Eyes wide open and head tilted upward, President Barack Obama appeared awed Friday as he toured an underground cave at a national park in New Mexico — part of a family vacation that's also designed to draw attention to America's natural wonders.
Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, spent part of the afternoon at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, one of two national parks the First Family is scheduled to visit on a long Father's Day weekend away from Washington.
"How cool is this?" Obama exclaimed as a National Park Service employee led the family on a tour of the Big Room, an area nearly 800 feet deep into the limestone cavern that nature carved out of the Guadalupe Mountains.
The Obamas plan to spend Saturday and part of Sunday exploring Yosemite National Park in California.
Coming at the end of a difficult week, the trip gives Obama an opportunity to tout his record on open-space preservation and promote administration programs aimed at boosting foot traffic through the more than 400 sites in a national park system that turns 100 in August.
The trip was also providing the president with another chance to warn about climate change, one of his priority issues, and the need to protect places like Carlsbad Caverns and Yosemite from its effects so future generations can enjoy the parks' splendor.
Obama planned to deliver formal remarks Saturday at Yosemite.
Inside the New Mexico cavern, where three of the 119 caves are open to the public, Obama gazed at the stalactites, stalagmites and various other formations dotting the Big Room and said it was "spectacular." The caves were formed when sulfuric acid ate through the limestone.
Temperatures inside the Big Room hold at a cool 56 degrees, in sharp contrast to the 100-degree heat baking the arid landscape that surrounds the national park, and Obama wore a jacket to ward off the slight chill.
The administration makes an economic argument for supporting the park system: It sustains hundreds of thousands of jobs while visitors pump billions of dollars into surrounding economies.
An Interior Department report released Friday said more than 305 million people visited national parks last year, a new record. They spent $16.9 billion in nearby communities.
Obama has protected more than 265 million acres of public lands and waters from development, more than any other president, the White House said. Environmental and advocacy groups applaud what Obama has done so far, but have been urging him to exercise his authority under a 1906 law to put even more public spaces off limits before his term ends in January.
Some members of Congress accuse Obama of overreach every time he uses that authority to create a national monument without their input.
Congressional objections aside, Obama will use the postcard-perfect scenery at both of the parks he's visiting to highlight the natural beauty that administration officials assert could be lost or forever damaged by the effects of climate change.
Also hampering the park system is an estimated $12 billion in deferred maintenance.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees the National Park Service and discussed the president's trip with reporters on Thursday, said the agency relies more heavily on donations every year to help meet its financial needs.
Yosemite, near Fresno, California, is among the 10 most popular parks, with about 4 million people visiting annually. It is known for its waterfalls, but also boasts ancient giant sequoia trees and a vast wilderness area.
For Obama, the parks trip caps a difficult week that opened with Sunday's shooting deaths of 49 people at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub. On Thursday, the president went to Orlando to mourn the deaths with the victims' loved ones.