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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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I just wanted to note that it's the "Grizzly Giant".

she apparently dosent really feel the effects that most of our parks have on most people who love the outdoors. thats what happens when you live in a concrete jungle. of the two parks,i think that yellowstone is hard to beat...,and seems to be a lot cleaner than yosimite..but both are the work of god...and inspriing to most who visit.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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”.


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