Nestled between Los Padres National Forest and California’s rugged Pacific Coast is a bohemian luxury resort, oddly named Treebones, that remains true to its hippie roots and is “Yurtniquely” California. With a cult-like following — think Silicon Valley meets Burning Man— the uber popular Treebones resort embodies the natural beauty and off-the-grid living that has long characterized the Big Sur area. Due to California land trusts, conservation easements and local coastal programs, rampant development of large scale hotels and private campsites has been largely prevented, thus keeping the area pristine and basically untouched. However, Treebones seems to have blended the category between campground and luxury resort; owners John and Corinne Handy, along with their children, opened the family-run property in 2005, (it was 20 years in the making) and since that time not much has changed in the physical landscape of the area.
Just off Highway 1, north of Hearst Castle, on a discreet dirt road, marked only with a small sign shaped like what appears to be a fish, is the organically curious resort. As you drive up to the main lodge in wonderment, peppered along the way are 16 yurts, circular tent-like structures gently placed throughout the ten-acre property; all have been updated with modern amenities, including hard wood floors, vintage quilts, cozy queen size beds and clear domed skylights for sunlight by day and stargazing by night. Also offered as an alternative to the Yurt experience and wildly popular with the millennials is the “Human Nest” which is designed for guests that want the ultimate outdoor sleeping experience. The “Human Nest” sleeps two adults and sits majestically 15 feet above the ground and is accessible only by ladder. Designed by famed local Big Sur artist Jayson Fann, the nest is a spherical dwelling woven from branches of fallen Eucalyptus trees from the nearby Los Padres National Forest and is set at the edge of the property, boasting stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the beautifully appointed California coastline. The demand to stay in the nest has been so high that there is currently a second, three-story nest under construction which will come equipped with a Japanese soaking tub. It will be available for sleep-overs this Summer 2017.
Treebones is eco-friendly and runs like a self-contained city. Featuring its own water well, everything is powered by propane-fueled turbines; the heat produced in the process is used to warm water and some of the yurts. Several yurts do have gas fireplaces. Recycling and composting is prevalent throughout the resort, and a charming organic herb and vegetable garden, along with a chicken coup sit prominently in the center of the property and services the only restaurant (talk about farm to table) at the main lodge. During the day, you can hike the trails, take in a morning yoga class, explore local art galleries that line Highway 1 or just enjoy the view from one of the many Adirondack chairs that dot the property. At night you can sit by the large roaring fire at the main lodge with a glass of wine and a good book, relax in the hot tub, or star-gaze at Whale Watch Ridge on the south end of the property with friends and family. This part of California is an extraordinary place to experience and one of the very few places that still remains as Henry Miller described it in 1957 as “meeting of extremes, a region where one is always conscious of weather, of space, of grandeur and of eloquent silence.”
On a recent road trip with my two adult daughters, we visited Treebones and experienced the Yurt- lifestyle for ourselves. It was a cold and windy January day, with a cozy fire going in the main lodge. I had the pleasure to sit down with owner John Handy and enjoyed hearing about the rich history of the area, found out how the name Treebones came about and learned how he and his family are living in true California style.
John, I’m certain this is the first question everyone asks you, so how did you come up with the name “Treebones”?
Yes, Maggy you are correct that is the first thing people want to know. The name came with the property when we bought it. The property has been known as Treebones since the 1960s when a colorful character named Patrick Casidy had a lumber mill where the lower parking lot now is and he stacked up dead trees that he nicknamed ”treebones.”
How would you describe “Treebones” yurtunique California design esthetic?
Big Sur modern. All natural materials, stone, redwood and cloth. Native plants and cool curving shapes.
I love that there is no cell service, limited Wi-Fi and zero TVs, but there are lots of board games. What is your family’s favorite board game?
We love to play Scrabble.
How is the ‘Autonomous Tent” different from the “Yurts” and do you have plans to add more to the property?
It’s a one of a kind shape that seems to lurch out of the ground facing the ocean. No plans for more at this time unless we get more land.
Currently there are 16 Yurts on the property. I’m told they are booked 6 months in advance and the “Autonomous Tent” is booked out for the year. Why do you think this concept has become so popular and did you ever anticipate this kind of demand and success?
It’s what product designers call pent up demand. People want to visit Big Sur. Many are drawn to the most unique and eco-friendly venue they can find and Treebones fills that desire. We hoped for success but couldn’t have predicted this level. We feel very blessed.
Have you ever slept in “The Human Nest”? If so, can you describe to my readers what it is like?
Corinne and I have. It was an amazing, refreshing experience. We woke up to the sunrise and saw birds curiously looking in as if to say, “Congratulations, now you know how we live.”
Do you have a favorite place on the property you go to for inspiration or just to get lost?
There’s a rock called Whale Watch Rock that has a fabulous view and brings back so many memories of dreaming about Treebones and all of the talented hands that helped build it. It seems that through the years everyone posed in groups for photos there.
Clearly you were ahead of your time when you started “Treebones” twelve years ago. What do you feel is the next trend in travel?
This is a great question; I think that people will continue to seek places that are not like their homes. Hotels will become more about experience and a sense of place not just convenience. Visitors want to leave their vacations inspired, so creative new concepts of shelter will be the ongoing trend in travel.
I took a self-tour of the organic garden and chicken coop. I’m curious how many chickens do you have? We have 21 chickens in their own beautiful chicken coop complete with a stained glass window. They recycle our kitchen scraps and make fertilizer for our garden not to mention the great eggs.
Being in such a remote and untouched area of California, what would you say is the resorts biggest challenge?
Being off the grid is a challenge. We are responsible for generating our own power, water and sewer. It’s like running a city.
What has been the most unusual or outlandish request from a guest, that you can recall?
A movie star was so interested in staying at Treebones and we were full so the person’s assistant suggested that we move out for the weekend and let them stay in our house. Did you? NO!
I have to admit this was my first time sleeping in a “Yurt” and probably my best sleep in years. Is there something in the canvas walls that stimulates healthy sleep patterns?
The walls breathe bringing in ion-rich air from the ocean. We also have selected really good mattresses and keep them new.
t’s been fun getting to know you and learning about this unique California treasure. In your own words how would you describe Treebones?
Perched lightly on the edge of the world.
Hero image- The Autonomous Tent (photo credit Kodiak Greenwood)