3 Days in Johnson City

Enjoy a Long Weekend Full of History and the Great Outdoors

LBJ and Lady Bird at the ranch
LBJ and Lady Bird at the ranch. Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

The childhood home of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Johnson City is also one of the most scenic small towns in Texas. It’s situated amid rolling hills and lush pastures dotted with sprawling old oak trees. A three-day visit offers the opportunity to explore history, view wildlife and enjoy one of Texas’ best state parks.

Day 1 - Songbird Meadows Bed & Breakfast

Located about five miles south of downtown Johnson City, Songbird Meadows (1022 Stanton Ranch Loop, 830-868-2468) has three impeccably maintained rustic cabins. You’ll get a hot breakfast delivered to your door every morning. These are hearty home-cooked meals, often including fresh biscuits, quiche, yogurt and banana bread.

After settling in, take a short walk around the property. In addition to a wide variety of songbirds around several feeding stations, you may see wild turkey, deer and jackrabbits. Two nature trails on the property lead to majestic oaks and breathtaking views of the hill country. In the evenings, pick a spot by the pond for the best wildlife viewing opportunities. The pond sometimes dries up during drought years, but it’s full to the brim as of June 2016.

If you still need more stress relief, this B&B has something you won’t find anywhere else: a china chunkin’ station. A tea cart full of old dishes stands by to help you with your anger issues. Just make sure your plate bashing stays within the specified area, and aim your throws at the provided pile of wood only. Perhaps a visit to the nearby prayer garden would be a good way to calm back down afterward.

To satisfy the hunger you’ve undoubtedly worked up, head to the East Main Grill (209 East Main Street, 830-868-7710). Part of the Old Lumber Yard complex, the restaurant is known for its steaks, burgers and honey pecan fried chicken. East Main Grill is also in the heart of Johnson City’s tiny downtown, so you can do a little window shopping after the meal.

Day 2 - LBJ’s Boyhood Home and the Texas White House

After enjoying a homemade breakfast and watching the birds for a while, take the short drive to LBJ’s Boyhood Home (200 East Elm Street, 830-868-7128). Note that there are several LBJ-related venues in and around Johnson City. Most of them are under the umbrella of Lyndon B. Johnson Historical Park, but they are actually in different locations. The LBJ Ranch and the Texas White House are a few miles west of Johnson City.

Free tours of the boyhood home start every half hour on the front porch. Look up and you’ll see that the ceiling of the front porch is painted sky blue. This was done often in early Texas houses because it was believed that wasps wouldn’t build nests on a blue ceiling because, well, it looked like the sky. In March 1937, it was on this very porch that Lyndon Baines Johnson announced his first run for Congress. The modest home was restored and furnished to be historically accurate for the mid-1920s period.

After the tour, have lunch at the nearby Pecan Street Brewing (106 East Pecan Drive, 830-868-2500). While it may be a little early to try one of their popular house-made beers, the other big selling point here is the pizza. Choose from a wide variety of toppings to build your own 8- or 14-inch pizza, which is cooked in a brick oven. They also offer a pizza with a gluten-free crust. Lighter sandwiches and salads are also available.

To continue the LBJ theme for the day, drive out to the LBJ Ranch (199 Park Road 52, Stonewall, 830-868-7128). You can now get a driving permit and tour parts of the ranch without supervision, but a well-informed guide will really help you appreciate the ranch’s role in history. Make sure you see his famous floating car. LBJ used to toy with reporters by touring the ranch in the car and then -- without warning -- driving the car directly into a lake. No matter what you think of his policies, LBJ was undoubtedly one of the nation’s most interesting presidents.

Just a few miles farther west along Highway 290, you’ll find one of the most gorgeous wineries in Texas. Torre di Pietra (10915 East US Highway 290, Fredericksburg, 830-644-2829) offers free 30-minute tours daily. A wine tasting, including six small samples, is $15. The winery regularly hosts live music on its outdoor patio overlooking the vineyards. The main building is made largely of stone and looks like a glorious Tuscan villa in the heart of Texas. Before leaving, pick up a bottle of wine or two to enjoy back at the B&B.

Day 3 - Exotic Resort Zoo and Pedernales Falls

As you prepare for the outdoor adventures ahead, don’t forget to bring a swimsuit and a change of clothing. You’ll definitely get hot and sweaty, and a cool swim will be sweet relief.

Drive a few miles north of Johnson City to the Exotic Resort Zoo (235 Zoo Trail, 830-868-4357). Guide tours of the 137-acre park leave every 15 minutes. You can purchase a bucket of feed to hand out to the friendly animals along the way. Two of the park’s largest animals, Rusty the Buffalo and Omar the Camel, will come right up to the open-air bus to let you feed them. The park is also home to kangaroos, zebra, exotic deer and ostriches. At the petting zoo, you can feed and play with baby deer, miniature horses, goats and llama.

Serious wildlife fans can even stay at the Exotic Resort Zoo. The park rents five cabins of varying sizes. Three of them are equipped with kitchenettes. The two-story Elk Lodge has an upstairs balcony with amazing the views of the park and its wildlife.

Your next stop, Pedernales Falls State Park (2585 Park Road 6026, 830-868-7304), is just a few miles south of the Exotic Resort Zoo. The main attraction here is the wide river that rushes along a stair-stepped riverbed dotted with huge boulders. Instead of one big waterfall, there is a whole series of small waterfalls along the river. After a heavy rain, swimmers are not allowed because the Pedernales River turns into raging rapids. Even on days where swimming is prohibited, it’s an amazing sight to see.

If the river is peaceful today, you’ll probably be ready for a cool dip in the water. When the river is cooperating, there are also several spots to tube or kayak along the river.

For an easy hike, follow the trail to the bird blind or enjoy the butterfly garden near the headquarters. For a more challenging hike, try the six-mile Wolf Mountain Trail. You’ll be able to cool off along the way in small creeks, and there are several small canyons and scenic overlooks to enjoy.

After all this exercise, you’ll be ready for a big lunch. Bryan’s on 290 (300 East Main Street, 210-483-3272) serves up surprisingly sophisticated dishes in a setting that oozes small-town charm. Standout dishes include the Asian glazed pork loin and Bryan’s half chicken with smoke gouda mac and cheese. The salmon dishes and rack of lamb also regularly receive high praise from loyal customers. Leave room for dessert, though. You don’t want to miss out on the amazing chopped pecan and pear tart with whipped cream.