It’s official. I have a new favorite day trip from Austin. Whether you are a history buff or not, there is something for everyone to enjoy at the LBJ Ranch. When we decided to check it out on a September Saturday while my parents were in town, we had no idea how many activities were in store for us. With a little planning, a trip to Stonewall and Johnson City could make for one long and very fun-filled day.
As we set out from Austin I was a bit confused, which is why we began our adventure without any real plan. I couldn’t make sense of the difference between Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & Historic Site and Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park. Were they two separate parks? What was in Stonewall and what was in Johnson City? Where were we supposed to start? As it turns out–at least from a visitor’s perspective–the State and National parks are pretty much one big complex. Exactly who is running which part had no bearing on our experience.
Texas State Park Visitor Center in Stonewall, Texas
We started our visit at the Texas State Park Visitor Center in Stonewall. This building houses a bookstore, gift shop, restrooms, and exhibits about LBJ and the Texas Hill Country. It’s also the only spot to acquire your (free) permit to drive through the ranch. What we didn’t learn until getting home is that the bookstore sells a CD that provides a narrative for the self-guided driving tour. We didn’t feel like we were missing out on anything at the time, but I can see how some stories along the way would’ve added value. Lastly, if you or your kids have National Parks Passports, there are three different stamps to collect here: one at the Visitor Center in Stonewall, one at the Hangar, and one at the Visitor Center in Johnson City.
Adjacent to this Visitor Center is the Paseo del Arroyo Nature Trail. Since it was raining when we got to the park, we skipped the trail but it looks like a great way to access the historic Danz and Behrens cabins, as well as the American Bison, Texas Longhorns (part of the Official Texas State Herd), and white-tailed deer enclosures. In Spring, I imagine this would be the ideal way to see the park’s celebrated wildflower display. The trail also leads the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, which was our next stop. (There is a small, unpaved parking lot across from the farm for those who prefer to drive.)
Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm
My boys’ favorite part of the day was our time at the Sauer-Beckmann farm. Although this particular farm didn’t belong to LBJ’s family, it’s representative of the typical early-1900s Texas Hill Country farm. Costumed interpreters perform chores daily. Depending on the season, these could included canning, cleaning, caring for the animals, etc. My seven year-old spent well over an hour washing and hanging laundry, raking the yard, and fetching water. Both boys had a blast jumping, shaking, and otherwise agitating cream to make butter (which we later enjoyed on crackers during lunch). The volunteers and interpreters were patient, kind, and very knowledgeable about the life and times they represented.
By sheer coincidence we were there on Farm Demonstration Day, so we lucked into some bonus demonstrations. One gentleman was making lye soap while another taught eager kiddos how to weave rope from twine. There were also farm animals to visit, barns to explore, homes to stroll through, and lovely grounds to wander.
When we’d exhausted ourselves at the living history farm, we backtracked to downtown Johnson City for lunch. It’s only a few miles longer in the other direction to reach Fredericksburg, which would be an equally good dining destination. Next time we visit, I’ll skip the extra driving and pack a picnic lunch. There’s a large, old-school rest area on Hwy 290 just east of the park entrance and scenic picnic spots are plentiful within the park too.
Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park
With bellies full, we returned to Stonewall and crossed the Pedernales River to enter the National Historic Park. Just before the official entrance sign is the one-room Junction School where LBJ learned to read as a child and where he returned in 1965 to sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The history is fascinating. If your kids are anything like mine, though, they’ll be disappointed that everything in the school is preserved behind plexiglass.
There is a parking area near the entrance that provides access to the home where LBJ was born, his grandparents’ home, and the family cemetery where LBJ and Ladybird are buried. Visitors aren’t allowed inside either of those homes, but I still wish we’d had nicer weather to get out and peek in the windows. Even in the rain, this part of the ranch was enchanting; the road winds through a spectacular canopy of oaks along the river.
A rambling drive continues through the property, which–according to the Johnson family’s wishes–is still a working ranch, complete with Herefords descended from LBJ’s herd. If livestock are your thing, you can even stop at the Show Barn and mingle with the animals and the ranchers who keep the operation running today.
After driving through pastureland all the way around the airstrip, we eventually arrived at the Hangar. LBJ’s commuter plane–jokingly called Air Force One-Half–is on display outside and the Hangar building itself is full of exhibits. There’s a small room dedicated to the Space Race, one about wildlife on the ranch, and (my favorite) LBJ’s gift storage room. Several exhibits in the Hangar highlight how LBJ managed to be an effective President while spending so much time at his Texas White House. My son is still telling people about the 72 phone lines LBJ had installed on the ranch! Maybe it was because we had visited the LBJ Presidential Library just a few weeks earlier, but I was really surprised by how interested my boys were in the Hangar area. My seven year-old sat and watched the whole documentary while my three year-old listened to recordings of phone conversations between LBJ and other notable figures.
Junior Ranger Program
If you need a little help keeping your kids engaged, give the free Junior Ranger Program a try. Just pick up a booklet at either Visitor Center and have your child(ren) show it to a Ranger at the Hangar or back at the Visitor Center when it’s complete. Good work earns a very official-looking plastic badge. My son was immensely proud to take his Junior Ranger oath in front of the podium where LBJ held his press conferences.
Texas White House Tours
Should you choose to take the 30-minute guided tour of the Texas White House, the Hangar is where those tickets are purchased and the tour begins. Tours of the home’s ground floor are led by National Park Service Rangers and ours was first-rate. He shared great info with a terrific sense of humor and his candor really gave us a feel for what life in the house would’ve been like during LBJ’s presidency. Each room–restored to its full 60s glory–had a story of its own and we were given plenty of time to stop and savor the details (like artwork by the grandkids taped to the walls). That being said, 30 minutes will seem like an eternity to a kid who wants to see and touch everything.
Exploring the Grounds of LBJ Ranch
Everyone is welcome to wander outside the fenced yard of the home for free. The grounds are beautiful and it’s easy to see why the President valued his time here so dearly. On the way back to the parking lot, don’t miss the Friendship Walk–LBJ’s personal Walk of Fame. Through the years he had visitors to his ranch–astronauts and artists to scientists and dignitaries–sign their names in concrete stepping stones and all of them are displayed here.
But wait, there’s more! If your gang has any energy to spare, there’s still more to explore. Back on the state park side of things, you’ll find a playground, a baseball field, tennis courts, fishing, a wading pool, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool (open in summer; fee required). Back in Johnson City, free guided tours of the Johnson Boyhood Home are available. You can even take a short walk through the original Johnson Settlement, founded by LBJ’s grandfather and great-uncle in the 1860s.
What to Know Before You Go
- There are no concessions in the park. The nearest restaurants are in Johnson City or Fredericksburg.
- It’s a short walk from the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm to the nearest restroom, so plan accordingly.
- Tours of the Texas White House are $3 for adults. Children 17 and younger are free.
- Special events take place monthly. Check the calendars here and here.