In 2011, Louis Herron dropped out of Ball State University, packed a backpack and moved west.
Restless for outdoor adventure, the Indianapolis native picked up 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 couple of months, he nabbed a similar role at Glacier National Park before settling in Flagstaff, Arizona, right outside the Grand Canyon.
There, Herron spent $2,400 for an acre of land that would eventually host two tiny homes, his Grand Canyon touring business and his side hustle: a 16-foot yurt listed on Airbnb. In August 2020, Herron spent $15,000 to build the yurt and furnish it with amenities, including a compost toilet and water-pump sink, he says.
In the last year, Herron has made $27,600 through yurt rentals alone, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It. The yurt paid for itself within a year, he says.
“I wasn’t really 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.”
Over the last two years, traffic has remained steady: The yurt is currently booked through mid-November, according to Airbnb’s site. It’s not available 365 days per year, anyway: Cleaning and maintaining the rental outside of booking hours eats up 30 hours of Herron’s schedule per week.
Here’s how Herron juggles his side hustle with his off-the-grid Grand Canyon business:
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 built his own, so renters can see the stars.
Building the yurt involved more manual labor than Herron expected. He bought the materials off a website in 2020 for $8,000, then spent nine days and $4,000 building a wooden platform for it. Then, he spent another $3,000 to reinforce 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 his 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 of 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 costs twice as much and I actually enjoy the process,” he says. “It becomes a little meditative for me, and it definitely makes you respect and conserve water a lot more.”
The rental directly feeds into Herron’s small touring business, The Desert Hiking Company: Guests can book Grand Canyon hikes at discounted rates. The company earns Herron up to $40,000 per year, but it’s deeply reliant on customer tips — which means the yurt is a perfect way to sustain his income and 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 give them a whole packaged experience that’s led by a local who’s passionate about the area.”
That dream is still accompanied by harsh realities: 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.
“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, upscaling means installing plumbing, building more yurts and buying more land. He says he finds that expansion process bittersweet.
“I’m a reserved, conservative person, and I like to keep things simple and small and sustainable,” he says. “Given the opportunity, I’ll definitely capitalize and I’d love to see more yurts out here. It’s just a matter of having time and money to invest.”
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