Airbnb yurt near Grand Canyon

In 2011, Louis Herron dropped out of Ball State University, packed a backpack and moved west.

Eager 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, leading hikes for park employees. After a couple of months, he landed a similar role at Glacier National Park before settling in 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 composting toilet and a sink with a water pump, he says.

In the past year, Herron 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 wasn’t very interested in [renting out property] because my idea for the land was, ‘This is going to be my quiet little island,'” Herron, 31, tells CNBC Make It. “But I wanted an additional source of income without having to pick up a job from nine to five or travel anywhere”.

Herron’s 16-foot yurt is a 30-minute drive from the Grand Canyon and includes a queen bed, futon, and private compost toilet. It also has a grill, coffee maker, hammock, and games, but no Wi-Fi.

louis herron

Over the past two years, traffic has remained steady: The yurt is currently booked through mid-November, according to the Airbnb site. It’s not available 365 days a year anyway – cleaning and rental maintenance outside of booking hours consumes 30 hours of Herron’s schedule per week.

Here’s how Herron juggles his off-grid Grand Canyon business:

a basic experience

The first time Herron stayed in a yurt, at a ski resort outside Flagstaff, he recognized the “unique energy” of the circular structure. He imitated the skylight in that yurt when he built his own, so the occupants could see the stars.

Building the yurt involved 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 deck for it. He then spent another $3,000 to reinforce the structure: Due to Flagstaff’s powerful gusts of wind, he wanted the yurt to withstand winds of up to 200 miles per hour.

The yurt does not have plumbing. Neither do the two Herron houses 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 bathroom on site.

Herron says building the yurt was easy: It only took him six hours to build, while his platform took nine days.

louis herron

It’s not as hard as it looks. It just takes thinking outside the box,” she 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 almost a full day to bring the water back, but he says the supply lasts him and his guests for up to four months.

“I could get it, but it costs twice as much and I really enjoy the process,” he says. “It gets a little meditative for me, and it definitely makes you respect and conserve water a lot more.”

‘A dream come true’, with some conditions

The rental feeds directly into Herron’s small tourism business, The Desert Hiking Company: guests can book Grand Canyon hikes at discounted prices. The company earns Herron as much as $40,000 a year, but relies heavily on customer feedback, which means the yurt is a perfect way to support his income and desert lifestyle, he says.

“It’s been a dream come true to welcome people to the ground, then wake up early with them and show them around the canyon and take them for a hike,” says Herron. “To provide you with a comprehensive experience led by a local who is passionate about the area.”

Herron’s yurt currently costs $186 a night and can sleep up to four people. He says he primarily sees couples, millennials and older, looking for an off-grid experience.

louis herron

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