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U.S. presidents and the national parks

Happy Presidents Day! Although both Washington and Lincoln -- whose birthdays were the precursors of Presidents Day -- were gone before the first national park was established (Yellowstone in 1872), the folks at Xanterra Parks & Resorts, who operate lodgings and other concessions in some parks, remind us that a number of later presidents visited various national parks. Here's a rundown from historians with Xanterra and the National Park Service.

  • President Gerald Ford was already familiar with Yellowstone National Park when he visited in 1976; he had been a 23-year-old National Park Service ranger in 1936. Ford once said his time in Yellowstone was “one of the greatest summers of my life.” One of his duties was to meet and greet VIPs at the Canyon Lodge. He also protected other park rangers who fed bears at the bear-feeding truck, a popular visitor attraction at the time. The park long ago stopped feeding bears and other wildlife.
  • Instead of staying in one of Yellowstone’s lodges, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose to stay at the private home of Harry Child, the owner of the Yellowstone Park Company, which operated the park lodges and other concessions. His reason: he did not want the general public to see him in his wheelchair. Designed by Robert C. Reamer, the same architect who designed the Old Faithful Inn, the large home is a single-floor prairie-style structure, so it can easily accommodate a wheelchair. Recently passing its centennial, the home is occupied today by the general manager of Xanterra Parks & Resorts.
  • Bill Clinton visited both the Grand Canyon (in 2000) and Yellowstone (in 1995). President Clinton stayed in the Mary Colter Suite of the Grand Canyon’s El Tovar and had lunch at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn. President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton also took a stroll around Old Faithful Geyser.
  • President Barack Obama visited both Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks with his family in August 2009. President's day 1 12National Park Service rangers accompanied the family to various viewpoints along the Grand Canyon’s South Rim and provided them with a brief overview of the park’s geology and human history. Xanterra’s executive chef in Yellowstone made the Obamas a meal of sustainable cuisine items, many from the dining room menu at Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
  • Long before he became president, actor Ronald Reagan visited Death Valley -- when it was still a national monument -- in 1948 when he was a regular host of the wildly popular “Death Valley Days.” Sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax – which was appropriate because the discovery of borax was pivotal in the history of the region – “Death Valley Days” was originally a radio program and then also achieved stunning success as a television program, airing for 16 years before its final episode in 1968. Death Valley was designated a national park 1994.
  • Grand Canyon Railway has hosted numerous U.S. presidents before, during and after their terms. Those presidential passengers included Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, 1911 and 1912; William Howard Taft in 1909; Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940 and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1950.
  • In 1883, President Chester Arthur rode a horse from the southern to the northern entrance of Yellowstone and met supporters at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel entrance before departing the area aboard the newly completed Northern Pacific Railroad. Although it was still under construction and lacked a complete roof, President Arthur dined at the Mammoth Hot Springs Dining Room before his departure.
  • President Theodore Roosevelt made his final visit to Yellowstone National Park in 1903. Although he was on a two-week vacation, he managed to squeeze in some business too. Roosevelt, Harry Child and Robert C. Reamer reviewed plans for the Old Faithful Inn, which was completed the following year. During that trip he also laid the cornerstone for the Roosevelt Arch at the northern entrance to the park. The arch bears the inscription: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”  President Roosevelt also visited the Grand Canyon – in 1903, before it was a national park and again in 1911.
  • President Barack Obama spent three nights at Maumee Bay State Park Lodge in October 2008, where he prepared for the final presidential debate with Senator John McCain. The northwestern Ohio lodge is situated on Lake Erie. The president dined on eggs and bacon at the lodge’s Water’s Edge Restaurant, which offers sweeping views of the lake.
  • William G. Harding enjoyed playing cards and visiting with close associates – sometimes called the “Ohio Gang” by newspaper reporters – in a cabin in Ohio’s Deer Creek State Park that was owned by his chief strategist and the U.S. Attorney General at the time, Harry M. Daugherty. The restored and furnished “Harding Cabin” is now available for rent, and is particularly popular with small groups such as wedding parties. The cabin overlooks Deer Creek Lake and features sleeping accommodations for up to eight people, a full kitchen, laundry facilities, fireplace, private boat dock and screened-in porch overlooking the lake.
  • The state of Ohio was birthplace for seven presidents and long-time home to an eighth, which earned the state the label “Mother of Presidents.” Several historic sites, memorials and museums dedicated to those presidents are located within an easy drive of Ohio State Park Lodges managed by Xanterra. They are the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, 45 minutes north of Punderson Manor State Park Lodge; William McKinley National Memorial in Canton, 60 minutes from Salt Fork and Mohican State Park Lodges; Warren G. Harding Home in Marion, 45 minutes west of Mohican; and William Harrison Tomb & Memorial, 90 minutes south of Deer Creek.
  • President George Herbert Walker Bush visited both the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. His visit to Yellowstone in 1989 occurred the summer after the historic Yellowstone fires. He was briefed by park officials about Yellowstone fire science.
  • During his visit, President Jimmy Carter traveled to one of the islands on Yellowstone Lake to fish with National Park Service officials. After his presidency, Carter returned to the park and had pizza in the employee pub at Lake Lodge. He even signed the wall of the pub, and his signature is still visible today.
  • President Warren Harding visited the park in 1923, shortly before he died. Staff in the park named a geyser after him and observed a moment of silence in his honor.
  • Calvin Coolidge visited Yellowstone in 1927. Although Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright tried to engage President Coolidge in park-related politics, Coolidge was more interested in fishing than talking.
  • Calvin Coolidge was also pivotal in granting funding for Mount Rushmore. In 1927, he visited Custer State Park in South Dakota’s Black Hills, not far from the site where sculptor Gutzon Borglum planned to carve the giant faces of Mount Rushmore. Borglum hired a plane to fly over the lodge where Coolidge was staying and dropped a wreath from the plane with an invitation for Coolidge to attend a dedication ceremony for the mountain. Coolidge not only agreed to attend but following the ceremony, he promised federal funding for the project.
  • In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill that designated Yellowstone the world’s first national park. It was a move that has been called America’s best idea. President Grant never visited Yellowstone.