This is the second post in a three-part series from contributor Dave Zuchowski on his road adventures in the Texas Heartland. The first post is here.
Leaving behind the urban landscape of Austin with oodles of pleasant memories, I continued my Texas roadtrip to the Texas Hill Country and the colorful town of Fredericksburg. While the Hill Country encompasses a 25-county region in Central Texas, I limited my visit to the much smaller area of Gillespie and Llano Counties. The latter proved to be a journey of discovery and a look at a very diverse set of attractions.
1. Texas Hill Country has presidential roots
The Hill Country and the Johnson City area is the home of our nation’s 36th president—better known as Lyndon Baines Johnson. Be sure to allow plenty of time to get a good look at all the Johnson-related sites in the area, for there are several of them. A good place to begin is the Visitor Center in Johnson City, where you can watch films on the lives of both LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird.
From there, pick up a site map and head over to Johnson’s boyhood home, where he lived between the ages of five and 26. The house has been restored to the era of the 1920s. Before heading west 14 miles to the LBJ Ranch, tour the buildings of the Johnson Settlement on the edge of town. These include a dog-trot cabin, where the president’s grandfather brought his bride in 1867, two barns (one built by a relative) and a windmill, water tank and cooler house—essential structures on any well-managed ranch.
Allow even more time (perhaps two hours) to explore the LBJ Ranch District. Start at the Visitor Center to pick up a free driving permit and then head off to the Junction School, where the former president attended class in this simple one-room building. Before heading to the Texas White House, take a look at LBJ’s reconstructed birthplace, then walk across the road to the Johnson family cemetery where the former president and Lady Bird are buried along with several generations of the Johnson family.
Tours of the Johnson Ranch House —located on the banks of the Pedernales River—come with a modest fee. Tickets can be purchased at the Airplane Hangar Visitor Center. Be sure to check out the Lockheed Jetstar, one of five Johnson used to fly into the ranch. Due to their small size, he jokingly referred to them as “Air Force One-Half.”
Across the river, the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm is included in the historic park and shows how Texas-German families lived at the turn of the 19th century. Billed as a real working farm, visitors can watch costumed interpreters milk the cows, gather eggs, slop the hogs, and can and butcher (in season).
2. It boasts the world’s largest wildflower farm
Lady Bird Johnson, who led a campaign to beautify America by sowing wildflowers along the highways, would be pleased by Wildseed Farms, 200 acres of meadows with a half-mile of walking trails that wind through the trial gardens. A huge assortment of wildflower seeds may be purchased in Blossoms Boutique along with related items. Outside, the Lantana Nursery is one of the largest for retail plants in Central Texas.
If you get hungry or thirsty, the Brewbonnet Biergarten serves up beer, award-winning wines, sandwiches, and more. Each year more than 350,000 visitors stop by to visit the farm, located seven miles east of Fredericksburg on Highway 290. Something is blooming in the meadows March through November, but April is peak color time.
3. Texas is the nation’s fifth-largest wine producer, and the Hill Country produces 40% of all Texas wine
The Fredericksburg area boasts 30 wineries, but you can shorten your visitation list to 15 by following Route 290 from Johnson City to Fredericksburg. For a map of the wineries, go to wineroad290.com.
I personally prefer to go wine-tasting as part of a guided tour. Leaving the driving to someone else is a great way to avoid a DUI or worse. The visitfredericksburgTX.com website lists 16 wine tour operations, some of which can be customized to fit individual tastes and preferences. Several companies allow imbibing in the van, and many pick you up and drop you off wherever you’re staying. Most tour companies visit an average of four wineries, and each provides samples that add up to the equivalent of a five oz. pour.
For more Texas wine, the Cabernet Grill in Fredericksburg not only serves award-winning Texas Hill Country cuisine but also has the largest Texas-only wine list in the nation, with 75 different selections from around the state.
4. Colorful Luckenbach was made famous by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson
Remember the 1977 #1 Country hit, “Luckenbach, Texas,” a.k.a. “Back to the Basics of Love”? Well, Country pickin’ circles still thrive inside the general store of the Luckenbach village with a ghost town vibe, where visitors nuzzle up to the bar for a beer and listen to a group of locals taking turns playing in the quaint confines of the charming old building.
Concerts are often held outdoors on an open-air stage around which music lovers sit under a big old oak tree. If you want to two-step on old sawdust wooden floors, then head on over to the dance hall for an unforgettable experience.
5. Enchanted Rock is the nation’s second-largest batholith
So what’s a batholith, you ask? An underground exposed rock formation.
About 17 miles north of Fredericksburg, the enormous pink granite dome that is Enchanted Rock has wowed those who come for a visit since the era of the Native Americans, who attributed magical and spiritual properties to the formation. Rising 425 feet above the surrounding countryside, Enchanted Rock isn’t an easy climb to the top. It’s steep, but fortunately not slippery, except when wet. Don’t expect to find marked trails on the ascent or benches to sit and rest on, either.
With an incredible view and bragging rights for those who get to the top (it’s really not that difficult), Enchanted Rock is very busy, especially on weekends when the crowds from Austin and San Antonio start a traffic jam into the park starting around 10 am. My advice is to get there early (no later than 9am).
6. Fredericksburg was founded by German immigrants in 1846
Named after Prince Frederick of Prussia, Fredericksburg still evokes cultural elements of its ethnic past in the form of food (Opa’s smoked sausage, German-style beer at the Fredericksburg Brewing Company, the Old German Bakery…), historic buildings, Texas German patois, and customs like its annual Oktoberfest and Schuetzenfest (shooting fest).
To immerse yourself in the German heritage of the area, visit the Pioneer Museum, a 3.5-acre complex on Main Street where hundreds of everyday articles are shown in 11 buildings, two of which occupy their original site from as early as the 1850s.
Two blocks away, in the Marktplatz, the Vereins Kirche (“Society Church”) is a replica of the town’s first public building, which served as a church, school and community center for decades.
7. It’s the home of the stellar National Museum of the Pacific War
Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was born in Fredericksburg, which partly explains the rationale for locating the National Museum of the Pacific War in town. The museum opened in 1967 after a group of businessmen went to Nimitz and proposed establishing the museum in his grandfather’s hotel on Main Street. At first the admiral declined but eventually agreed providing it be dedicated to the men and women who served under him.
Today the museum has grown exponentially and now sits on six acres with more than 50,000 square feet of exhibit space. It is the only museum in the continental U.S. dedicated exclusively to telling the story of the Pacific battle of World War II. Artifacts, videos, photos, maps, and more combine to make an interesting experience that can fill up several hours of adventurous exploring. There’s so much in the museum that the admissions ticket is good for 48 hours. Most people on a tight time schedule should allow between two and four hours for even a cursory walk through.
In part 3: 7 things you should know before you visit San Antonio.
For more: For more information on the Fredericksburg area, check out visitfredericksburgTX.org or phone 830-997-6523.
All photos credited to Bill Rockwell except where noted.