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Oprah Went Camping in Yosemite National Park, But Will She Remain A Fan of the National Parks?


Has Oprah turned into a national parks ambassador? Or is she done with roughing it? Photo via

Oprah Winfrey took her star power camping in Yosemite National Park at the invitation of Ranger Shelton Johnson. While one of her goals was to encourage more “people of color” to enjoy our national parks, it remains to be seen whether she can now shoulder the mantle of national parks ambassador.

“If you haven't been to Yosemite, you’ve been missing out. It really was majestic, and it's one of those moments where you think, 'Boy, everyone should see this at least once in their life,'” Oprah told her television audience last Friday in the first of two shows, with the second coming Wednesday.

Now, coming from Oprah, that's the kind of statement that can drive millions of Americans to find Yosemite on map and plan their trip next year. Let’s remember that this is the Oprah Show with over 30 million viewers, mostly middle-aged women.

Her journey to the park came at the behest of Ranger Johnson, an African-American who played a starring role in Ken Burns’ documentary, National Parks: American's Best Idea. The ranger, who traced the heritage of African-American Buffalo Soldiers in the national parks in his book, Gloryland, had invited Oprah to Yosemite to help raise its profile among her audience.

"My entire career I have been bothered by the lack of African-Americans visiting national parks. It has bothered me when I look out and I meet people from Germany, from Spain, from Africa. And yet, I can't find an African-American from Chicago or from Boston or from Detroit,” Ranger Johnson noted in a letter to the celebrity. “I need your help spreading the word that the national parks really are America's best idea, and that this beauty belongs to every American, including African-Americans."

According to the ranger, just 1 percent of national park visitors are African-Americans.

The letter resonated with Oprah, who along with her gal pal Gayle headed off to Yosemite after stocking up on gear from their local REI store. But while the two women picked up a tent and sleeping bags at REI, her producer had chosen a pop up trailer for them.

No, the two women were not going to sleep on the ground and use the communal showers. During Friday’s show they walked the audience through their camper with its two comfortable beds, kitchen, and bathroom.

Once in the park, Ranger Johnson takes the women to some of its famous sites, including the Giant Grizzly, the park's famous giant sequoia tree. Its branches are larger in diameter than most full trees.

"What did I think of the Giant Grizzly? I thought it was like getting a little taste of God," Oprah says.

They find one African-American, Woody Square, and take a picture with him.

Oprah and Gayle also drive through the Wawona tunnel, and arrive at Tunnel View, one of the most famous views in a national park. Ranger Johnson points out Bridal Veil Falls, El Capitan, and Half-Dome.

"This is the most famous glacier valley in the world," remarks Ranger Johnson, while in the background you hear America the Beautiful played by Ray Charles.

Some people might point out that she should have gone to a national park closer to Chicago, her home base, but Yosemite is eye candy. There's no need to walk anywhere; you can just look up and out and take in the scenic beauty.

The drive through the busy campground is very helpful to those who might never have seen a park campground. Oprah notices the camping hierarchy from RV down to tents, and proclaims it to be “a community.”

Oprah and Gayle stayed one night in a site especially picked by a ranger to give her the best views next to the Merced River.

“Camping is a social event,” Oprah tells us, and as proof she makes Moscow Mule cocktails -- a drink made with vodka, ginger beer and lime -- and walks around the campground handing them out. “This is how you make friends," she says.

Perhaps we should have taken a hint from the comfortable camper, the canned music, and the cocktails, but Oprah’s visit might not have been everything we might have hoped for when it comes to building diversity in the national parks.

Oh, she tells her studio audience that, “I recommend the national parks. Seeing God in its best expression. Everyone should go there once in a lifetime.”


Yes, apparently Yosemite was a once in a life experience for Oprah. At the end of the show she announces that she won’t be going camping anytime soon. Not even in a camper. Back at the studio, she gives away the camper and the truck to Woody, the lone African-American that she met in the park who conveniently was in the audience.

The last time I checked, her site had almost 200 comments.

One of the most perceptive comments was, "I've been going to Yosemite since I was little. It truly is an amazing place. But I am disappointed that instead of focusing on the beautiful history of Yosemite, as in John Muir, or hiking some of the amazing trails, or the serious environmental challenges that our national parks face, Oprah chose to focus on how to make a Moscow Mule. Heck... I could do that at the local campground."

Will more first timers go to a national park because of Oprah’s show? Will more people of color start going to national parks?

Oprah seemed to have a genuine good time, but she gave up on camping after one night. That's not much of a recommendation. If Oprah with her expensive camper and her helpers couldn't enjoy camping, it won't encourage others to try camping for the first time. I was disappointed.”

Hopefully Wednesday's episode, in which Oprah will try fly-fishing and riding a mule, will provide a bigger encouragement to Oprah's viewers to get out and enjoy the parks.

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The national economic crisis has affected nearly every facet of the travel industry, and so too has it had a substantial impact on the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). State park administrators are faced with deficit spending and potentially annual closure to compensate for what travel examiner Marilyn Crain calls “gigantic budget crunches.” The 2009 California budget alone decreased funding by $6.2 million, and although the NPS was awarded a stimulus package roughly totaling $750 million, the amount hardly compensates for the $8 billion “backlog of park maintenance projects.” At the moment, it appears the government agency and the 393 properties it oversees, 58 of which are identified as national parks, must rely on entrance fees and private donations to maintain functionality. However, as National Geographic warns, the top issue facing these preserves is that most consumers are unaware that many of them even exist. This is where the Oprah Winfrey Show becomes involved. With an estimated 49 million weekly viewers, Oprah and her best friend Gayle’s Yosemite Adventure undeniably provided this California wonder, and all park systems for that matter, with unprecedented publicity. The talk show host’s attempt to improve, specifically African-American, attendance rates at these public wildlife domains resulted in a two episode special that many critics have questioned. As you described in your post, Oprah failed to fully immerse herself in the camping culture. She not only superficially committed herself, but also slightly condemned the exploits of her trip upon her return. While the programming provided viewers with delightful imagery of the pajama-clad mogul ‘roughing it’ in the great outdoors, can this visually stimulating, but informatively lacking investigation inspire an ample number of visitors?

Similar to that which I discuss in my own blog entry, it is interesting to juxtapose this recent daytime talk show extravaganza with the roles celebrities have previously had in promoting tourism. Most commonly, these individuals, excluding those responsible for travel-specific television like Anthony Bourdain, endorse destinations through unsolicited tabloid exposure of their private vacations or through participating in state and national campaigns. As the California Travel and Tourism Commission’s (CTTC) recently released “Misconceptions” advertisement exemplifies, incorporating celebrities is intended to display “the vast diversity of the California experience” and to show that “California has something for everyone,” says Caroline Beteta, CTTC president and chief executive officer. Realistically, however, Kim Kardashian providing five-second testimony in a bikini is a relatively shallow explanation of what the state has to offer potential tourists. Comparing these traditional marketing tactics to Oprah’s seemingly cursory, yet hands-on exploration of Yosemite National Park, does it not seem plausible that her overnight camping experience might prove more efficient than originally believed? Either way, your post about the missteps of Oprah’s latest adventure is incredibly insightful. I thoroughly enjoyed your entry and look forward to seeing if the host has any noteworthy impact on National Park visitation.

1- did Oprah decide she wants to "shoulder the mantle of national parks ambassador", or did we HOPE she would take on that roll ?
2- at least millions more people are now aware of what/where/how/why Yosemite exits - thanks to Oprah. That's the kind of publicity NO National Park could EVER buy
3- camping is not for everyone - whether in a tent or RV. To each his own - live and let live.
4 - if the masses did decide to all go see Yosemite, can you imagine the traffic jams ? Hopefully, what will happen is that more visitors will make the journey - to many National parks.
5 - What is served at a campsite is as varied as the campers ... however, at our campouts we serve Texas Fudge.
6- how generous of Oprah to gift someone with a barely used pop-up ! I'll bet that family enjoys many more camping trips.
7- Ahhh... the Buffalo Soldier. Fort Huachuca Arizona is located in the corner of SE Arizona, near Tombstone and Bisbee. Still an active army post located in Sierra Vista - visit this area -- there is lots of history and great places to visit in a camper or a tent.
8 - lets be grateful for Oprah and Gayle's visit. Maybe that will plant a seed for many others to check out the variety of National Parks around the country. And thanks to Ranger Johnson for taking the initiative to write Oprah in the first place.

My bottom line - we bring about what we think about. Positive energies are more appreciated than whiners and complaints. Enjoy what we have while we have it and pay it forward for others. Then, let's Go Rving !

Keep telling that history:

Read the novel, Rescue at Pine Ridge, where Buffalo Bill Cody meets a Buffalo Soldier. A great story of Black military history...the first generation of Buffalo Soldiers. Five stars Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the youtube trailer commercial...and visit the website

How do you keep a people down? ‘Never' let them 'know' their history.

The 7th Cavalry got their butts in a sling again after the Little Big Horn Massacre, fourteen years later, the day after the Wounded Knee Massacre. If it wasn't for the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, there would of been a second massacre of the 7th Cavalry.

I know you’ll enjoy the novel. I wrote the story that embodied the Native Americans, Outlaws and African-American/Black soldiers, from the south to the north, in the days of the Native American Wars with the approaching United States of America. This story is about, brutality, compassion, reprisal, bravery, heroism and gallantry. Read the novel, Rescue at Pine Ridge, the story of the rescue of the famed 7th Cavalry by the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers.

The novel was taken from my mini-series movie of the same title, “RaPR” to keep my story alive. Hollywood has had a lot of strikes and doesn’t like telling our stories…its been “his-story” of history all along…until now. The movie so far has attached, Bill Duke directing, Hill Harper, Glynn Turman, James Whitmore Jr. and a host of other major actors in which we are in talks with…see at;

When you get a chance, also please visit our Alpha Wolf Production website at; and see our other productions, like Stagecoach Mary, the first Black Woman to deliver mail for Wells Fargo in Montana, in the 1890's, “spread the word”.


I think fishing is legal, just not from a bridge in most of Yosemite Valley. It might also only be catch and release in the Valley.

As far as I know, you cannot fish in the valley except for in the little steams. I remember seeing people fish near North Pines, at the split.

If you've heard Gayle's and Oprah's comments since then, it wasn't a pleasant experience and they won't be back. I always thought Gayle was the trooper between the two but she was more negative than Oprah. Oprah at least had a passing interest in fly fishing. But that's OK - less competition for my favorite campsite in Upper Pines.

BTW - Who fishes the Merced inside the park? I thought they stopped stocking the park section of the river years ago.

I feel like I've been waiting on this day for 15 years! Ever since Frank and I "discovered" the National Park System on our road trip around the country in 1995, we have been desperate for a celebrity like Oprah (oops! there's nobody like Oprah!) to take an interest and show the American people the incredibly beautiful natural treasures that we own. We even wrote a book about the national parks, "Legacy on the Land," focusing on the contributions of racially diverse Americans to the development of the park system and our country. (

who says you have to die to go to heaven? I'm in heaven right now anticipating the millions of people who will fall in love with our national parks as a result of Oprah's shows!

Different folks enjoy our parks in different ways. I'm not at all unhappy that a rich urbanite from Chicago (roughly my age) who didn't grow up camping or hiking, enjoyed the front country and stayed in comfort and shared Moscow Mules with others in a valley campground and enjoyed herself, as opposed to hiking up to Little Yosemite Valley or backpacking from Red's Meadow over Donohue Pass down Lyell Canyon to Tuolumne like I would do, but end up feeling miserable. I suspect that she didn't wake up before dawn to see a sunrise from Glacier Point, either.

To the extent that some of her audience are inspired to visit a national park (I hope not everyone will visit Yosemite), some may day trip, some may stay in a fancy lodge, some may stay in a cheap motel, some may camp. Those who like what they experience may be a bit more adventuresome the next time.

Its all good, as long as the enjoyment doesn't hurt the resources enough to impair the enjoyment of future generations.

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