For the Labor Day weekend, the JJ family had a chance to visit Austin. I wrote about our stay at the Fairmont Austin here. We had one full day to explore the city. Austin has a lot to offer. In the past, we have visited Zilker Park, explored Congress Avenue, and enjoyed food truck offerings. This time, we planned to visit Pedernales Falls State Park and Hamilton Pool Preserve before ending the day at Mount Bonnell. What I did not account for was the COVID situation. At Pedernales Falls, we were greeted with signs that said reserved day passes only; rest should turn back. I was furious with myself for not having checked ahead. There was no cell phone connection, so as Mr. JJ drove us back. En route, I tried to access the Texas parks reservation system. Once logged in, it became clear that the day passes were long gone, not only for that day but for many days ahead!
I then looked up the Hamilton Pool Preserve website and found that it was closed. The park was to reopen on September 8th, but reservations were needed. And swimming in the pool would not be allowed. With both of our top options gone, we were left scrambling for ideas. Of course, we could always go back to explore Zilker Park further or do something along Lady Bird Lake. Both are top-rated attractions in Austin on any given day, and I knew they would be heavily trafficked that weekend.
Way back when Missy JJ was a toddler, we had a read a book about Lady Bird Johnson and her Wildflower Center. I found Lady Bird Johnson’s concern for the environment and her principles very inspiring, and planned to visit the Center one day. Well, that Sunday morning last week was the perfect time to do so. I was a bit skeptical if the rest of the family would enjoy it as much, but they egged me on. The website showed the Center was open, but highly recommended online reservations before the visit. We bought tickets for two pm entry and then proceeded to Congress Avenue. We ordered ahead and picked up lunch to go at Velvet Taco, which offered several vegetarian options: Nashville hot tofu, fried paneer, falafel, and beer-battered cauliflower. We got some combination of these flavors. The kids loved the paneer version, while Mr. JJ and I enjoyed the falafel. Lunch done, we drove to the Center.
The Wildflower Center was founded by Lady Bird Johnson and Helen Hayes in 1982 to inspire the conservation of native plants. It was renamed Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1995. The Center includes an arboretum, several themed gardens, and natural areas. According to its website, “the Center promotes its mission to inspire the conservation of native plants through its internationally recognized sustainable gardens, education and outreach programs, research projects, and consulting work.”
At the reception, Mr, JJ showed the email confirmation, and we were signed in. UT faculty and student members are allowed free admission as the Center is now part of the University of Texas at Austin. The student or faculty member has to reserve a spot still online, but shows their UT ID to access it. We obtained a guide map and were off. There is an audio guide available for the tour, but we didn’t use it. It was a hot afternoon when we went with temperature in the low 90s. There were a handful of other guests visiting. We were asked to use masks while on the grounds and keep socially distant, which we did.
The entrance garden has a cistern that can hold about 12000 gallons of water. It’s part of the rainwater harvesting system in operation at the Center along with the aqueduct that runs from it. For a few minutes, walking along the aqueduct, I felt transported to some European country. The vistas from between the aqueduct pillars were stunning. A wetland pond with Texas aquatic plants at the end of the walk is a quiet place to enjoy some shade while also taking a moment to soak in the garden’s sights and sounds. The central courtyard complex was silent as we walked in. I thoroughly enjoyed the style of the structures throughout the Center. The website states they were influenced by Spanish missionaries and the German settlers of the area. Wood, sandstone, and limestone make for some beautiful buildings. The gift shop and the Wildflower Cafe were both closed at the time of our visit.
We walked further, inwards to the central complex. The profusion of colors in the Hill Country Meadow garden: purple, yellow, green against a blue sky, was just too beautiful to ignore. The stillness of the afternoon was broken a little by the soft breeze sifting through the meadow. To our right, the path led past a seed silo garden. Here the variety of plants on and around the silo seemed to imbue the metal with a life of its own.
Further ahead, we came across themed gardens, each little plot dedicated to different themes, like native grasses, cacti, plants that produce dyes, etc. Very unique and very different from what I have seen in a botanic garden before. There are greenery covered arbors along the edges of this themed garden. We sought refuge there from the relentless heat. As a visitor, I truly appreciated the strategic use of shade and seating in several areas across the Center. Both were achieved in a way that blended with the environs and provided beautiful views.
Beyond the arbors, on one side, were gardens designed to inspire homeowners. Anyone of these could be great ideas for someone looking to build a new home garden. Walking back and beyond, we came across a small wildlife pond and the outdoor pollinator habitat. Here, native species have been chosen to attract and sustain insects and butterflies specifically. We took refuge under the trees’ shade before moving on to a different portion of the Center.
Walking past the way we had come, we took the connecting path to the Savanna Meadow. The observation tower was to our right, but we did not stop to explore it further. The walk around the Savanna was delightful, and a cool breeze helped. There was signage asking to watch for rattlesnakes, so we kept our eyes open. We stopped at the Robb family pavilion to hydrate before moving on to explore the metamorphosis maze, dinosaur creek, and nature’s spiral. There is a trail around this area that other visitors followed. Meanwhile, we walked ahead to the connecting loop that took us back to the central gardens. From there, we accessed the Hill Country Trails. We walked the quarter-mile John Barr trail stopping to refill our bottles along the way. There was hardly anyone on the path with us.
The Arboretum was closed at the time of our visit. So we made our way back slowly to the front entrance. It had been a hot afternoon. But it had been well punctuated by colorful flowers, bright blue skies, buzzing insects, relaxing water features, and unbelievable natural beauty. While we might have missed the beauty of Pedernales Falls, we more than made up with our visit to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Useful details about the Center from its website: 4801 La Crosse Avenue, Austin, TX 78739. Phone: 512-232-0100
- The Wildflower Center is open with admissions limited per hour to maintain safe and appropriate social distancing.
- We highly recommend you reserve an entry time online to guarantee a spot.
- We are currently accepting credit cards only.
- Admission is free for current UT Austin faculty, staff, and students. (But they have to reserve a spot online using nonmember tickets and show UT ID at admission).
- Reservations close one hour before each time frame begins. We ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reserved time frame.
- Your two-hour time frame includes checking in and visiting the gardens. We ask that you leave the Wildflower Center when your time is up.
- Restrooms are open.
- The Gift Store is open Wednesday through Sunday.
- Wildflower Café is currently closed, and no other interior spaces are open.
- Wear comfortable shoes, sunscreen, and hat. Bring refillable water bottle, binoculars, and camera.