(a 15 minute read)

Experience the life of President Lyndon Baines Johnson at LBJ Ranch State Park, Johnson National Historical Park, and other locations in the Texas Hill Country and beyond.

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LBJ Ranch and the Texas Hill Country

Touring LBJ Ranch State Park, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, and other Johnson sites was one of my first experiences during my month-long camper van trip through Texas and New Mexico.

In preparation for my visit, I had been listening to the podcast In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson, based on audio diaries the First Lady recorded during the Johnson administration. These first-person accounts reveal intimate insider backstories of decisive events, beginning with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The podcast is hosted by Julia Sweig, author of Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight, which I also read following the podcast.

After three days of rain, the morning broke bright and clear, and I was in my glory. For me, history and scenic beauty are the most important elements of any travel itinerary. The prospect of visiting historical sites in the Texas Hill Country made me practically giddy with excitement.

Aside from a few expected closures, my day could not have been better.

Lyndon B. Johnson NHP: Johnson City District 

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I began my tour of LBJ historical sites in Johnson City. At the time of my visit, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park visitor center was closed to the public, but an assortment of maps and other print publications were available at various locations.

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As an avid National Parks Passport stamp collector, I was elated to discover a kiosk with undated pre-stamped paper squares near the entrance of the visitor center. This method presented no problem for me, because I always collect cancellations on paper and paste them in my passport later.

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The map of the Johnson City District shows a walking tour of the LBJ Boyhood Home and Johnson Settlement. I followed part of the route, but basically did my own thing.

LBJ Boyhood Home

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The Folk Victorian house that became LBJ’s boyhood home was built in 1901. The future president’s father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., bought the house and surrounding 1.75 acres for $2,925 in 1913. LBJ was five years old when the family moved into town from their farm in neighboring Stonewall, and it was his home until he married at age 26.

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The house has been restored and furnished by the National Park Service to its appearance in the mid-1920s. House tours were not active during my visit, but it was enjoyable to walk the exterior and peer into the sleeping porch.

The windmill, water tank, barn, and other outbuildings give the property a rural appearance, but all of it is situated on one city block.

In March of 1937, LBJ returned to the porch of his boyhood home to announce his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives for the Tenth District of the State of Texas, a seat he won. This race launched the future president’s career in politics and more than three decades of public service.

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A footbridge leads across Town Creek to a loop trail around Johnson Settlement. For guests who prefer to drive, parking is available at both the visitor center and the Johnson Settlement entrance on Hwy. 290.

Johnson Settlement

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As much as I would have enjoyed the walk, I decided to drive over to Johnson Settlement to conserve time.

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A fine collection of historical structures original to the property lend evidence of its role in the cattle ranching business.

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LBJ’s grandfather, Samuel Ealy Johnson Sr., settled this 320-acre plot of land with his brother Tom in the late 1850s. They built a one-room log cabin that became headquarters for the largest cattle-driving operation in seven counties. Sam and Tom would buy cattle on speculation and drive them in great herds along the Chisholm Trail to the railhead in Kansas.

The cabin was later enlarged to include an east room and breezeway, constructed in the dog-trot vernacular. In 1867, after serving in the Civil War, Sam married Eliza Bunton, and they set up housekeeping in the log home.

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A corral of Texas longhorns brings the past to life, lending visitors a great view of these imposing creatures.

A wood and stone barn was constructed in 1875 by Sam’s nephew James Polk Johnson, founder of Johnson City. His grave is in the James Polk Johnson Cemetery, located two blocks north of the settlement

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The larger cut-stone Bruckner Barn was built by German immigrant John Bruckner in 1884 when he purchased the ranch.

Exhibits and interpretive panels at the settlement’s event center tell the story of life on the Texas Hill Country frontier.

LBJ State Park & Historic Site

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LBJ Ranch is located 14 miles west of Johnson City in Stonewall, Texas

National and state park agencies play well together, but touring all of the sites can get a bit confusing if you don’t know where to start.

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Self-guided driving tours begin at the LBJ Ranch State Park visitor center. Park rangers will issue you a free driving permit, provide directions for the route, and answer questions about the LBJ Ranch District.

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A small museum at the visitor center complex features exhibits about LBJ, as well as the history and wildlife of the Texas Hill Country.

A nature trail winds through the adjacent landscape, past interpretive exhibits, wildlife enclosures, seasonal wildflowers, and a statue of President Johnson.

Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm

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Surprisingly, the most spectacular attraction of LBJ Ranch State Park, the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, appears totally unrelated to the former president. But as you will see, there are at least two connections.

I postponed visiting the farm until the end of the day, returning after touring LBJ Ranch, and I am so glad I did. It is one of the most authentic living history locations I have visited in my travels.

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The farm is named for two families of German immigrants who lived at this site and built the historic buildings. Johan and Christine Sauer bought the property in 1869 and built several of the farm structures. They eventually had ten children.

In 1900, the aging Sauers sold the farm to the Herman Beckmann family. Generations of the Beckmann family worked the farm and built additional structures. The property was sold to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1966.

I had a great visit with park ranger, interpreter, and farmer Mark Itz, whose passion for his work was undeniable.

Mark and other living history interpreters maintain the farmhouse, cooking on the wood stove and cleaning with heritage products and techniques.

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The Beckmann family barn is central for the care of the farm animals. Daily chores include milking cows, slopping hogs, and gathering eggs.

Before spring planting, the expansive vegetable garden is plowed the old-fashioned way, with a team of horses.

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I later learned of two connections between the Sauer-Beckmann families and LBJ:

  • Augusta Sauer Lindig, one of the ten Sauer children, was the attending midwife at the birth of LBJ on August 27, 1908.
  • And, the future president bought four acres of land from the Beckmann family in 1951.

LBJ Ranch State Park offers a wide range of public facilities and attractions, including an aquatic complex, tennis courts, a baseball field, auditorium, resource education center, dining hall, individual and group picnic areas, the official Texas Longhorn herd, and a herd of American Bison.

TIP: Food outlets in the the vicinity of LBJ Ranch are limited at best, but covered and open air picnic tables abound. I highly recommend packing a lunch to better spend a carefree day in the Johnson parks.

Ranch Road 1

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To begin the LBJ Ranch driving tour, exit the state park main parking area and turn right on Ranch Road 1. If you drive slowly, shortly after turning, you will see the LBJ statue to the right.

Ranch Road 1 parallels the Pedernales River, and soon you will pass the guard shack and original entrance to the ranch. This route leads to the Johnson Dam crossing.

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As I mentioned, there had been three days of rain prior to my visit. The dam was barely visible beneath the high water level, and a river crossing would not have been possible due to the increased flow.

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A short way up the road, you will see the blue Trinity Lutheran Church on the right. The President and Lady Bird attended services here when they were in residence at the Texas White House.

Lyndon B. Johnson NHP: LBJ Ranch District 

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Just beyond the church, take a left on Klein Road, cross the bridge, and take another immediate left onto Redstone Ranch Road. This is the entrance to LBJ Ranch District of the Johnson National Historical Park.

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The first building on the driving tour situated at the entrance is the blue Junction School. Because he lived just up the road, the President was allowed early enrollment at age four. He only attended the one-room schoolhouse for a few months in 1912. The school closed early that year due to a whooping cough epidemic, and the Johnson family moved to Johnson City the following year.

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The President never forgot his first teacher who taught him to read, and on April 11, 1965, Miss Katie Deadrich was at his side when he signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at a picnic table outside the historical schoolhouse.

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The original home where where LBJ was born was torn down in the 1940s. In order to better interpret his heritage for visitors, the President hired an architect in 1964 to reconstruct and refurbish his birthplace at its original location.

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The outhouse at the LBJ birthplace is not in working order, but park restroom facilities are onsite behind the home.

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After three days of rain, the ranch landscape was lush, green, and breezy. I would have loved to walk through the pecan groves, find a special spot, spread a blanket, enjoy a picnic lunch, and read a book. But I had an itinerary to keep, and I’m not quite sure my brilliant plan would have been allowed.

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President Johnson, Lady Bird, and other members of the family are buried at the Johnson Family Cemetery.

The President once told Mrs. Johnson, “When I die I don’t just want our friends who can come in their private planes. I want the men in their pickup trucks and the women whose slips hang down below their dresses to be welcome, too . . . .”

LBJ died in his bedroom of a heart attack on January 22, 1973, at age 64. Lady Bird lived more than thirty more years, passing on July 11, 2007, at age 94.

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After they lost their fortune from the cattle business, Sam and Eliza Johnson, Sr. moved from Johnson Settlement to this spot along the Pedernales. The future president loved his grandparents and would often toddle down to their house for visits and treats.

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The dirt road beside the Johnson Sr. House was calling my name, but again I had that pesky itinerary, and I didn’t want to get arrested for trespassing.

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Before arriving at the Texas White House, the driving tour takes a sharp right along the ranch airstrip and heads deep into pasture land.

Looping around the north end of the airstrip, the next stop on the tour is the cattle show barn, where Johnson’s prizewinning Herefords were boarded for breeding and groomed for stock shows.

LBJ Ranch remains a working ranch, and descendants of the President’s registered herd roam freely today.

The Texas White House Complex

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A one mile-drive south along the driving route brings the tour to the LBJ Ranch visitor center and Texas White House complex.

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The most eye-catching feature at the site is one of five Lockheed Jetstars assigned to the White House fleet. President Johnson used these aircraft as vice-president, and continued using them as president.

The ranch airstrip could not support the weight of a Boeing 707, so the President would fly Air Force One to Austin or San Antonio and then take a connecting flight to the ranch on the smaller Jetstars he dubbed “Air Force One-Half.”

The NPS visitor center is located in a former airplane hangar built in 1959.

The building also served as a movie theater and press conference location. A presidential jukebox is stocked with 45s of Johnson’s easy listening favorites from artists such as B.J. Thomas and Dionne Warwick.

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Visitor center exhibits and interpretive panels recount Johnson’s admirable legislative legacy.

Historical preservation, conservation, and the environment were important causes for both President Johnson and the First Lady. During his administration, he added 50 units to the National Park Service and signed more than 300 conservation measures into law.

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President Johnson’s key civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were landmark initiatives in the American struggle for freedom and equality.

A series of outbuildings populate the ranch grounds, including the olive green White House Communications Complex and the white Secret Service Command Post.

The former Klein maintenance shop houses a collection of the President’s vehicles, including his trademark Lincoln Continental convertibles, an amphibious Amphicar, and a classic 1915 American La France fire engine.

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The Texas White House has a storied past. The original section was constructed of native limestone by a German immigrant in 1894. In 1909, LBJ’s aunt and uncle acquired the house and added the central section. The Johnsons bought the house in 1951, adding the master bedrooms and office wing.

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The pool was installed in 1955.

In 2018, the National Park Service suspended house tours due to structural issues. The closure was still in effect when this post was published in 2021.

In a grove of live oaks near the river the Johnsons hosted epic Texas-style barbecues for diplomats, the White House press corps, and other groups of dignitaries. The aroma of smoked brisket and ribs wafted through the trees and strains of mariachi music filled the air.

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I was not anxious to leave the pastoral landscapes and historical sites at LBJ Ranch, but my driving tour had come to an end.

When I returned to my camper van, I raided the mini-fridge and kitchen cabinets and ate lunch sitting in the captain’s chair.

Looking back, exploring Johnson sites in the Texas Hill Country remains one of my most memorable days on the road.

Additional Johnson Attractions

If you will be traveling to the Austin area, there are two additional Johnson attractions that may interest you.

LBJ Presidential Library

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Located on the grounds of the University of Texas at Austin, the LBJ Presidential Library is the repository for 45 million pages of historical documents. A museum of permanent and temporary exhibits interprets the life and administration of the 36th president.

NOTE: At the time this post published, inside spaces of all presidential libraries nationwide were closed to the public. Be sure to research hours and admission before planning your visit.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

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The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center was founded by the First Lady in 1982 with a mission of conserving native plants from across the state of Texas. On your visit, take a relaxing walk through cultivated gardens, natural meadows, and other themed spaces on the 284-acre grounds. Reservations are required.

Lodging & Dining

Your best bet for a home base while exploring Johnson sites and the Texas Hill Country is the city of Fredericksburg located 17 miles west of LBJ Ranch State Park.

Click here for Fredericksburg lodging options on TripAdvisor!

Click here for Fredericksburg dining options!

Pedernales Falls State Park

If you traveling by RV or tent camping, Pedernales Falls State Park is a lovely location situated just 12 miles east of Johnson City. I spent a rainy night there, but morning broke bright and clear, and the falls put on a show!

McKinney Falls State Park

McKinney Falls State Park Camping featured

If you will be visiting Johnson sites in the Austin area, make time to add McKinney Falls State Park to your itinerary. I spent two nights at the campground and had a blast hiking trails to the falls.

Click here for more Austin lodging options on TripAdvisor!

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An Additional Resource

A North Texas Road Trip

For more itinerary options, check out my North Texas Road Trip, a wild ride through the Lone Star state from Amarillo to Lubbock, Grapevine, Waco, and Granbury.

I Would Love to Hear From You

I enjoy dialogue with Backroad Planet readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever explored LBJ Ranch and the Texas Hill Country? If so, I would love to hear about your experience. I invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and I always respond!

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Howard Blount is founder and editor of the travel website Backroad Planet. He has traveled internationally since boyhood and lived abroad in Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay. Now his passion is navigating the roads-less-traveled of this amazing planet in search of anything rare and remote. On the stuffy side, “Mr. Blount” has been a writer, consultant, and published author with houses including Simon & Schuster and McGraw-Hill.

Retired from a 35-year career as a middle school teacher, Howard enjoys spending his time on anything that includes mountains, waterfalls, dachshunds, gospel choirs, books, classic movies, autumn, sandhill cranes, Florida springs, rain, gloomy days, log cabins, abandoned sites, unearthed history, genealogy, documentaries, To Kill a Mockingbird, castles, cathedrals, Civil Rights history, cold sheets, National Park Passports, quotes, Reba Rambo, Dionne Warwick, most things Apple, all things British, Jesus, and lists.

And on a random note, Howard is a fourth cousin once removed to Truman Capote.