
There are no public events planned after Obama’s Saturday talk. He is scheduled to depart the valley sometime around midday Sunday.
Flying in to Castle
Friday’s trip for the first family began with a stop at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. There the president and his family toured a limestone chamber called the Big Room where the year-round temperature is 56 degrees. From there they flew to California.
At 6:56 p.m. PDT, Air Force One landed at Castle Airport. The president and Malia emerged from the plane, followed by Michelle Obama and Sasha.
The two daughters headed quickly to Marine One while President Obama and the first lady chatted on the tarmac for a few minutes with Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno; Claudia Gonzales, chairwoman of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians; and Merced County Supervisor Hub Walsh.
In a call to The Bee, Costa said he reminded Michelle Obama that she gave the first commencement speech for UC Merced. Unlike her last visit, when the weather was warm, the Sierra evenings would be quite cool and she might want to use a UC Merced sweatshirt he handed her. “She got a kick out of it.”
Costa said he told the Obamas that they picked a perfect time to visit what naturalist John Muir called “perhaps Mother Nature’s greatest cathedral.” President Obama said he has never visited Yosemite, and always has wanted to, and Michelle Obama said the family is “going to hike all over the park as much as we can.”
In the short conversation, Costa said he talked to Obama about the need to fix California’s broken water system, that actions taken today “avoided a train wreck in terms of the limited water allocations that were made in April.”
If that doesn’t materialize, Costa said, he promised Obama that he would be in touch with the White House.
In addition to the sweatshirt, Costa gave the president a copy of Friday’s Fresno Bee, which featured stories and a front-page photo about his impending visit to Yosemite.
On to Yosemite
At 7:54 p.m., Marine One touched down in the Ahwahnee Meadow landing zone, the lowering sun glinting off Half Dome. The president, first lady and their daughters walked slowly in the high, green grass. Obama waved at a crowd gathered a bit farther under the trees that could be heard shouting to welcome him. He shook hands with Yosemite rangers before getting into a motorcade.
Shemar Cunningham of Jamaica was among a group of close to 100 people who gathered in front of a string of Park Service houses bordering the meadow where President Obama’s helicopter landed.
Cunningham said Jamaicans love Obama: “They think he is their president, as well. They look up to him so much.”
The 20-year-old, who has been working in housekeeping in Yosemite Valley for three weeks, said of Obama: “I love him, he’s cool.”
What should the president do during his Yosemite visit? “Chill,” Cunningham said with a smile.
Annual trip has twist
One Yosemite visitor is on his annual trip to the park.
Robert Preston, 50, of Los Angeles rode by the setup area at Cook’s Meadow on a bike with his 11-year-old son. He and his family vacation in Yosemite every year and found out this week that the president’s visit would coincide with theirs.
Preston said he feels a bit stuck, unable to adequately plan sightseeing trips within the park because employees haven’t been able to give out much information about roadblocks and high-traffic times during Obama’s stay.
“Everyone says, ‘We don’t know,’ ” he said.
Still, Preston said, he loves the idea that the president is acknowledging the importance of national parks. He said he wishes the public was invited to hear Obama’s remarks.
With or without admission, Preston plans to get as close as possible. He said he and his family will stop by the meadow by 9:30 a.m. Saturday for a chance meeting.
“To be this close to a president of the United States, to see him in person … it’s what he learns in school,” Preston said, pointing to his son.
Preston’s son Kyle James Preston said it’s amazing to be in the right place at the right time: “It’s like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Kyle supports the president’s effort to get students into national parks. He said he is lucky to see Yosemite every year. “Some people don’t even get a chance to go someplace like this.”
Another annual visitor was Emily Peery of Whittier. “We made our reservations in January; we come here every year,” she said. “And then we heard (the president) was coming, and we thought maybe we’ll get to see him.”
Peery, along with husband Nathan and their three children, arrived in Yosemite on Tuesday for a weeklong vacation.
Nathan Peery was amazed that Obama was the first president to visit Yosemite since John F. Kennedy. “How can a president avoid Yosemite National Park?” he asked.
The first family’s visit will cause a major disruption to one couple’s plan to use Yosemite as the scenic background to their big moment.
Chris Geiger, a Clovis wedding photographer, is worried about getting to the wedding he has been hired to shoot Saturday at the Yosemite Valley Chapel.
He said it appears the parking lot used for the chapel will serve as a parking lot for media covering Obama’s speech.
The park is typically crowded during the summer, but the president’s visit may keep many of the 100 guests attending the wedding from getting into the Valley. The bride and groom, he said, are staying in the park overnight.
Geiger and the minister planned to drive in early Saturday.
President in person
The historic import of the president’s visit also brought crowds to Castle Airport.
Teresa Jimenez brought her three godchildren for “a picnic to come and see the president.” The group brought sodas and a basket of strawberries, which the three boys nearly devoured in minutes.
Jimenez said she wanted to bring her godsons and daughter to the former Air Force base because she likes Obama.
“I was taught to respect the presidency,” she said, holding up a sign that read “Welcome President Obama.” The back side of the sign reads “love ya.”
Elijah Lopez, 11, said he wanted to come with his godmother to see the president “while he is still in the Oval Office.”
“He is the first black president, and this is a part of history,” Elijah said.
The crowd of about 20 at Castle Airport had ballooned to far more than 100 by the time the president’s plane touched down. Because the event was closed to the public, many huddled near a barbed-wire fence to try to catch a glimpse of the first family.
Ray Crawford wasn’t able to see the president, but he was still glad for the opportunity to be in the same location as the commander-in-chief.
Crawford wore a jungle green hat with the words “Vietnam Veteran” written in yellow on the back. He served with the Army from 1965-70.
“Five years in the service, and I never got this close to a president,” he said. “(President Lyndon B.) Johnson was in Saigon once, but I was out in the woods.”
Qutresa Hogges and her 8-year-old niece, Kennedy Tyler, also couldn’t find a crack in the fence to see the Obamas. She rushed over after working her shift at a nearby Costco.
“This is an amazing thing to see – even just the helicopters taking off,” Hogges said. “It gives you hope. When you see something like this happen on TV, it seems unattainable. But here we are.”