Justin family turns to tourism to create a better life on the farm

Dan Hansen
Don, Dawn and Donna Justin welcome guests from around the world.

SPARTA, Wis. – Farmers, especially those with smaller dairy herds, have faced a number of economic challenges over the last several decades.

Don and Donna Justin were one of the farm couples who found themselves facing low milk prices and high interest rates in the mid-1980s.

Married in 1967, the couple purchased the 200-acre farm from Don’s parents, Ray and Kathryn Justin, in 1970 on a land contract. Don’s grandparents, Gustave and Appalonia Justin originally bought the farm in 1916. Donna, a UW-LaCrosse graduate, taught in the Sparta area schools, while helping Don on the farm.

By 1985, Don and Donna realized the milk from their 30 registered Holsteins wasn’t going to provide a viable income, and they needed to find a new way to make a living if they were going to continue living on the land.

While attending a conference sponsored by Willy Nelson, they learned that tourism could help them utilize their land in a new, more productive, way. They applied for a conditional use permit, teamed up with other area bed and breakfasts to create a brochure, and opened as “Justin Trails Bed and Breakfast” in 1986.

The Elegant Barn hosts micro-wedding with 50 guests.

A good start

Nestled in a private coulee on 200 acres of woodland, hills, and meadows just 6 miles from the Elroy-Sparta State Bike Trail, Justin Trails Bed and Breakfast attracted bicycling enthusiasts who came to ride the very first rails-to-trails bicycle trail in the US.

“The first year they rented 100 rooms for $35 a room,” recalled Dawn Justin, the couple’s daughter who has taken a more active role in the operation since returning to Wisconsin in 2010. Soon, a second bedroom was opened to guests; currently there are three guest suites in the farmhouse.

While attending another conference, the Justins learned that men, especially, would rather stay in a separate building than in someone’s home. So Don and Donna purchased a 250 square foot Scandinavian Scribe log cabin created off-site then reconstructed it on their property. 

“Scandinavian Scribe is a process where logs are scribed then cut lengthwise with a chainsaw to fit perfectly one on top of the other with no nails or glue creating a very sturdy dwelling,” Dawn explained. “Guests named this log cabin “Little House on the Prairie” because it reminded them of the cabin on the TV show.”

Next, Don and Donna recruited a group who wanted to learn how to build a Scandinavian Scribe log cabin.

“They peeled aspen logs harvested from our farm and cut them in the Scandinavian Scribe style to create a two-story 1,000 square foot log cabin that sleeps six, has two bathrooms with showers, a double whirlpool, fireplace, porch, balcony and a full kitchen,” said Dawn. “Guests gave the cabin the name “Paul Bunyan” because of the enormous size of the logs.”

Over the years, many of the farm buildings have been renovated: the granary became the Cottage, the chicken coop became the Camping Cabin the machine shed became The Lodge, with a commercial kitchen, where breakfast is served to guests daily.

Justin Trails Resort

As more activities and attractions became available to guests, the family changed the name from “Justin Trails Bed and Breakfast” to “Justin Trails Resort.”

Over the years, many of the farm buildings have been renovated: the granary became the Cottage, the chicken coop became the Camping Cabin, the machine shed became The Lodge, with a commercial kitchen, where breakfast is served to guests daily from 7:30 to 10 a.m. The 1919 post-and-beam barn was transformed into The Elegant Barn for hosting weddings and other events.

“We upscaled our three-car garage into the Camping Cottage this year, which opened June 5,” Dawn noted. “There are five kinds of wood on the walls – walnut, spalted maple, cherry, basswood and oak – all harvested from our farm and all tongue and groove. It sleeps four, in two bedrooms with king-size beds and doors that lock. Until now our lodging for more than two people has been open concept.“ 

The Justins upscaled their three-car garage into the Camping Cottage, with walls covered with five kinds of wood – walnut, spalted maple, cherry, basswood and oak – all harvested from the farm.

The cropland has been converted to certified organic farm production, with restoration work on the surrounding woodland.

“Farm tours are offered during the warm seasons along with yoga retreats and disc golf tournaments on our two disc golf courses,” said Dawn.

A 10-mile trail system developed in 1985 allows guests to enjoy snowshoeing, hiking, running, fat tire biking or making up their own adventures.

“We are a pet-friendly Wisconsin getaway, and our property offers a great opportunity for dogs to run off-leash far away from any roads or traffic,” emphasized Dawn.

Year-round activities

During winter months Justin Trails Resort offers snowshoeing and snow tubing. Access to the trail system is included for lodging guests; for day visitors the $10 trail pass includes disc golf.

Snow tubing is available on two groomed hills, one 600-foot steep hill great for a fast ride and one 1,200-foot long fun, great for little kids. 

“We provide a variety of small and large snow tubes which are included with the Trail Pass, or bring your own tubes,” she said. “If you can walk, you can snowshoe, no experience is necessary. All you need is a pair of snowshoes, which can be rented for $5, warm clothes, sturdy boots and a sense of adventure. We have snowshoes for adults and children.”

Justin Trails resort is also a popular destination for bird watchers.

“More that 69 bird species have been identified on our property,” she noted. “These include several species of woodpeckers, flycatchers, various thrush and vireo species, scarlet tanagers and various warbler species. Owls and raptors are also often seen or heard."

Resident llamas are also there for guests to enjoy.

“They are super easy to care for and don't need to be walked or brushed,” said Dawn. “We give them fresh water and food twice a day. They have three fenced-in areas where they eat grass. About 2003, pet llamas Dusty and Rusty came to live with us when they were 6 months old. Over the years we have taken these llamas for treks to The Rock or to The Pond with our overnight guests and school groups. Baby llamas Porter and Stout, born in September, came to live with us this June.”

Being innkeepers has proven to be a satisfying lifestyle for the Justin family, as they enjoy providing a peaceful retreat for guests from all over the world. Don continues to enjoy maintaining the grounds, along with part-time seasonal help, sharing jokes and his quick wit, while Donna manages the inn and events. As a testament to their hard work – the Justin Farm received the Century Farm Award in 2016 at the Wisconsin State Fair.

The Resort is located 30 miles east of La Crosse, 13 miles south of Fort McCoy, 5 miles south of I-90 Sparta Exit 25, For more information, or to make reservations, visit their website: www.justintrails.com, or call 608-351-1001.