Fifty miles west of Austin is Johnson City, where the forebears of the 36th president settled almost 150 years ago. LBJ grew up here, and you can visit his boyhood home. After he became president, he did much of his work from his ranch in this area, which you can also visit. The two sites are 13 miles apart. Both are worth viewing, and if you have the flexibility, I recommend that you see the boyhood home first. This will provide context that will make the visit to the "Texas White House" all the more interesting. With travel time and meals, viewing both sites will take most of a day. Even if you're not usually drawn to the past, you're likely to be intrigued by the picture of LBJ that emerges, and how his life was both a reflection of his times and the seed of change.
LBJ National Historical Park
Johnson City is a small farming town named for James Polk Johnson, LBJ's first cousin once removed. From Austin, take U.S. 290 west. From San Antonio, take Hwy. 281 north. These two roads will join about 4 miles south of Johnson City. Continue on Hwy. 281 until you get to the town, and U.S. 290 splits off to the left and becomes the town's main street. After a few blocks, turn left onto G Street, and straight ahead you'll see the visitor center for the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park (tel. 830/868-7128). Ask to be in the next tour of the Boyhood Home, and while you're waiting, take a look at the exhibits: a timeline of LBJ's life and an explanation of the Great Society legislation. Since the tours are frequent, you probably won't have time to see either of the movies shown in the auditoriums, but you can do so after your tour.
The small white clapboard structure where the family lived from 1913 is an eye-opener. Though LBJ's family was not well to do, they were by no means poor by local standards, yet it's striking to see how they lived. LBJ's father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., experienced some hard times but was a community leader and for a while a state legislator. His wife, Rebekah, was a rarity for the Hill Country, a college-educated woman (she was much more educated than her husband). Seeing the house and learning about LBJ's early life, you can start connecting all the dots that led the future politician to push for rural electrification and eventually the transformative project called the Great Society.
After the tour, you can walk over to the Johnson Settlement, where LBJ's grandfather, Sam Ealy Johnson, Sr., and his great-uncle, Jessie, engaged in successful cattle speculation in the 1860s. The rustic dogtrot cabin out of which they ran their business is still intact.
The Boyhood Home, visitor center, and Johnson Settlement are all open 8:45am to 5pm daily except Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year's Day. Admission is free. The Boyhood Home can be visited only by tours, offered every half-hour, from 9 to 11:30am and 1 to 4:30pm.
State Park & LBJ Ranch
Continue west on Hwy. 290 for 13 miles, and just before the town of Stonewall you'll see signs for Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and the LBJ Ranch. The first is operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (tel. 830/644-2252; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/lbj), and the ranch by the National Park Service (tel. 830/868-7128; www.nps.gov/lyjo). You need to go to the state park visitor center first, so that you can get a free visitor's permit to visit the LBJ Ranch and a CD for the self-guided driving tour (having a CD player in your car makes the trip a bit more fun) of the 600 acres of ranch that are part of the land donated to the national park. It remains a working ranch, as you will see in the tour. Crossing over the Pedernales River and through fields of phlox, Indian paintbrush, and other wildflowers, you can see why Johnson used the ranch as a second White House, and why, discouraged from running for a second presidential term, he came back here to find solace and, eventually, to die. A reconstruction of the former president's modest birthplace lies close to his (also modest) final resting place, shared with five generations of Johnsons.
Lady Bird Johnson spent about a third of her time at the Ranch before her death in 2008. After her death, the park service began giving tours of the 7,500-square-foot ranch house. The tour of the house is the only thing that costs money ($2). So far, five rooms can be viewed, but there are plans to include more rooms once they are ready (which means refurnishing them to look as they did ca. 1965). Once more of the house is opened up for the tour, the price will probably rise, too. The tour really brings home what a colorful character LBJ was and how different the 1960s were.
Not far from the state park visitor center is the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, where you'll find period-costumed "occupants" giving visitors a look at typical Texas-German farm life at the turn of the 20th century. Chickens, pigs, turkeys, and other farm animals roam freely or in large pens, while the farmers go about their chores, which might include churning butter, baking, or feeding the animals. The midwife who attended LBJ's birth grew up here. Interesting in the same way as Colonial Williamsburg, but much less known (and thus not as well funded), this is a terrific place to come with kids. Nearby are nature trails, a swimming pool (open only in summer), and lots of covered picnic spots. The park also keeps a small number of bison for visitors to view. Tip: It's best to visit the Sauer-Beckmann farm after you've seen the LBJ ranch, especially if it's late in the day. You don't want to run the risk of being bumped from the last tour of the house for the day.
All state park buildings, including the visitor center, are open daily 8am to 5pm; the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm is open daily 8am to 4:30pm. The Nature Trail, grounds, and picnic areas are open until dark every day. All facilities in both sections of the park are closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.
Where to Dine
The surest bet is Ronnie's Ice House Barbecue, 211 Hwy. 281, just south of 290 (tel. 830/868-7553). But he usually runs out of meat by 1pm. Your next best bet is the Silver K Café, at the corner of Main and F Street (tel. 830/868-2911). For lunch, they have soups, salads, and sandwiches. For dinner, they have a full menu. Prices range from moderate to expensive. If you prefer something on the go, visit Whittington's, 602 Hwy. 281 S. (tel. 877/868-5501), known for its beef and turkey jerky.
Outside of Johnson City, the place to dine -- and to bed down -- is close by the LBJ Ranch, in Stonewall. Rose Hill Manor, 2614 Upper Albert Rd., Stonewall, TX 78671 (tel. 877/ROSEHIL [767-3445] or 830/644-2247; www.rose-hill.com), is a reconstructed Southern manse. Light and airy accommodations -- four in the main house, and six in separate cottages -- are beautifully but comfortably furnished with antiques. All offer porches or patios and Hill Country views. Rates run from $155 to $179 on weekdays, and $199 to $249 on weekends. The inn's New American cuisine, served Wednesday through Sunday evenings in an ultraromantic dining room, is outstanding. Reservations are essential; prices are expensive.
If you're heading on to Austin, take a short detour from U.S. 290 to Pedernales Falls State Park, 8 miles east of Johnson City on F.R. 2766 (tel. 830/868-7304; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/pedernal). When the flow of the Pedernales River is high, the stepped waterfalls that give the 4,860-acre park its name are impressive.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.