In 2011, Louis Herron quit Ball State University, put his things in a rucksack, and moved west. The man from Indianapolis wanted to get outside more, so he got a job washing dishes at a restaurant near Yosemite National Park. He worked his way up to being in charge of employee recreation, which meant taking park workers on hikes.
After a few months, he got a similar job at Glacier National Park and then moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, near the Grand Canyon, where he lived for the rest of his life. Herron paid $2,400 for an acre of land that would be home to two tiny homes, his Grand Canyon tour business, and a 16-foot yurt that he and his ex-partner used to rent out on Airbnb as a side business.
Herron says that he and his ex-partner will have spent $15,000 by August 2020 to build the yurt and fill it with things like a compost toilet and water pump sink. Documents looked at by CNBC Make It show that the yurt made $27,600 just from rentals in the past year. Herron says that the yurt paid for itself in a year.
“I wasn’t keen on 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 extra source of income without having to pick up a nine-to-five or commute anywhere.”
According to Airbnb’s site, the yurt is typically booked two months in advance. It’s not available 365 days per year. Cleaning and maintaining the rental outside of booking hours can eat up 30 hours per week, Herron says. Here’s how Herron juggled the side hustle with his off-the-grid Grand Canyon business last year:
A bare-bones experience
The first time Herron stayed in a yurt at a ski resort outside Flagstaff, he recognized the circular structure’s “unique energy.” He mimicked that yurt’s skylight when he and his ex-partner built their own so renters could see the stars.
Building the yurt involved more manual labor than Herron expected. His ex-partner bought the materials online in 2020 for $8,000. Herron spent $4,000 building a wooden platform and $3,000 reinforcing the structure. Because of Flagstaff’s powerful wind gusts, he wanted the yurt to withstand winds up to 200 miles per hour.
The yurt doesn’t have plumbing. Neither do Herron’s two homes on the property. Herron says he keeps a constant eye on his water supply so he and guests can drink water, wash dishes, shower, and use the toilet on site. It’s not as hard as it seems. It just takes thinking outside the box,” he says.
When Herron doesn’t get enough rainwater, he drives five miles to a nearby community well and fills up a 200-gallon tank in his truck. It takes him almost an entire day to cart the water back, but he says the supply lasts him and his guests up to four months. “I could get it delivered, but it would cost twice as much, and I enjoy the process,” he says. “It becomes a little meditative for me, making me respect and conserve water much more.”
“A dream come true—with a few conditions”
Throughout 2021, the rental directly fed Herron’s small tour business, The Desert Hiking Company, so guests could book Grand Canyon hikes at discounted rates. The company earned Herron and his ex-partner up to $40,000 per year, but it was deeply reliant on customer tips, which meant the yurt was a perfect way to sustain income and a desert lifestyle, he says.
“It’s been a dream come true to host people on the land, then wake up early with them and show them the canyon and take them on a hike,” Herron says. To provide them with a pre-packaged experience that a local who is enthusiastic about the area is leading.Harsh realities accompany that dream: COVID-19 restrictions have made park traffic unpredictable, and almost every guest in the yurt needs a tutorial on living off the grid, Herron says.
Herron also no longer owns this particular yurt: He and his ex-partner broke up in February, and she took ownership of the rental property. As of late September, its Airbnb listing appeared offline, but Herron says he’d like to replicate the experience by building another one — or more.
“I definitely would like to upscale, but I only want to grow this vision on a sustainable level,” he says. “I have neighbors who have four, five, or six Airbnbs on their property, and I see the stress it brings — and how the quality of care starts to fall through the cracks.”
For Herron, I am upscaling, which means building multiple yurts, installing plumbing, and buying more land. He says he finds the expansion process bittersweet. “I’m a reserved, conservative person, and I like to keep things simple, small, and sustainable,” he says. “Given the opportunity, I’ll capitalize, and I’d love to see more yurts out here. It’s just a matter of having time and money to invest.”