“We believe, that is, you and I, that education is not an expense. We believe it is an investment.” — President Lyndon B. Johnson, October 16, 1968
There are many ways to get an education, and inside a classroom is only one of them. Another way is to leave the comfort of your home and explore the outdoors. In the spring, Texans often escape the big cities for a day or two and take a drive through the Hill Country. You’ll appreciate those hills in a whole new way when you view them from a bicycle seat. And if you ride the LBJ 100, you’ll learn a little history too.
The 11th annual LBJ 100 Bicycle Tour, presented by the National Park Service and Friends of Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, takes place Saturday, March 24. Online registration is available through March 17. You can also register in person, at the event, but this year registration will be capped at 1,500 riders. The park is located at 199 State Park Road 52.
The tour’s tagline is “A Ride to Preserve History,” and that’s because proceeds raised fund restoration, education and preservation of the national park. The Friends organization has raised $1 million for LBJ National Historical Park over the past decade. In 2011, funds were used to reopen the first floor of the ranch house, dubbed the Texas White House, to the public.
Brent Bailey, the ride chair for a third straight year and one of the trustees of the Friends group, says the funds raised at the ride are more important now than ever.
“With budget cutbacks, all the national parks have seen their budgets reduced drastically. The more Friends can step up and help, the better,” he said.
Currently, the Friends are helping to fund improvements to the old Secret Service command post on the property. Further structural repairs are needed for the Texas White House itself. Because of the former president’s experience as a schoolteacher and his commitment to education, many of the funds raised go toward educating schoolchildren about the history and legacy of LBJ.
“It’s bringing students out to the park, funding programs for them,” Bailey said. “It’s primarily elementary and middle school [students].”
The ride has a two-part history. Luci Baines Johnson, one of the president’s daughters, always enjoyed riding her bike on the property before it was deeded to the National Park Service, following the passing of first lady Lady Bird Johnson. She wanted visitors to have the same opportunity she had always enjoyed — to ride bikes on the ranch in the spring.
Meanwhile, Russ Whitlock, park superintendent, knew of Johnson’s wish. He invited the Hill Country Bicycle Touring Club (the group recently added “and Adventure” to its name) to do a ride there if the proceeds could benefit the Friends organization. The club agreed, and an annual ride was born.
Please note, this is a ride, not a race. There are kids biking with their parents, there are cyclists intent on doing the entire 62-mile/100K route, and there are people like me, who fall somewhere in between. I’ve done the ride twice, both the 30-mile and the 42.
“We have families with little kids, kids in tow-behind trailers. The 10-mile route is relatively easy,” Bailey said. “We have all age groups and all levels of riders. It’s a great way to experience some history and enjoy a great ride through the Hill Country.”
After Luci Johnson welcomes the riders, the ride officially begins at 9 a.m. She leads the procession out of the park to Ranch Road 1, and the LBJ 100 takes off.
If you’ve never seen the LBJ Ranch and think, “Gee, I should really take the time to tour this someday,” you can do just that at 2 p.m., when Johnson leads a separate bicycle stroll around the property. Family members of nonriders are welcome to participate.
“That’s always a big hit,” Bailey said. “Last year there were 100 to 150 riders. She takes them by the family cemetery, by the schoolhouse where [President Johnson] signed a lot of his legislation. They’ll stop at various places on the ranch, and she’ll answer questions.”
At the front of the pack with Johnson will be service members from Operation Comfort. These soldiers from throughout the United States, who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq, are in rehab at either Brooke Army Medical Center or Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital, both in San Antonio. Cycling was the first program implemented for these wounded warriors, and participants do several rides around the state, including the LBJ 100.
The park opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. Breakfast is available for purchase. Bibs and maps will be handed out before the ride begins, and both T-shirts and riding jerseys will be for sale. In case of rain, there are no refunds. The registration fee covers lunch and one beer ticket, plus all the water and iced tea you’ll need after a long ride. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m.
“We’ve got some people who are family members of riders, and they can buy a lunch ticket on their own for $10,” Bailey said. “The family can hang out, tour the [Texas] White House, tour the ranch, while their significant other is out on the ride and then join them for lunch.”
Tours of the Texas White House cost $3 and are not part of the LBJ 100 festivities.
It’s easy to make an entire day of LBJ-related activities. The national park has two districts — one in Johnson City and one in Stonewall. Free maps are available at any of the sites, and they are, frankly, necessary. The Johnson Settlement, the Boyhood Home and the Visitor Center are in Johnson City, and there are no fees to enter those facilities. The Stonewall District, where the ride is held, consists of the LBJ Ranch, the Texas White House and the family cemetery.
To make it even more confusing, right across the Pedernales River from the LBJ national park is the LBJ state park. One of its jewels is the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, which depicts life on a Texas German farm between 1900-1918. Families can watch interpreters do household chores, both in the house and the barn, and learn what life was like 100 years ago.
Both the LBJ state park and the LBJ national park are located right outside Stonewall, halfway between Johnson City and Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg is a popular destination all year, but especially during wildflower season. Regardless of whether there has been rain or not, there are always plenty of colorful blooms at Wildseed Farms. Admission is free, and the farm is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Plants are available for purchase, as are T-shirts and wine from Wedding Oak Winery. The official address is 100 Legacy Drive, but it’s a right turn off Highway 290. More details are available at wildseedfarms.com.
If you’re thinking of going to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area while you’re in the Hill Country, think again. The park often fills up on pretty weekends by 9 a.m. If you still want a lovely hike, head instead to Pedernales Falls State Park, outside Johnson City.
Stonewall is smack dab in the middle of the Texas Wine Trail, and has, I think, some of the best wineries along the Highway 290 corridor. It’s home to Becker Vineyards (beckervineyards.com), Pedernales Cellars (pedernalescellars.com), and Kuhlman Cellars, a daughter vineyard of Pedernales (kuhlmancellars.com). If you drive back through Hye, hit William-Chris Vineyards (williamchriswines.com). Sometimes reservations are required, especially on a beautiful spring weekend.
If wine is not your thing, there are plenty of other libations in the area. Hye is home to Garrison Brothers Distillery (garrisonbros.com), the first legal whiskey distillery in Texas. A newcomer is Hye Rum (hyerum.com), featuring Texas-made artisanal rum. You can taste it all, plus some excellent food, at Hye Market (hyemarket.com), inside the historical Hye Post Office. Each of these establishments is located on or just off Highway 290. But mind the speed limit. It says 55 miles per hour, and it’s enforced.
Johnson City is a growing tourist destination in its own right. Its eight art galleries come together the last Saturday evening of every month for an Art Walk. The galleries are clustered together over a grand total of three blocks, so it’s easy to park and walk from one to another, admiring contemporary, nonbluebonnet-y art and enjoying Hill Country wine. March’s Art Walk will be held the weekend following the LBJ 100.
If you’re looking for a place to eat in Johnson City, I highly recommend Pecan Street Brewing, 106 East Pecan Drive, a brewery and restaurant located on the far side of the square. If you want something fancier, Bryan’s on 290, at 300 East Main Street, looks casual, but you can tell a chef is involved. For a list of B&Bs, hotels and camping facilities, visit the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce at johnsoncitytexas.info, and don’t miss the Local Tips section under the Event Calendar page.
Speaking of tips, I have a few for anyone considering the LBJ 100.
1. Plan to arrive early. Follow the line of cars with bike racks turning in to the ranch. The line gets long, and there’s no way to make it go faster — bring a breakfast taco and get comfortable. You will park along the 1.5-mile air strip where Air Force One used to land; the ride both starts and ends there.
2. The ride is quite crowded at the beginning but thins out considerably after the first rest stop.
3. Speaking of rest stops, the support on this ride is great. The snack tents and water stations at all nine rest stops are well-stocked and well-staffed. If you drain your water bottle, you can refill it. If you eat all your bars, you can have a half a banana or a cookie or a small peanut butter sandwich or, if you’re brave, Gu.
4. A SAG crew (support and gear) and EMS are available, if necessary. Thankfully, I have not needed their services, but I’m happy to know they are there.
5. My favorite rest stop is at Nebgen Historic School, circa 1936, one of three rural schoolhouses on the ride. Depending on which route you take, you’ll also pass Cave Creek School, 1881, and Willow City School, 1905. There are still residents of Gillespie County who remember attending these one-room schools. The Friends of the LBJ organization makes a donation from the proceeds of the ride to support these monuments to history. More information is available at historicschools.org.
6. Registrants will receive a paper map to tuck away, or you can use GPS for the 30-, 42- and 62-mile routes at ridewithgps.com/routes. Profiles link mile markers with elevation for a truly OCD riding experience. The maps also keep you from getting lost down yet another one-lane country road.
7. Perhaps you’ve never ridden your bike over a cattle guard. You will ride over several. Traditional wisdom says to go over them carefully, as they will stop bikes along with bovines. I say go into them with some speed.
8. However, do not follow the same advice if there is water in a low-water crossing. That’s where accidents happen — both to you and to fellow riders. Save your collarbone and either ride through slowly or get off your bike and walk.
9. There will be riders who take this very seriously and riders who don’t. The serious ones mostly do the 62-mile ride.
10. Speaking of the 62, those intrepid souls get to do the famous Willow City Loop, outside Fredericksburg. If you’re in good cycling shape — pros, this route has a category 4 hill — it’s an absolutely gorgeous ride. It’s better to do Willow City with a group because the loop is a narrow, windy road packed with cars on spring weekends. The day of the ride, cyclists will have the right of way.
11. Another tip about Willow City: There are signs that say Keep Off and No Trespassing. Trust me, don’t mess with Gillespie County property owners.
12. Cyclists and drivers, always watch for deer. You are never safe from a stampeding whitetail that decides to cross your path at the worst possible moment, like when you’re careening down a hill with a tight corner.
13. There will be roadkill. Hold your breath, then move on.
14. A note about elevation: Waco’s is 470 feet above sea level. Johnson City’s is 1,198. That 728 feet makes a tremendous difference. The highest point on the ride is 1,809 feet. Do as many hills as possible before the ride, or temporarily move to Denver and the elevation won’t bother you at all.
15. Sunscreen! Sunscreen! Sunscreen!
16. You never know what unexpected surprise awaits. Last year there was a marriage proposal at the starting line. Even if you don’t get that lucky, you will get a day of back roads and Texas history. It’s what spring in the Hill Country is all about.