GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. | The conversation taking place over a spectacular overlook, on a picture-perfect day, could have been between members of any American family on one of the tours that U.S. Park Ranger Scott Kraynak has been giving here for the past nine years.
Father: “You just studied this, right? What kinds of rocks are there?”
Daughter: “There’s a kind of rock that’s made out of lava, right? Now what is that?
Mr. Kraynak: “It starts with ‘i’.”
Daughter: “Igneous rock.”
Mother: “High five!”
But this was not any family. It was the family of President Obama, and the four-day vacation to the national parks offered one of those rare reminders that in between two wars and a furious health care debate, this is the first president in more than a generation to have small children in the White House.
The White House has been rigorous in guarding the privacy of the president’s two daughters, Malia, 11, and Sasha, 8. As the first family toured Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, they weighed those concerns against the value of showing off two of America’s most treasured natural wonders in order to provide a boost to the park system’s summer tourism goals.
And so it was Sunday that the president and his family strolled along the South Rim of the magnificent red-rock canyon, between pinyon pines, junipers and a scrub brush called Mormon Tea.
Pausing to take in the panorama, Mr. Obama told his family, “The last time I was here is when I was 11 years old.”
Mr. Kraynak asked him whether it looked the same.
“It does,” the president said.
“He’s not that old!” the first lady laughed.
The family did its best to ignore the group of photographers and reporters gathered just a few feet away, not to mention the Secret Service agents that had closed off a large section of the park to visitors. The first family took pains to work around the awkward nature of the fishbowl life they lead.
In Montana, reporters were asked to wait in an airplane hangar, with garbage bags taped over the windows, while Mr. Obama and some of his White House aides fished for trout on the Gallatin River. First lady Michelle Obama took the girls on a whitewater raft trip, ignoring passing rain and hail showers and the security needs that turned their rafting group into a flotilla.
Of course, traveling as first family has its advantages.
The Obamas were permitted to travel Yellowstone’s Black Sand Basin on Marine One. They were treated, right on schedule, to the impressive sight of the Old Faithful geyser sending white steam and water up high. Everyone in the president’s party cheered.
“Oh, that’s pretty good. Cool,” he said.
After witnessing the natural wonder, the president did what any father would do: He took his girls to the Old Faithful General Store for a couple of scoops of strawberry ice cream.
As the media horde snapped photos from behind the counter, the president seemed to realize that Sasha was getting more ice cream than she needed.
“She’s not going to be able to eat all of that,” he said, dumping one of the strawberry scoops into a cup and munching on the mostly empty sugar cone himself.