From a spiraling outdoor staircase high above the rest of the world to a lofty château fit for royalty, Texas’s growing number of ornate and offbeat luxury treehouses inspire a sense of awe you could only dream of as a kid.
Eight months into a pandemic that continues to upend life as we know it, secluded vacation rentals have become increasingly attractive to Texans suffering from wanderlust and in need of a literal shift in point of view. As travelers flock to the countryside for a night or two under the canopy, they’re finally able to reacquaint themselves with nature—and one another—while rediscovering what it means to play.
“What is it like to be a kid? What is it like to have endless possibilities?” says Will Beilharz, cofounder and chief design officer of Artistree, a treehouse design-build studio. “There’s a fantasy quality I think the treehouses address that normal structures don’t.”
Hidden across the Hill Country, each bespoke treehouse has its own flavor and one-of-a-kind design. We’ve rounded up five of our favorite spots below.
A Front Row Seat to Nature: Cypress Valley
Amid Cypress Valley’s canopy of green in Spicewood, five houses nest in soaring cypress trees. A minimalist design aesthetic blends with the environment: emerald walls, wood furnishings, narrow catwalks.
But folded into the treehouses’ finer details are breathtaking architectural flourishes: a cascading indoor waterfall that flows seamlessly into a private bath, or an intimate dining hut covered in lush vines.
The 104-acre wonderland is landscaped with wildflowers and soundtracked by bird song. Around sundown, suspended decks mimic theater boxes for an airborne performance by hooting owls and dancing fireflies.
Years ago, when Will Beilharz’s parents first guided groups on their popular zip-line canopy tours, visitors invariably pined for a night spent in nature. The idea of a destination treehouse soon took root, and Will, then a teenager, did the heavy lifting on construction. After trying on careers in everything from fitness to music, he returned to his origins and started Artistree, a treehouse design and construction company that’s grown into a “glamping” business as well.
The family enterprise has become an international phenomenon, with properties in Hawaii, California, and Mexico joining the five treehouses—from cozy one-bedrooms to multistory vacation homes—less than an hour northwest of Austin. “It meets some of our needs as adults to be playful again,” says Amy Beilharz, Will’s mom and the cofounder of Cypress Valley. “When we’re super happy, we are so much more creative, we’re better decision makers, and we’re kinder.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, welcome letters have replaced most in-person interactions at Cypress Valley, communal picnic benches are spaced ten to twenty feet apart, and canopy tours have been paused. Inside the treehouses, there’s no Wi-Fi and sometimes scant cell service.
“If somebody wants to come and not see a single soul,” Amy says, “they will be able to have perfect, private sanctuary.” 1223 Paleface Ranch Road S., Spicewood, 512-264-8880. Rates start at $200 (two-night minimum).
A Haven for Francophiles: Treehouse Utopia
In the tiny town of Utopia and way up in the trees, a library, château, carousel, and chapel provide a taste of French romance. “They each have their own personality, and you know, they speak to you on different levels,” says Laurel Waters, co-owner of Treehouse Utopia.
From religious embroideries to carousel panels, Waters incorporated the French antiques she’s collected over decades into her decor. Each treehouse represents its theme with rustic elegance, whether it appeals to bookworms looking for a reading retreat or restless souls in search of spiritual tranquility.
A Cordon Bleu–trained chef, Waters had already opened her gourmet restaurant, the Laurel Tree, in Utopia when veteran treehouse designer and builder Pete Nelson stopped by with his wife and crew. “It was like an opportunity that walked in with a dinner reservation one night,” Waters says.
First came a private dining room in the eatery’s signature live oak tree, where up to six people can still feast on Waters’s seasonal cuisine from sixteen feet in the air. But visitors wanted to sleep in the trees, too, and the notion “just kept ringing a bell” until she and Nelson decided to partner on a local treehouse bed and breakfast.
Each of the four dwellings accommodates at most two guests, and that’s by design. “It was our goal, our mission, to create a quiet, romantic place for you to go,” Waters says.
When Cheryl Lesch and her husband made their fourth visit to Treehouse Utopia this summer amid the pandemic, they watched newborn fawns and savored moments of silence, interrupted only by chirping birds and the rush of water from the adjacent Sabinal River. They relished their complimentary breakfast—Waters serves fresh baked goods, house-made granola, parfaits, and fresh fruit to her guests—and enjoyed the maskless, peaceful solitude.
Guests sometimes arrive with a long list of activities planned, only to fall under the spell of the treehouses and scrap their itineraries. “They have all these big Hill Country plans, and they get here and decide they never wanna go anywhere,” Waters says. “They just wanna stay there.” Location provided after booking, Utopia, 830-966-8733. Rates start at $475 (two-night minimum).
Whimsy and Daring Design: HoneyTree Farm
After Jacob Rhodes salvaged a massive bathtub, he converted it into an outdoor installation beneath one of his HoneyTree Farm treehouses, with a view of the wilderness.
“I thought it was gonna be a little bit beyond what people were comfortable with,” he admits.
“Yeah, we all did!” jokes his wife, Katie.
But visitors fell in love with the makeshift spa setup, and over time, Jacob and Katie realized that playful experiences were what guests wanted when they escaped to Fredericksburg. Favorite children’s books tucked between vinyl albums, mysterious trinkets hidden in cigar boxes, special reading nooks inside already special treehouses: when it comes to hospitality, the Rhodes family has mastered the art of whimsy.
“We’re not gonna appeal to everyone, but we do want to appeal to ourselves,” Jacob says. “We wanna love what we create.”
Katie is from the Fredericksburg area, and Jacob grew up a citizen of the world, jumping between Iowa, Maui, Austin, Nashville, Kentucky, and Portland, Oregon. Around a decade ago, the couple lived in Los Angeles, where Jacob worked in the film industry and Katie taught as an adjunct professor. “There’s this gap in between what the dream looks like in your head and what it actually looks like in the cubicle,” Jacob says.
When he wasn’t responding to emails or scheduling lunches, he surfed online for trendy cabins in the hills. Soon, he realized that he preferred picking up tools to answering phones, and eventually, he and Katie traded cityscapes for small-town Texas to start construction on their own guest cabins.
The husband and wife duo both have “strong aesthetic sensibilities,” Katie says, so they take turns as the head honchos at HoneyTree Farm. It’s a compromise that’s refreshingly visible in their three unique, idiosyncratic treehouses.
“Katie is a lot more sleek and open and peaceful. I’m a little bit more whimsical and cluttered and fun—and maybe irrational,” Jacob says. They’re about to cross the finish line on treehouses four and five, Katie says, and “We kind of turned these last two up to eleven a little bit.”
One boasts a tub twenty feet high, where guests can soak while staring out toward an expanse of treetops. “I don’t know if that’s been done before,” Jacob says. “You know, a rooftop bathtub? It’s pretty nuts.” Location provided after booking, Fredericksburg. Rates start at $203 (two-night minimum).
A Resort Without the Crowds: Guadalupe River Houses
Bunk beds, a kiddie slide, grills: a cluster of “tree hauses” in New Braunfels have all the trappings of large family reunions, with a twist.
A decorative oven that doubles as a TV mount has a lizard carved into its facade, branches form a balcony rail, and a hodgepodge of tree limbs decorate a quirky staircase that wouldn’t be out of place at a children’s museum.
Originally built as prototypes for other projects, the four vacation homes have been curated to look and feel like real treehouses, says Tom Hovestadt, vice president of Guadalupe River Houses, which manages the properties. But they also offer creature comforts, such as an enormous pool with a swim-up bar and more than a dozen bar stools. It’s resort living, but self-service, with private spaces near the swimming area so that guests from separate cabins don’t necessarily have to interact. That’s been especially appreciated during the pandemic.
“If you go to a hotel, even if they have a pool, you’re not gonna have privacy,” Hovestadt says. Not so at his tree hauses.
Architectural details give off an eccentric jungle gym vibe, and for more playtime, the properties sit mere miles from Schlitterbahn’s flagship waterpark, as well as near popular rivers for tubing. But this year, Hovestadt says, visitors are mostly seeking seclusion. 777 Cloud Lane, New Braunfels, 830-832-3530. Rates start at $225 (two-night minimum).
On River Time: Frio Treetop
Suspended forty feet above the Frio River, a majestic walkway lined by tiki lights leads to a treehouse deck near Leakey. “It’s Lord of the Rings cool,” says Houston Wills, a two-time guest so taken by the fantasy that he imagines a hobbit might pop out from under some rocks at any moment.
Frio Treetop is a rental trifecta. Accommodating up to twenty guests, it offers a generous but cozy lodge and a romantic cottage as well as the treehouse. The complex includes pretty much every amenity you could want: a walk-in sauna, outdoor shower, hot tub, propane grill, barbecue grill, bumper pool table, shuffleboard, and easy access to the Frio River, to name a few.
“This is a healing place,” says LeAnn Garrison Sharp, owner of Rio Frio Lodging, which includes the Frio Treetop. “You relax,” and your stress melts away into the river.
Wills frequently travels around Texas for work, but he says he’s never discovered anywhere quite like the scenic vacation spot. From a breathtaking drive there—“it’s not congested, it’s not crowded, it’s just peaceful”—to the magic of a tourist-free escape, “it’s a great place to go to read a book, play a guitar, journal up in the treehouse about your life ahead,” he says.
“It’s just a ‘wow’ factor,” Garrison Sharp says. “Everybody wants to stay in a treehouse.” Location provided after booking, near Leakey, 830-966-2320. Rates start at $400 (three-night minimum).