Falling for the Pedernales The Pedernales beckons pioneers of the past, present, and future

Story by Daniel Blue Tyx // Photographs by Tom McCarthy Jr.

Rising from crystalline springs west of Fredericksburg, the Pedernales River meanders just 106 miles through the Hill Country before emptying into Lake Travis. Yet within its short course, the river crosses a multitude of landscapes, from rolling ranchland to steep limestone canyons. Each topography in turn has its own story to tell, from 10,000-year-old artifacts to hardscrabble German settlements and the birthplace of the nation’s 36th president.

“Here is where I would always return, to the Pedernales River, the course of my childhood,” reminisced Lyndon B. Johnson in a quote inscribed at his namesake state park and historic site. Another LBJ quote on a nearby plaque reinforces the Pedernales’ influence, not just on the former president, but on its inhabitants throughout time: “It is impossible to live on this land without being a part of it, and without being shaped by its qualities.”

My family of four had briefly visited the Pedernales area once before and was immediately taken by the beauty of the river’s aquamarine path through hills of limestone and juniper. This time around, we planned a longer visit that would allow more time to explore Pedernales Falls State Park’s 5,212 acres and the historical and cultural attractions that line the river valley. Along the way, we hoped to follow in the footsteps of LBJ (the only modern president who was born and died within a mile of the same place) and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, learning about the elemental pull this land held for the first couple and maybe experiencing that magnetism for ourselves.

Our home base for the long weekend was Flat Creek Crossing Ranch, located next to the state park, which offers eight rustic cabins along with its own network of trails and a beach on Flat Creek, a tributary of the Pedernales. We’d booked the Cactus Cabin, which was decorated with succulents planted in rusted iron wagons on either side of the front steps. Upon arrival, though, we found the cabin’s real feature attraction was a rooftop deck affording a spectacular view of the surrounding hills and the distant outline of the Pedernales itself.

Writer Daniel Blue Tyx and his wife, Laura, explore Pedernales River State Park with their two children.

Feeling the call of the river, we hopped back into the car and headed for the state park and a place marked “beach” on the map the ranger handed us. After a walk on the gravel path leading down from the parking lot, we jettisoned our shoes and let the river’s spring-fed chilliness wash away any remaining irritation from our car trip. The clear water’s swift current was fast enough to excite our son and daughter (ages 7 and 5) but not enough to make their parents worry.

Feeling cool and refreshed, we headed in the direction of Dripping Springs, about 15 miles away, in search of dinner. Our quest was interrupted, though, by the intriguing sight of a Tuscan-style villa bounded by rows of olive trees. We’d happened upon the Texas Hill Country Olive Company, where a resident olive oil sommelier provided an impromptu lesson on proper sampling technique: swirl, sip, slurp, swallow.

“It is impossible to live on this land without being a part of it, and without being shaped by its qualities.” —Lyndon Baines Johnson

The company’s owners, father-and-daughter team John and Cara Gambini, are native Texans of Sicilian ancestry. “The Dripping Springs area reminds us so much of what Sicily and Tuscany look like, and there’s a certain romance to the Hill Country just like with those places,” John said. “Even though our climate isn’t Mediterranean, we have plenty of sunshine and enough cool nights. The trees just love it here.”

Loaded down with gift-wrapped jars of olive oil, we continued along our way, the sun setting over the Hill Country in a blaze of colors. Night had fallen by the time we arrived at Treaty Oak Distilling Co. Following a quick tour of the grounds—which include the distillery itself, a tasting room, playground, and music stage—we settled beneath the branches of an enormous oak, feasting on family-style helpings of barbecue and fixings from the on-site Ghost Hill Restaurant. The children rushed to finish so they could get back to the playground fun, while we basked in the moonlight and the tranquil, low-key vibe of a giant outdoor picnic.

The next morning, we arrived at the LBJ State Park & Historic Site in Stonewall just as the ranger was opening the gates.

The writer’s son, Byrdie, at LBJ State Park & Historic Site

Stepping inside, she handed the kids a junior ranger book with a scavenger hunt and a map, which would prove useful in navigating the numerous LBJ sites, both at the state park and the adjacent national park on the Pedernales’ opposite bank.

Our first stop was the state park visitor center, where a museum explores the history of the river valley’s Native American, Spanish, and German settlements through a rich collection of maps, artifacts, historical documents, photos, and even a kid-friendly exhibit about each culture’s cuisine. The first part of the display traced the arrival of Native American hunter-gatherers to the Hill Country more than 10,000 years ago. The arrowheads and other tools they fashioned from the riverbed’s deposits of flint rock eventually inspired the river’s name; Spanish missionaries, arriving from Mexico in the mid-1700s, christened it the “Pedernales” after the Spanish word for flint. The museum also chronicles the arrival of German immigrants in the mid- to late 1800s, some fleeing religious persecution and others seeking economic opportunities—especially the chance to own their own land, since many were farmers. That was around the same time that LBJ’s grandfather and uncle, who were struggling farmers from the Deep South, founded Johnson City as well as the ranch that’s now a park.

The history we learned about in the museum came alive on a visit to the nearby Sauer-Beckmann Farm, a working farm at the state park where visitors can observe the daily activities of a typical late-19th century Texas-German family. The farm preserves the original rock-and-wood cabin where German immigrants Johann and Christine Sauer lived with their 10 children—one of whom was LBJ’s midwife—as well as the Victorian homestead constructed by Emil and Emma Beckmann, who bought the property in 1900.

Daniel's daughter, Ana, at Home Town Donuts in Johnson City.

Miss Berne, a grandmotherly matron dressed in period costume, met us at the gate, along with a sociable calf named Belle. To the children’s delight, Miss Berne—park volunteer Berne Mitton in real life—invited them to help with the chores, starting with collecting eggs from the henhouse. The kids carried the eggs to the kitchen and watched Miss Berne crack them into a bowlful of cookie batter next to a cast-iron stove.

Pulling ourselves from the cozy warmth of the kitchen, we piled back in the car and followed the map’s self-guided tour of both the state and national parks. Among the national park’s many points of interest are LBJ’s modest birthplace, the one-room schoolhouse he attended, the cemetery where LBJ and Lady Bird are buried, LBJ’s ranch—still in operation today—and the airplane hangar that houses Air Force One Half, the pint-size version of the president’s official aircraft specially built to land on the ranch’s short runway.

The tour culminated in a ranger-led visit to the Texas White House, the stately riverside home LBJ retreated to as often as possible during his presidency, sometimes receiving visiting dignitaries there. The Johnsons bought the 1894 home in 1951 and completely remodeled it. After Lady Bird passed away in 2007, the National Park Service preserved the home with many of the furnishings the Johnsons had personally selected. “It’s a typical 1960s ranch home with 1960s furniture and 1960s colors—lots of tangerine and avocado green,” Park Ranger David Graveline said, although he also pointed out that every room, including the bathrooms, had a telephone in case the president needed to be reached in an emergency.

Clockwise from top left: Mark Itz of Sauer-Beckmann Farm; the Science Mill in Johnson City; Texas Hill Country Olive Company; Sauer-Beckmann Farm.

The tour was over, but my daughter insisted we couldn’t leave without a return trip to the Sauer-Beckmann Farm to sample Miss Berne’s delicious chocolate-chunk cookies. Next was lunch in Johnson City at Lady Bird Lane Cafe, which honors the first lady’s conservation-minded legacy with an assortment of healthy menu items including sandwiches and organic mac ’n’ cheese.

The café adjoins the Science Mill, a state-of-the-art science center housed in an 1880 steam grist mill and cotton gin. As the kids dashed from one hands-on exhibit to another, learning about topics such as genetics and computer coding, I admired the way the museum designers had turned the structure’s silos into awe-inspiring exhibit spaces, seamlessly connecting the cutting-edge technologies of two different eras.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Johnson City, stopping by LBJ’s boyhood home—he moved from the ranch to town when he was 5—as well as a National Park Service museum that focuses on the accomplishments of his presidency, with in-depth looks at major pieces of legislation such as the Voting Rights Act. At dinnertime, we walked down the street to Pecan Street Brewing. The kids enjoyed wood-fired pizzas while my wife savored the blackened catfish in jalapeño cream sauce. I had to try the signature pecan sweet fried chicken, complimented by tasting-size samples of house-crafted brews.

My family had visited the Pedernales area once before and was immediately taken by the beauty of the river’s aquamarine path through hills of limestone and juniper.

For our last morning, we still had one more very important stop left to make: the actual Pedernales Falls. Since we’d only made it to the beach during our previous outing to Pedernales Falls State Park, we didn’t know quite what to expect as we reached the trailhead. We’d seen pictures online, but photos didn’t even begin to capture the scope and grandeur of the scene unfolding in front of us as we descended the trail: a giant staircase of 300-million-year-old limestone slabs, some the size of football fields, each miraculously tilted as though a cascade of falling dominoes was suspended mid-tumble. At the bottom of each “stair,” water filled cobalt-blue pools before ultimately rushing into a fiercely churning channel.

The kids played hide-and-go-seek in the moon-like craters the water had worn in the rock, some as big as bathtubs. Meanwhile, hundreds of visitors took in the scenic vista alongside us—and yet in the vast space, it didn’t feel crowded at all.

As we watched the kids frolic, I thought about the significance of LBJ’s words on being shaped by the qualities of the Pedernales. What exactly had he meant? I wasn’t certain, but perhaps it had something to do with the way this landscape reminds us that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves, travelers in a place that existed long before us and will continue to exist long after we pass through.

At last, it was time to climb the path back to our car and begin the long trip home. But before we left, we turned to catch one last glimpse of the river. “When can we come back?” my daughter asked, another reminder of the Pedernales’ enduring pull.

McAllen-based writer Daniel Blue Tyx has always felt drawn to rivers, from the burbling creek near his Ohio childhood home to the mighty Rio Grande. Austin-based photographer Tom McCarthy Jr. loves small towns, sunrises, sunsets, and thunderstorms.


In and Around Johnson City

Pedernales Falls State Park is at 2585 Park Road 6026. Call 830-868-7304.

Flat Creek Crossing Ranch is at 339 Ulrich Road. Reservations can be made for cabins or day use; the grounds include a 10-mile mountain bike trail and a swimming beach. Cabins run about $100 per night. All proceeds support Child Inc., an Austin nonprofit that provides low-income families with comprehensive early childhood education. Call 512-451-7361.

Lady Bird Lane Cafe and the Science Mill are at 101 S. Lady Bird Lane. For the café, call 830-832-7884; ladybirdlanecafe.com; for the Science Mill, call 844-263-6405.

Pecan Street Brewing is at 106 E. Pecan Drive. Call 830-868-2500.

The LBJ National Historical Park’s Johnson City wing is at 100 Lady Bird Lane. Tours of LBJ’s boyhood home are offered every 30 minutes starting at the front porch from 9-11:30 a.m. and 1-4:30 p.m. Call 830-868-7128.

Dripping Springs

Texas Hill Country Olive Company is at 2530 W. Fitzhugh Road. Call 512-607-6512.

Treaty Oak Distillery is at 16604 Fitzhugh Road. Call 512-599-0335.


The Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & Historic Site is at 199 Park Road 52. The Visitor Center offers free driving permits and self-guided tour maps for both the state and national parks.

The Sauer-Beckmann Farm is within walking distance of the Visitor Center. Call 830-644-2252.

The LBJ National Historical Park’s Stonewall wing, which includes LBJ’s birthplace, the one-room Junction Schoolhouse, LBJ’s ranch, and the Texas White House, is on the north bank of the Pedernales adjacent to the state park. Tickets for the half-hour Texas White House Tour, which run from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., can be purchased at the Airplane Hangar. Adults are $3; 17 and younger are free. Call 830-868-7128.


Tom McCarthy Jr

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