Arboreal Existence: West Virginia’s Nascent Treehouse Craze

West Virginia folks are looking to the treeline for a new trend in natural accommodations

by Paul Nelson

I’m just going to go right ahead and say it– treehouses are incredibly cool and always have been. Many of us who grew up in the suburbs or rural areas probably either had a childhood tree house, had a friend who had one, or simply wished we had one. These ramshackle platforms were the clubhouses of fantasy, the abodes of Tarzan, Middle Earth Elves, Star Wars Ewocks, and the Swiss Family Robinson.

In the last few years, the childhood nostalgia of the treehouse has been rebooted and luxurized for our adult, 21st-century world. Forest resorts and lodges around the world have kicked the treehouse idea up a notch, beyond the realm of 2×4 beams and plywood sheets, and into fully enclosed and furnished rooms for you to spend a fantastic night in. These “new school” treehouses are an excellent example of sustainable manmade construction adapting with and around natural conditions, and truly can bring us back to our arboreal roots. Here’s the good news– these treehouses are starting to pop up right here in West Virginia.

Treehouses, WV

Treehouse at Buffalo Trail Cabins in West Virginia

Of course, building a luxury treehouse is slightly more complicated than just nailing planks into a tree trunk, like you did for your “No Girls Allowed” clubhouse.  Maybe the last time you clicked on one of those “This Treehouse Will Blow Your Mind!” social media links, some questions came up: What types of trees are best to use? How do builders keep from damaging the tree? Are these things even safe? What about wind, rain, or lightning?

Django Kroner, a professional arborist and the owner of The Canopy Crew, a Kentucky company that specializes in treehouse construction, filled me in on some of the details.  The species and size of tree are important in selecting the site for a treehouse; obviously, bigger can be better, hardwoods are better than softwoods, and longer-living trees are ideal. However, an individual assessment of a potential tree is just as important as choosing the right species.

“Tree selection has just as much to do with the specific tree itself as it does species,” Django said. “You could have a great local hardwood such as white oak, which is ideal for treehouse building, but it could have lightning damage, or a fungal disease. And while size does matter and bigger is generally more appealing aesthetically and structurally, I’d rather have a healthy smaller tree than a compromised larger tree.”

As for the process of attaching building materials to trees, you need to be careful. You might assume that the most eco-friendly way to build a treehouse is to avoid any type of piercing, nailing, or screwing at all; perhaps some sort of lashing or tie-down mechanism would be best?  But again, this is not the case.

“Like a human limb, trees are vascular beings,” Django said. “You can pierce your arm and heal to be fully functional, but if you tie a rope around it you will lose your arm in a matter of hours. When attaching to a tree, you want to maximize use of the structural heartwood, and minimize impact on the outer vascular layer of the tree.”

This is a challenge that few carpenters have had to deal with– the fact that their frame is a living, organic being.

Django knows his trade– he lived in a treehouse full-time for three years, and is currently writing a book on treehouse construction, Tree Houses by Design, which will be available through Popular Woodworking magazine in the near future.

Treehouse lodging in WV

Construction of treehouses in West Virginia.

“If you have a solid foundation and design, anything is possible,” he said. “Even electricity, plumbing and full baths!”

If the prospect of staying in a fully-furnished, on-the-grid treehouse interests you, several places in West Virginia are on the verge of offering this type of lodging, and there are already some more rustic, off-the-grid places available.

Pine Haven Cabins, near Beaver on Interstate 64, is currently building 2 treehouses as functional and luxurious as any of their conventional cabins. These large, square-ish cabins are not exactly what you may have in mind if you’ve just finished watching the elves in Lord of the Rings. They’re not perched high in the treetops, but rather are nestled atop complex framing in the midst of many trees, and situated on sidehills, so access is via flat walkways, rather than ladders or staircases.

At 306 and 470 square feet, each of these will be able to sleep up to 4 people in queen-sized beds and futons. They will have water, power, and TVs; one will even have a hot tub at the base of its tree. Most importantly, there are large decks so guests can take in the verdant scenery.

Buffalo Trail Cabins, near Bluefield, feature more rustic, off-the-grid platform houses integrated beautifully with native flora. These are more open, “bunkhouse”-style cabins, without power or water. However, their lofty balconies still give you an elevated, silvan vibe.

Paul and Jennifer Breuer of Country Roads Cabins in Hico are also jumping on the treehouse trend, and hope to have their first structure up by late summer.

Country Road Cabins is up the road from where I live near the New River Gorge, so I was lucky enough to pop over and have them graciously give me a tour of their construction project.

This treehouse is going to be quite different than those at Pine Haven or Buffalo Trails.  Think less an elevated, square cabin, and more an octogonal yurt that has somehow found itself skewered 20 feet up a tree.

Seeing the actual process of the construction really drove home the points that Django had made to me about careful selection of trees and spaces.

Paul and Jennifer have chosen a tree that is situated just right on a sidehill for swinging bridge access, and to transport construction materials via zipline down to the tree. It is also completely free of nearby dead or dying trees, which might fall and cause damage in the future.

SWV treehouse building

Stay in a treehouse in Southern WV

On first glance, I was unimpressed at the 18”-21” chestnut oak. It simply looked too small to hold a 13 ton, 24-foot wide structure. However, Paul informed me that this species of tree is actually stronger than seemingly burlier trees like beeches.

The house will also not be supported by just one tree. A series of cables and guy lines actually connect the tree to at least four others, which will hold it as it sways in the wind.

Special care is being given to completely protect the roots of the tree, as they will quite literally be foundational. The engineering is impressive, to say the least.

When completed, the “Holly Rock” treehouse will be 8-sided, 18 feet in diameter and surrounded by a 3-foot-wide balcony. Its base will be around 20 feet off the ground, and its peaked, shingled roof about another 20 feet above that.

Rainfall will be channeled onto the tree trunk, running downward through the center of the structure, so that you’ll get to see flowing water inside the cabin as you sit back and enjoy a summer West Virginia thunderstorm.

The treehouse craze is just getting off the ground (har har) in West Virginia, but our heavily wooded state certainly has the natural resources to support this new twist on lodging. Our strong focus on adventure tourism and the earthy Appalachian lifestyle would make a treehouse the perfect place for you to stay after a day of rafting, hiking, climbing, or ziplining through our rivers, rocks, and trees.

Who knows, maybe in a few years, treehouses will be more common in the Mountain State than the yurts and cabins visitors love to escape to now.

It’s the beauty of the forest that brings us here; it only makes sense that we live as closely to this forest as we can.  Silva Semper Liberi!