I've grown aggravated with hotels. For a recent trip, we stayed at a B&B, Justin Trails Resort, outside Sparta in Monroe County. As the owners say, this is a "healing refuge for recreation, relaxation and rejuvenation for our guests." When you stay at Justin Trails, you stay at a well-appointed working farm nestled in the hills of Monroe County with tons of trails and a with a vista that is simply remarkable, from any compass heading.
By Ed Marek, editor
May 18, 2008
We were on our way from Wausau to St. Louis in late April 2008, and wanted to explore Monroe County and then slide down the Mississippi River to look around some more. The plan was to end up in Dubuque, Iowa, rest, and then make the "St. Louie Run."
I've grown aggravated with hotels, because they won't take puppies, and they are all the same. So for this trip, I searched B&Bs using the web site of the Wisconsin B&B Association. I was surprised to learn how many B&Bs in this pet-lovers state also won't take pets. Boo to you all. But this turned out to be our good fortune, because I found Justin Trails Resort just outside Sparta, which looked like a good place to stay in a good location for exploring the county. Little did I know what a top-flight choice I made.
Donna and Don Justin, as hospitable and hard-working as they come.
For a city boy, stopping at Justin Trails was one of the great delights of life. Donna and Don Justin own it and run it. They describe what they have done as well as it can be said:
"Our mission is to honor the land, environment and create a healing refuge for recreation, relaxation and rejuvenation for our guests."
Man oh man, is that the truth. When you stay at Justin Trails, you stay at a well-appointed working farm nestled in the hills of Monroe County with tons of trails and a with a vista that is simply remarkable, from any compass heading. I commend the Justin's web site to you. You can get a lot more detail than I will provide here. The web site is very comprehensive.
This was our first visit to Monroe County. All I can say is this county is a must visit county, one among several fun areas in the state's southwest.
As I said, I plucked Justin's Trails from the B&B Association's list. I did not tell my wife much about it, other than it was in Sparta. As we drove through Sparta, she kept waiting for me to pull in a driveway and register someplace. I turned south out of Sparta on Hwy 27 and headed into the country. We passed through Leon, and the wife was a bit perplexed, though she was adoring the scenery. The weather was fabulous. I then hooked a right on CH J and now she was perplexed, as we were heading deeper into the countryside. Then I stopped at a long drive into what appeared to be a farm, and said:
"There she is!"
My wife, Marcia, said, "What?"
I replied, "There she is, see the barn, it says 'Justin Trails.' "
She was incredulous that "City Boy-Marriott Lovin' Ed" had brought her to a farm. So I stopped at the entrance, and asked, "Do you want me to turn around and go somewhere else?" I knew the reality to be that Marcia loves farms, would give her left leg to live on one. So she said no, drive on in there, and allowed that she was just very surprised. As we drove in we were both laughing like a couple of kids. Marcia was super excited, and so was I.
This is the barn scene on the left side of the entrance. It is a working farm. The Justins rent out the land to farmers. They stay focused on the B&B operation, which amounts to a lot of work. This barn was built in 1919 for Gustave Justin from oak lumber sawed from the property. It measures 36 x 100 feet. It housed horses on one side and dairy cattle on the other side. In 1961 Ray Justin upgraded to Grade A dairy so a milk house was built inside the barn with concrete blocks. Don Justin remodeled the barn for 50 head of dairy animals. It now houses Don's woodshop, storage, garden supplies and hay for the llamas.
This is a view of the right side of the entrance. From left to right, you see a garage, a yellow 1920's Foursquare house and a log cabin, named Paul Bunyan. These latter two structures are for guests. There are more. For example, if you look carefully to the right of the Yellow house, you can see the roof of the Little House on the Prairie, also a log cabin. Behind the Yellow house is yet another set of accommodations, called the Granary, which you cannot see. And the yellow house has three suites in addition to the Justin's living quarters.
Here is another view of the complex. It's very nicely laid out, compact yet with a wide open feeling with all that beautiful land surrounding it.
Again, from left to right, the Paul Bunyan, the Yellow Foursquare, the Little House on the Prairie, the red barn, the Granary and off the right, and an area for the two llamas whom we shall show you in a moment. Remember, it is April so the trees are just starting to bud. There is an incredible amount of land out of the photo to the right which we'll show in a moment. This truly is a resort, not just a B&B.
Before getting into the surrounding landscape, I'd like to highlight each accommodation.
This is the front entrance to the yellow 1920s Foursquare House, which I call "The Yellow House." There is a main living room for everyone on the first floor, and two suites on the second floor, the Presidential and Lona's Suites. Just to the right in this photo you see a little porch-like section. That is the Garden Suite, where we stayed. Let's take a look at that.
I really hate to tell you this, because we want to be the only ones in the world to know about it, but this Garden Suite is fantastic. The porch is an enclosed porch, with chairs and tables, where you can sit, relax and look out at this view in the next photo.
There is garden with table and chairs, and then the terrain of Monroe County in the distance. If you can't relax here, you can't relax anywhere. I am one who has always said I have to overlook water to be happy. Not so here.
Inside the Garden Suite, in a separate room, is the bedroom which boasts a larger than king king, with adjustable mattress settings, and a very nice private bath. This room is for two and a puppy. We slept like logs.
This is the Paul Bunyan. It is a log cabin of Aspen logs and cedar floors. It has a porch on the back side, a queen on the first floor, a king on the second floor. I would bring my wife and puppy, and then one of my daughters, husband and grandchild here, or pack in both my daughters and husbands and slide me and Marcia over to the Garden Suite so I don't have to listen to 19 month old grand-daughter fuss!
This is the Little House on the Prairie, another log cabin, this one built of Jack Pines. I have not captured it well here, but as you sit out on the front porch, you look west into the surrounding hills, massive greenery and farm fields for a hugely spectacular view. This porch is made for a brewski or ten! I could slide over here too if I wanted something a little larger than the Garden Suite. This is a hiding place for a twosome, with kitchenette, which the Garden Suite does not have.
Here is the Granary. Between the two shrubs, you can see a deck. The deck gives you a similar view to that of the Little House on the Prairie's porch. The Granary has two bunk beds and a queen, so there's plenty of room for a family.
There's one more building I want to show you before we head out into the landscape.
The green building to the left, across from the garage, is the office and breakfast area. It's really neat inside, as you might expect. Here's one view.
You can see the kitchen to the rear, there is a very small office at the other end out of the photo, and tables and booths to the left. While we were visiting, both Don and Donna sat down on the blue sofa and we all got to know each other better. It was fun.
Now let's spend some time outside.
We'll first walk out to visit the two llamas, who are located just behind the houses.
There you see the two llamas, my wife, Marcia, feeding one, and Cricket, on watch, loving the grass and the smells.
They are both gelded males. That's Dusty to the left, and Rusty to the right. The Justins leave out food for their guests to feed to them.
Marcia is feeding the llamas. She remarked that Rusty would always shove Dusty out of the way to get to the food and deprive Dusty of same. We mentioned this to Donna and she said Dusty has been known to do the likewise, so no more feeling sorry for Dusty! Marcia devised several deceptions and maneuvers to get some food to Dusty, but Rusty was tough to beat.
While Marcia worked with the llamas, an activity young "Queen Beth Sheba" Cricket did not like, I and Cricket sat down on a comfortable log stool out in the green, the breeze flowing through, just loving it all. Bloodpressure has dropped tenfold.
As Crickie and I sat on the stump, this is what we were looking at.
This is a Mapquest aerial view of the resort. I do not know exactly where the Justin's property ends. But I do know a few things. You can see the houses and entrance center right with the entry drive off CH J. The lighter areas are those that are farmed. The Justins have done a very unique thing, at least unique to me. They have laid out a grass "golf course" and they have multiple walking and bike trails hacked out throughout the forested areas. I have "golf course" in quotes, because it is actually a "Disc Course," actually two 18 hole disc courses. By disc we mean "frisbee." I had never seen this before and was amazed.
There are small tee pads that serve as the beginning for each hole, fairways of cut grass, and then baskets that serve as the pin or pole hole. These baskets sometimes are out in the open, and sometimes deep in the forest. The objective is to throw the disc into the basket. I'll show you more on this in a moment.
In the aerial photo, the classic course at Justin's starts on the green fairway just above the tree line in the lower left quadrant, and extends to the left, or west, through the valley for about a mile. The Justins say it takes about two hours to play this course. They have just installed a Big Brother course, which starts on that wide green right of center in the photo, upper right quadrant, and extends as a curve to the west and into the forest. This sweetheart is about three miles long and takes about three hours to play. Don took us for a ride over the classic course, into the forest, and out and back along the Big Brother course. There are no golf carts. You walk this course, on the flats, and up and down the hills and gorges. I was mesmerized by all this.
If you just wish to stroll around without heavy-duty climbing, you can do that as well, and take a nice walk to Dawn's Pond and back. We'll show the pond in a moment.
This is the Justin's Polaris Ranger. Don took Marcia, Cricket and me through the course and into the outback. This baby is all terrain with good power, and thankfully, she holds well to the tough terrain. Don let me drive it for a bit and I was in Seventh Heaven! Anyway, let's head out.
We've just left the area of the accommodations. That's Rusty's and Dusty's fenced area in the center, and we're looking up one of the hills behind the resort complex. As you can see, the weather was terrific.
This is a look at the fairway. There's a basket-putting area just left of center for disc golf, and another up the hill. Let's try to zero in on those to show you the baskets.
Here you can see a basket at the bottom, and one on top the hill. Think of those as putting greens. Your objective is to fling your disc, use the chains as a kind of backboard, and let that disc drop into the basket below. Just as on a golf course, you can see a sign describing the next hole.
We're on the course heading to the west, looking down the fairways. The Justins keep this grass cut just as would be done at a golf course. I bet this would be even more fun if corn were growing high on both sides! An errant throw could get your disc way in there.
As we head down the fairway, a look off to the right up a hill.
A bit further, another view up the hill. I'll zoom in on the upper left quadrant, because there's some neat stuff up there.
Right of center, you see a lookout tower. Guests can climb up there and enjoy Nature. Those two white spots left of center belong to the top and bottom of a disc basket.
Our Polaris keeps on truckin'. At center, you're looking at that same lookout tower from a different angle. There's also another basket to right of center. Let's zoom on these.
Here you see the tower to upper left and the basket on the putting green to lower right.
Welcome to Dawn's Pond, created in 1961 as a conservation effort for watershed management. The basket for Hole 11 is on the other side of the pond. Let's look at her.
There's the basket. We think the tee is up the hill in that green area. It is about a half mile walk from the main resort to the pond. So that would be a nice stroll from the houses over fairly flat land in the valley, then stop and enjoy the pond and surroundings, and then a stroll back. Of course, if you wish, you can head up into the forested area on trails through there.
Okay sports fans, now we're going to head into the forest, but this Old Man is on the Polaris Ranger with Don at the wheel. The Big Brother Disc Course goes in there. We didn't know it at the time, but Don was going to drive us all the way in and to a point known as Gerry's Peak or "The Rock." So here we go.
We'll now start our hike up the final section of the trail to Gerry's Peak, also known as "The Rock."
Marcia and Cricket are on the climb. It is not hugely steep, but there is a climb involved. I told Marcia to take it slowly, one step at a time, momentarily straighten each leg, momentarily lock the knee, and then relax and take the next step. That's what they told is to do when climbing the Rockies in Idaho during my Air Force survival school, and it works. That momentary knee-lock gives your leg just enough rest to motivate it to press on.
I was leading the way, Don was right behind me, and I thought I had reached The Rock. Wrong, Don said, still got a ways to go. Okeydokey!
But I stopped to catch a breath, and enjoy the view from here. That's looking to the southeast. Remember, it's April.
Well, this might not have been "The Rock," but it was a heck-uva neat rock nonetheless. It's largely limestone.
The rock formation here was so fantastic that I probably could have taken 20 shots of it. I wished I knew something about the geology here. In this environment, standing on the trail, with a steep cliff to my right, a great view all around me, the fresh breeze, it's an awesome feeling for those of us who are no mountain climbers and seldom get to do something like this.
So, upwards and onwards everyone goes, because that was not "The Rock."
Here she is, "The Rock," or "Gerry's Rock." You can see we are really on top of a narrow ridge. We'll first take some closer looks at The Rock, and then some views of Monroe County from about 1,200 ft. elevation.
As you stand up here, you can easily be overwhelmed by the beauty of Nature and the wonder of Monroe County and Wisconsin. It makes you proud.
Let's head down the hill and show you more.
Sorry to botch this photo with an arrow, but that arrow points to a church. If you squeeze your eyes to their maximum, standing from where we were standing, you can see the church's steeple on that ridge. It turns out Don's grandfather helped build the wooden altar for it. Let's have a little fun and zoom in on her.
Plain as the day. Without question, on our way out of Justin Trails later in the day, we had to "escape and evade" and get over there. Here she is up close.
That church we saw from "The Rock" at Justin's Trail is St. Mary's Ridge Roman Catholic Church, at the intersection of Cty U and F, between Norwalk and Cashton. The church was founded in 1856 and is one of Wisconsin's oldest. I commend her web site to you, as it has marvelous photos of her interior. I would commend another web site to you discussing this, presented by the Institute of Christ the King. If you go to these web sites, you'll see her magnificent altar. Don Justin's grandfather participated in building it. Father Willibald Hackner, originally from Germany, came to St. Mary's Ridge Church after a stint in La Crosse. He loved it so much that the whole family came to the US. His younger brother, Egid, was an artist and opened an altar factory in La Crosse, dedicating his first work to his brother. He designed and built a Neo-Gothic altar, which is awesome. It is unusual to see such an altar in a Catholic church any more, as most have been removed in favor of a more simple setting. I for one miss these kinds of altars.
Well, let's get back to Justin's Trails and our way down from The Rock.
As we wove our way through the forest trail, we spotted this lookout, a great place to sit and enjoy Nature's offerings. I think Don said his brother built it. Good idea.
The forest here was dense. I should have taken photos of the Disc Golf baskets on the Big Brother course through this forested area. Don pointed them out to us. You'll just have to take my word that if you think you're pretty hot in this Disc Golf sport, you've got to try your hand at the Big Brother course. There are plenty of baskets in here. Not only do you have to shoot some great shots through the forest's dense cover, you have to climb your way through!
In the center of this photo, there is one each giant Cottonwood. Don pointed her out to us and was quite proud of her. I must confess in advance I became infatuated with her, as you'll see.
This is a close-up of the base of her trunk.
When I get locked in on something, I'll beat her to death as the saying goes. Don drove us right by that big Cottonwood and I took this shot of her trunk from the Polaris. I was taken with the huge "slit" in her trunk. Please bear with me as I give you a closer look at part of that.
I could kick myself for not getting out of the Polaris. I should have stuck my camera in there and gotten an inside view. I didn't do that, so instead, I pulled every photo enhancement trick I know to get some sense of what's in there. Arborist students could have a field day here. Perhaps one of you can use the enhancement below to explain what's in there that enables the tree to stay alive, or, perhaps presents a threat to the tree's longevity.
Here is an enhanced view in there. It's now July 28, 2009 and I've learned that this old tree's days are numbered. Justin Trails has reported this:
"The majestic old cottonwood visible from our buildings is showing signs of numbered days. The large vertical open slit where I could put ¾ of my cross country ski pole is narrowing. Signs of surviving a forest fire are evident in the interior. Another slit has developed about 10 inches away. As the wind blows the slits are gliding back and forth and the dead interior wood is shifting. We appreciate this majestic tree for gracing our woodland."
We continue on our way down. It is neat taking this tour in April, because you can see through the foliage out to great distances. It must be marvelous, though, to see everything in full bloom and feel the density of the forest and its beauty under the canopy.
At some point Don turned over the Polaris to me for my "rookie run", and I stopped taking photos of the way down. I think this was when we pulled out of the forest and headed down the fairway again, just before I took the helm.
Following this tour, we left and headed out on our exploration of Monroe County with the ultimate destination of hitting St. Louis. At the end of the day, we stayed at another B&B in Dubuque. I will not do that again. Next time I will use Justin Trails as my home base, and head out in all directions from there, returning every night to sip a cool one on my porch in one of Justin's accommodations.
Until next time. Goodbye folks!