Dairy farm turns into pampering, rural retreat

Sixty years on Earth, 40 years of marriage, 20 years in business. This is how Donna Justin explains her reasons for celebrating this autumn.

She and husband Don own and operate Justin Trails Resort, about 225 acres near Sparta, a third-generation dairy farm that has been transformed to cater to romantics, nature lovers and silent sport enthusiasts.

We traveled the 5.5 country miles south of I-94, between La Crosse and Tomah, after dusk but had no problem finding the property. Donna urged us to sneak out to the sumacs, away from the yard and building lights, for total darkness and a stellar view of the stars.

Had it been a moonlit night, a quiet hike would have been an attractive option, just as cross-country skiing and sledding on the tubing hill might be on and around Dec. 24, Jan 22 and Feb. 21. Those are full moon dates, the innkeepers note online. So only the snow level is uncertain.

Come daylight, breakfast at The Lodge (a converted machine shed) begins with homemade granola, yogurt and a bowl of fresh fruit – ours was topped with blackberries, picked on the farm. Donna’s culinary trademark is her mandarin orange muffins, which also contain chocolate chips, and a basketful was on the table.

Then came fresh vegetables, thinly sliced and grilled, plus scrambled eggs seasoned with chili powder and cumin. Don did the cooking, and right outside of our breakfast booth was a flutter of hummingbirds, dipping into their own breakfast – the nectar of a feeder.

Guests can head to the nearby Elroy-Sparta trail for bicycling, or kayak/canoe on the La Crosse River, but Justin Trails also has reasons to stay put.

You can walk the former cow paths and other hiking trails, past patches of golden rod and fields of soybeans. Or absorb the panoramic view of Leon Valley, from the top of Gerry’s Peak, and add your initials to the carvings on the limestone rocks.

The farm’s animals attract attention, too. Exercise Heidi and George, the Siberian huskies. Feed Dusty and Rusty, the friendly llamas. Find the barnyard cats. Then test your skill at disc golf.

Disc golf? The 18-basket course was the location for a Professional Disk Golf Association tournament in mid September. The game is like traditional golf, but players use Frisbee-like discs, not clubs/balls, and aim for chain link baskets, not holes in the ground.

Yes, there is a water hazard – a conservation pond that has been around since 1961. A forest, cornfield, narrow passageways and abrupt elevation dips/spikes are other obstacles.

“We gave up farming because we were getting old,” Donna says, with a grin. Ten miles of groomed trails for cross-country skiing was their first diversion for overnight guests, and the area continues to attract American Birkebeiner ski race trainees.

“But then summer became the off-season,” Donna explains, until the 1 1/2- and 3 1/2-mile disc golf courses were designed. The diversion has been a hit with families, people new to the game and serious competitors.

The Justins have worked hard to listen to what their customers want, be it a fireplace and whirlpool bath for two, or pet-friendly accommodations. Unusual dietary restrictions are accommodated; lunch and dinner can be arranged; breakfast can be delivered to a guest’s room.

A converted granary and a log home each are big enough to accommodate a family. The proprietors give one-hour guided property tours aboard their ATV, or the grounds can be viewed on foot or mountain bike.

A masseuse is on call. Online are the farm’s global positioning system coordinates, as well as driving time estimates and directions.

It all was enough to lure “West Wing” actor Martin Sheen and his wife, Janet, whose roomy accommodations are called the Presidential Suite.

For more: www.justintrails.com, 800-488-4521. Justin Trails Resort is at 7452 Kathryn Ave., Sparta, near the intersection of Hwys. 27 and J. Room rates are $115 to $325 per night, including breakfast.

Trail passes are $5 per day, and it is fine to buy one without staying overnight. The area should be a gorgeous blend of autumn colors right about now.

Rolling hills and Amish farms are roughly 15 miles south of Justin Trails. Particularly picturesque is the curvy Highway D, between Cashton and LaFarge, in Monroe and Vernon counties. Several farmers use small, wooden roadside signs to announce their specialties: handcrafted furniture, bakery, produce, woven rugs, quilts.

For a more formal tour of the area, contact Kathy Kuderer at Down A Country Road, two miles east of Cashton at Highway 33. For more: www.downacountryroad.com, 608-654-5318. Tour cost is $50 per family car or van, and tour reservations are required. No tours are given on Sundays.