Airbnb yurt near the Grand Canyon
In 2011, Louis Herron dropped out of Ball State University, backpacked, and moved west.
Restless for outdoor adventure, the Indianapolis native landed a job washing dishes at a restaurant near Yosemite National Park. He worked his way up to employee recreation, guiding hikes for park employees. After a few months, he landed a similar role at Glacier National Park before moving to Flagstaff, Arizona, just outside the Grand Canyon.
There, Herron spent $2,400 on an acre of land that would eventually house two small homes, his Grand Canyon touring business, and his side business: a 16-foot yurt listed on Airbnb. In August 2020, Herron spent $15,000 to build the yurt and outfit it with amenities including a compost toilet and a sink with a water pump, he says.
Over the past year, Herron has earned $27,600 from yurt rentals alone, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It. The yurt paid for itself in a year, he says.
“I didn’t really like [renting out property] because my idea for the land was, ‘This is going to be my quiet little island,'” Herron, 31, told CNBC Make It. “But I wanted an extra source of income without having to take a nine-to-five or commute anywhere.”
Over the past two years, traffic has remained stable: the yurt is currently reserved until mid-November, according to the Airbnb site. He’s not available 365 days a year anyway: cleaning and maintenance of the rental outside of reservation hours consumes 30 hours of Herron’s schedule per week.
Here’s how Herron juggles his side hustle and his off-grid Grand Canyon business:
A simple experience
The first time Herron stayed in a yurt, at a ski resort outside of Flagstaff, he recognized the “unique energy” of the circular structure. He imitated the skylight of this yurt when he built his, so that the tenants could see the stars.
Building the yurt required more manual labor than Herron expected. He bought the materials from a website in 2020 for $8,000, then spent nine days and $4,000 building a wooden platform for it. Then he spent an additional $3,000 to reinforce the structure: due to strong gusts of wind from Flagstaff, he wanted the yurt to withstand winds of up to 200 miles per hour.
The yurt has no plumbing. Neither did Herron’s two homes on the property. Herron says he constantly monitors his water supply, so he and his guests can drink water, wash dishes, shower and use the restroom on site.
“It’s not as difficult as it seems. Just think outside the box,” he says.
When Herron doesn’t get enough rainwater, he drives five miles to a nearby community well and fills a 200-gallon tank in his truck. It takes him almost a full day to fetch the water, but he says the supply lasts up to four months for him and his guests.
“I could have it delivered, but it costs twice as much and I really enjoy the process,” he says. “It gets a bit meditative for me, and it certainly makes you respect and conserve water a lot more.”
The rental goes directly to Herron’s small tourism business, The Desert Hiking Company: Guests can book Grand Canyon hikes at discounted rates. The business earns Herron up to $40,000 a year, but it relies heavily on tips from customers, which means the yurt is an ideal way to maintain his income and desert lifestyle, he says. .
“It was a dream come true to host people on the land, then get up early with them, show them the canyon, and take them on a hike,” Herron says. “To offer them a complete experience, led by a local passionate about the region.”
That dream always comes with harsh realities: Covid-19 restrictions have made traffic in the park unpredictable, and nearly every yurt guest needs a tutorial on off-grid living, Herron says.
“I would really like to scale up, but I just want to develop that vision to a sustainable level,” he says. “I have neighbors who have four, five or six Airbnbs on their property, and I see the stress that brings – and how the quality of care starts to fall through the cracks.”
For Herron, scaling up means installing plumbing, building more yurts and buying more land. He says he finds this expansion process bittersweet.
“I’m a reserved and conservative person, and I like to keep things simple, small and durable,” he says. “If I get the chance I will definitely capitalize and would love to see more yurts here. It’s just a matter of having time and money to invest.”
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