Where there are trees, there is the urge to climb them.

And once up in the branches, there is the urge to stay there as long as possible, taking in a bird’s-eye view of the landscape and relaxing as the tree rocks ever so gently in the breeze. Treehouses that let adults sleep close to the stars seem to be having a moment, as Americans’ craving for wide-open spaces coincides with a rise in treehouse accommodations driven by revenue-seeking vacation property owners.

Travelers seeking 360-degree social distancing can consider treehouse rentals across the country in a variety of configurations, such as a rustic room with minimal bath facilities near Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park ($200 a night), and a high-end suite at Primland Resort in the state’s Blue Ridge Mountains ($1,000 a night).

 Barbara Schroeder, 60, of Salisbury, Md., cherishes this memory from an April treehouse stay: spending a quiet morning on a deck elevated 15 feet above the forest floor, with steam from coffee curling up through a silent green canopy and deer wandering through the woods. Schroeder, who loves to include offbeat rentals in her far-flung family’s reunion itineraries, rendezvoused with two of her sisters and a niece at one of the three treehouses built by Linda and Dave Klug in their swath of forest in the southeast Ohio Hocking Hills region.

Schroeder said that, in the five days they stayed there, her group never tired of walking from their car’s terraced parking spot to the treehouse via a suspension bridge. “We felt like we were stepping out of the world to our own spot,” Schroeder said.

Listings purporting to be treehouses are growing like kudzu. Of its 100,000 current listings aggregated from numerous national vacation-rental services, VacationRenter.com offers 4,780 properties that include the terms “treehouse” or “tree house.”  Airbnb lists treehouses as the “most wishlisted” type of rental in its May 2021 trends report.  At Glamping Hub, a booking platform that lists more than 24,000 outdoorsy rentals globally from its base in Spain, 2020 requests for treehouses more than doubled from 2019, and are escalating even faster this year. 

Glamping Hub’s criteria for a “treehouse” specifies that the accommodation be “built-in/among the branches of trees and is typically reached by a ladder, bridge, or stairway,” the company said in an emailed statement.  

That’s not a semantic distinction. Rental platforms rely on property owners to accurately describe their properties, but treehouses have such a strong appeal that some owners use the term “treehouse” to draw attention to cabins very much on the ground. The bait-and-switch tangles the count of actual treehouses and irritates travelers and legitimate treehouse owners alike. “I saw several listings that weren’t treehouses,” Schroeder said. They were just in a grove of trees.”

Cabins masquerading as treehouses annoy Victoria Cantwell, who built a rustic complex of rentals in 2017 that includes a bona fide treehouse at her farm in Argyle, N.Y.  Evenings lit with fireflies make the entire experience “magical,” she said, but she also is losing patience with competitors trying to ride the coattails of the trend. “A house on stilts is not a treehouse,” said Cantwell. “Mine is anchored in two living trees, 15 feet up in the air. They’re tricky to build.”

It’s no small task to design and build a genuine adult treehouse that is suitable for overnight stays and complies with building codes, agreed Daniel Ash, head of architecture with Nelson Treehouse, in Fall City, Wash. The firm is widely credited with sparking the trend through its “Treehouse Masters” reality television show, which ran from 2013 to 2018 on Animal Planet.

The idiosyncratic requirements for even a single treehouse quickly weed out the wannabes, Ash said: “It’s way easier to come up with the idea than to make it happen. A lot of stars have to align to make it a reality. You have to have the right trees for it. The trees have to be able to support the loads. And you have to be feasibly, legally allowed to do this. Every jurisdiction is different in terms of how they treat these structures.”

Each treehouse has to be designed around a specific tree or trees (most treehouses also rely on posts or pipes for structural support; pipes can also channel electricity and plumbing). The ideal setting, said Ash and treehouse owners, is a gentle slope that allows for a parking pad connected to the house by a suspended bridge. That enables visitors to easily take luggage and supplies to the house.

There are other issues, Ash added, such as how guests will make meals, who will clean the houses and utilities. “That’s a big one,” he said, “getting the water and septic up there.”

Building a sufficiently feathered nest isn’t cheap. A typical “Treehouse Masters” project costs about $350,000, Ash said. He estimates that, these days, about 30 percent of the firm’s projects are for clients who build with the intention to rent, up from about 5 percent five years ago.

Renting wasn’t on Susan Leopold’s mind a few years ago, however, when she realized she had a good setup for a grown-up treehouse on her rural Linden, Va., spread near Shenandoah National Park. Building such a house would be a literal expression of Leopold’s lifelong commitment to plant preservation. “We have to live in harmony with the trees,” she said.

 She hired an architect who specializes in adult treehouses, and he found the perfect spot: a strong tree that could handle the metal gear that helps support the house, and a slope that allows for fairly easy access at one end and a dramatic outlook on the other. 

 He was also amenable to crafting a bohemian aesthetic for the house by using recycled and found materials. The balcony railing, for instance, is woven from small tree branches and vines. The shoestring-budget project took a few months, Leopold said.

 Only after the treehouse was built did she realize its commercial potential. Now, Leopold’s Trillium Treehouse is booked well in advance through several rental sites, at $200 a night — even though the bathroom facilities are rudimentary. “It’s more like super-fancy camping,” said Leopold, referencing the outdoor shower and composting toilet, which isn’t connected to plumbing, at the base of the tree.

She and Cantwell both said that, between guests, they escape to their own treehouses for a bit of forest bathing. But being high among the leaves isn’t for everyone. Schroeder said that while her sisters would love an encore treehouse stay, she is already chasing down other types of novelty rentals. Besides, she added, “I don’t like heights.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to a chemical toilet at Trillium Treehouse in Linden, Va. It is a composting toilet. This version has been updated.

Cleaver is a freelance writer based in Charlotte.

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