Many are the presidential libraries and shrines to former chief executives of the nation, but none are quite like former President Lyndon Johnson's ranch in central Texas. Located midway between Johnson City and Fredericksburg and about 75 miles northwest of San Antonio, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park -- the former LBJ Ranch -- is a glorious mixture of gentle hills, and cattle herds, both dear to the late president's heart.
There are two separate locations: The Johnson Settlement/Visitor Center/Boyhood Home/Park Headquarters in Johnson City, and the LBJ Ranch, near Stonewall, about 15 miles west of the city. The State of Texas maintains a Visitor Center near Stonewall, too, where you can get a free driving permit to the ranch (the latter is managed by the National Park Service).
In Johnson City, check out the Boyhood Home, where you can take a ranger-guided tour, watch one or two movies (one on him and one on Lady Bird), and view exhibits about his impact on history (civil rights, education). If you have more time, take the mile-long walk around the Johnson Settlement (his grandparents' log cabin).
At the ranch, take a self-guided driving tour, including a 25-minute tour of the Texas White House, beginning at the LBJ State Park & Historic Site Visitors Center. LBJ, who was born on the ranch, lived, died, and was buried there, so the ranch is undoubtedly the highlight of any visit to the park. Keep an eye out for the Hereford cattle, descendants of those that LBJ owned.
LBJ & Lady Bird
The late president had a famous temper, but also had a great sense of humor. I had the privilege of watching him lose his temper during an interview when he was still Senate majority leader, then successfully control it again. As to humor, he liked singing with his dog, Yuki ("snow" in Japanese), that his daughter Lucy found abandoned at a gas station in Johnson City before adopting it.
LBJ was also innovative: they say that during his second bid for the Senate in 1948, he was the first candidate in history to campaign by helicopter. The LBJ Library & Museum, a splendid center for research, is located in Austin.
After the death of her husband, Lady Bird Johnson immersed herself in many civic activities, including her famous Beautify the Highways campaign, during which perhaps millions of pretty bluebonnets were planted along the state's highways. Extending this to the entire nation, she invited hundreds of people, including travel writers like me, into her home on the ranch to urge us all to clean up our highways and plant flowers along the edges. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, by the way, is in Austin.
Be sure to visit Fredericksburg, birthplace of Admiral Chester Nimitz and home to the National Museum of the Pacific War and a splendid Japanese garden.
Admission & Hours
There's no fee to enter any of the LBJ sites in Johnson City, though donations are welcomed. Driving permits of the ranch are free. There is a fee for indoor tours of the Texas White House ($2). There are occasionally fee-free days, including Aug. 27, the LBJ's birthday.
The Visitor Center in Johnson City is open from 8:45am to 5pm, except Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. The LBJ State of Texas Visitor Center, near Stonewall, opens from 8am to 5pm daily.
There are guided tours of the LBJ Boyhood Home in Johnson City daily on the hour and half hour except at lunchtime, from 9am to 4:30pm. Self-guided tours of the Johnson Settlement (also in the city) are available from 9am to sunset daily. Self-guided driving tours of the LBJ Ranch are available daily from 9am to 5:30pm (last permit at 4:15pm). Guided tours of the Texas White House, on the ranch, are offered from 10am through 4:30pm.
The Texas White House, from which LBJ operated whenever he was on the ranch as president, was lived in by Klady Bird until her death in 2007 and is being gradually renovated for public use. It opened to the public only in 2008, and guided tours are available there now of the five renovated rooms (more to come).