Trip Report: Justin Trails Resort - Sparta, WI
Updated: Dec 4, 2022
We recently spent a weekend at Justin Trails Resort, a dog-friendly bed and breakfast located on a former dairy farm. Justin Trails is about a 3 hour drive from the Twin Cities, and the resort sits on over 200 acres of mostly forested land in the Driftless region of Wisconsin. When we weren’t hiking on property, we spent time exploring the nearby cities of La Crosse and Sparta. Read on for our recommendations and weekend itinerary!
We arrived at Justin Trails Resort around 6pm on Friday and checked in with Donna, one of the owners. The Justin Trails Resort land has been in the Justin family for over 100 years and it’s been a bed and breakfast since the early 1990s. The Justins hosted us in the Sunrise Cottage, their newest luxury cabin (completed in November 2021), for the weekend. This resort is not your typical B&B - while there are some traditional suites in the big house, visitors can also stay in Scandinavian scribe style log cabins, “glamping” setups, or at the many campsites scattered around the property. All of these options are dog friendly for any breed - no weight limits!
The Sunrise Cottage had two bedrooms with king beds, a bathroom, and an open concept living room/kitchenette space, plus sliding doors out to a large covered porch with seating. We especially appreciated the large entry area that functioned as a mud room of sorts - it had tons of hooks for us to keep coats and leashes organized and was well-stocked with two big baskets full of “dog towels” for drying off muddy paws and wet tummies. For dinner, we’d come prepared with Black Bean Chili almost ready to go, so we let the Instant Pot do its pressure-cooking thing while we unpacked and settled in. We got a fire going in the living room (another button push - so easy) and cozied up with our dinner and some wine.
After a great night’s sleep, we were up and at ‘em and ready to see all that Justin Trails had to offer! We started the day off with the breakfast part of “bed and breakfast” and enjoyed homemade granola and muffins, yogurt, fruit, french toast, and adventurous eggs in the Lodge. The Justins have collected press clippings from over the years, and it was fun to peruse the binders detailing the resort’s history while we ate.
After breakfast, Donna gave us a tour of the barn and studio beneath. Although it used to hold several dozen dairy cows, today, the barn has been refinished into a gorgeous event space that seats 150 guests for weddings. I could easily envision stepping outside to take a break from dancing on the upper patio or covered porch, or playing lawn games on the grassy hillside nearby. Below the event space, the studio is an indoor recreation area for guests with a foosball table, library, arcade machine, tv, and plenty of seating.
Once our tour was complete, we hit the trails for our hike, but not without greeting the resident llamas Dusty, Porter, and Stout first. Believe it or not, this was Bert and Ernie’s second encounter with llamas (the first having been at a St. Paul Saints Bring-Your-Animal game last summer), but they were still a bit wary.
Once we were away from the main building compound of the resort, Bert and Ernie got to romp off leash! This was a real treat for them; when we hike at Minnesota state parks, dogs are required to be on leash at all times. On our winter cabin visits when the lake is frozen, Bert and Ernie get to run around off leash on the ice, but it’s a little different than going for a true hike.
They had so much fun sniffing and romping through the woods at Justin Trails. We had the property pretty much to ourselves and didn’t see any other visitors until we returned close to the main area.
There are no roads to worry about - just one small stretch of barbed wire fencing to separate the property from the neighbors’. (Bert managed to run right into this and cut his tongue a little bit, but he was no worse for wear!) The trails line up with the two disc golf courses on property and it was simple to find our way by following the tees and tee boxes.
You may not think “hilly” when you think of Wisconsin farmland, but the Driftless region is full of surprises! This swath of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois was “unglaciated,” meaning it did not experience the same glacial encroachment as the other parts of the Upper Midwest. This geologic anomaly made the Driftless region’s topography markedly different from its flatter, lake-pocked surroundings. La Crosse and Sparta sit within the Coulee area of the Driftless, from the French couler, to flow, in reference to the Mississippi and other rivers and streams nearby. Without glaciers to flatten everything in their paths, the Driftless region is characterized by steep bluffs, rolling hills, and dramatic landscapes carved by rivers over thousands and millions of years. This documentary - Decoding the Driftless - provides lots more info about this relatively unknown region of North America.
We drove about 30 minutes from Justin Trails to La Crosse to visit Grandad Bluff, a great example of the rugged Driftless landscape and a cool spot to look out over three states! Grandad Bluff sits 600 feet above La Crosse, but don’t let the elevation stop you from visiting because you can drive all the way to the top. The recently-renovated city park has ample parking and no stairs, so the excellent views are accessible to all. There are even bathrooms at the top of the bluff. Bert is normally a super adventurous dog and we often have to reign him in when we are hiking terrain with steep dropoffs. As we looked out over the city, Bert peeked over the edge and quickly laid down - his first “fear of heights” moment!
If you’re visiting La Crosse, be sure to swing by 608 Brewing Co for a beer. We sat at the bar and watched some March Madness basketball; our favorite beer was the collaboration they had with one of our favorite St. Paul breweries, Barrel Theory! The brewery is not dog friendly inside, but they have a large patio that welcomes pups. (For more on bringing dogs to breweries, see this post!)
Eagle Watch is a quick but worthwhile stop in La Crosse. This city park is just off I-90 along the Black River, which forks off the Mississippi nearby. From December to March, it’s not uncommon to see dozens of bald eagles hanging out on the ice or in nearby trees at this spot! The water stays more open here for the eagles to fish, and photographers and spectators come to view these spectacular birds. It was challenging to get good pictures without a telephoto lens, but with the naked eye, we counted close to 30 eagles when we visited. The National Eagle Center is about an hour north on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River near Lake Pepin in Wabasha; it’s on our list to visit!
Later on Saturday, we ventured into nearby Sparta, the bicycling capital of America. Sparta has 5 wooden bridges within a short walk (<1 mile) of downtown along Beaver Creek. These bridges are all fairly recent additions to town (the oldest one was built in 2009) and they are linked by a nice bike/walking path. You’ll definitely want to stop for a photo with Ben Bikin, the 32-foot tall World’s Largest Bicyclist statue in the park near the Ben Bikin Bridge. Sparta’s downtown has an adorable farmer’s market setup with permanent booths, lighting, and a small stage; it would be the perfect setting for a European-style holiday market or an Oktoberfest celebration!
After grabbing a quick bite for dinner, we enjoyed a fire and some roasted marshmallows back at the cabin on Saturday night. Justin Trails’ rural setting makes for some great stargazing in clear weather! We heard owls and foxes while we were sitting by the fire, and we had fun using the SkyView app to identify constellations and stars.
When we awoke on Sunday morning, the songbirds were out in force. Fueled by another delicious breakfast, we took Bert and Ernie on a morning hike before we packed up to hit the road. Our hiking route took us around the opposite end of the property than we’d visited the day before, including up a few big hills to the wildlife observation station. We could see for nearly 10 miles in every direction! On Saturday, we’d had similar views from The Rock, another high point on the trails.
The pups really loved charging around off leash. Ernie tends to stay fairly near to us at a walking or slow jogging pace, but Bert prefers to sprint out about 50 feet ahead and then look back over his shoulder as though he’s saying “hurry up!” Even when going up steep hills, Bert is full steam ahead and full speed. Both dogs were so tired after our visit - they definitely got their steps in and got tons of mental stimulation from being able to sniff around in the forest. B&E made a new friend in Heidi, the resident Siberian Husky.
As far as dog friendly vacation destinations go, Justin Trails delivered on everything we were looking for. The cabin setup allowed us to take B&E outside easily and because we were in our own space, we weren’t as concerned about them barking or reacting to hallway noise. We loved our visit to Justin Trails Resort and would gladly return to see the property change with the seasons, perhaps for snowshoeing in the winter or to enjoy the pollinator gardens in the summer. There’s lots more to do and see in the Driftless region of Wisconsin, including several state parks and trails nearby, so we’ll be back to continue exploring!