Treehouses on the Sonoma Coast

Salmon Creek Ranch, a working ranch with a treehouse that will soon be rented out. Rope bridges leading to the treehouse. (Chris Hardy)
Salmon Creek Ranch, a working ranch with a treehouse that will soon be rented out. Rope bridges leading to the treehouse. (Photo by Chris Hardy)

From 50 feet above the ground, in a treehouse known as the Eagle’s Nest, there is a rare view of a very special part of Sonoma: the forest canopy nestled in the coastal range above Bodega Bay.

With no sound except for the rustling of leaves and occasional raven’s caw, one can, when the wind blows just right, hear the roar of waves crashing on the shore 2 miles to the west. In the distance to the north, an opening in the canopy reveals a gently sloping meadow, part of Bodega Pastures, where Hazel Flett raises sheep for meat and wool.

The Eagle’s Nest is located on the 400-acre working farm known as Salmon Creek Ranch, founded by John and Lesley Brabyn in 2007. Best known for its duck eggs, goat meat and grass-fed Scottish Highland beef, Salmon Creek Ranch is certified organic and gently maintained.

Salmon Creek Ranch, a working ranch with a treehouse that will soon be rented out. One of the campgrounds on the property. (Chris Hardy)
Salmon Creek Ranch, a working ranch with a treehouse that will soon be rented out. One of the campgrounds on the property. (Photo by Chris Hardy)

“We want to leave the forest and the forest floor in as good or better shape than when we arrived,” Lesley said of the land she loves. There are a few campsites (reservations required) in a large meadow, a spectacular natural foxglove hedge on one of the property’s winding pathways, and an on-site farmstand, yet the property is neither manicured nor manipulated. The Brabyns and the animals they care for live lightly on the land.

The Eagle’s Nest is a short, pleasant walk from the heart of the ranch, where Anatolian shepherd dogs watch over the ducks and goats. In a spacious kennel adjacent to the little farmhouse where the Brabyns live, Lesley breeds champion salukis, dignified, long-legged dogs with keen eyesight and blinding speed. Undulating pathways weave through fragrant bay laurel trees, ferns, immense redwoods and towering Douglas firs, with a deciduous tree here and there sporting a coat of vibrant green moss as a gentle mist falls.

Salmon Creek Ranch, a working ranch with a treehouse that will soon be rented out. Lesley Brabyn with her flock of goats . (Chris Hardy)
Salmon Creek Ranch, a working ranch with a treehouse that will soon be rented out. Lesley Brabyn with her flock of goats . (Chris Hardy)

Suddenly, the treehouse is there, its iron-red spiral staircase and two wavering footbridges overhead. From below, the swaying bridges seem frighteningly high and terribly fragile. But the staircase that leads to them is solid steel and the bridges are outfitted with equally strong steel cables. It’s not for those afraid of heights, although the Brabyns said engineers who inspected the treehouse deemed it, the staircase and bridges as structurally sound.

The treehouse stands much as it did the day the Brabyns arrived, but renovations will transform it into a beautifully appointed retreat that guests can book by next spring, possibly sooner. The Eagle’s Nest was built by brothers Jay and Guy Holland and their father, Jack Holland, in the 1980s, at about the same time the brothers launched their high-end leather goods company, Mulholland Leather, in Berkeley. Their products range from money clips, wallets and travel bags, to furniture and interiors for L.L. Bean Range Rovers. At the time, the nest was a posh gentlemen’s lair furnished with goods from the company including cozy chairs made of hand-glazed saddle leather.

 Salmon Creek Ranch, a working ranch with a treehouse that will soon be rented out. Lesley Brabyn feeding the cattle. (Chris Hardy)
Salmon Creek Ranch, a working ranch with a treehouse that will soon be rented out. Lesley Brabyn feeding the cattle. (Chris Hardy)

During the day, it served as an o‡ce, a place to catch up on paperwork while absorbing the spectacular view. In the evenings, the men entertained friends with Scotch on the rocks, and steaks marinated in vodka and cooked on a tiny propane grill attached to the deck’s railing. The grill remains today.

The octagonal hideaway is constructed of steel, cedar, canvas, leather and glass around an enormous Douglas fir that stretches beyond the treehouse’s corrugated aluminum roof. A 100-square-foot deck wraps around the northern half of the structure, with two sets of French doors, one on either side of the tree, that open into the 150-square-foot interior. Each panel of the octagon has a large window, and when the canvas coverings are raised and secured with leather belts, there is a sense of expansiveness, as if you’re nestled into the vast forest itself and not a tiny dwelling.

Salmon Creek Ranch, a working ranch with a treehouse that will soon be rented out. Jocelyn Brabyn herding ducks. (Chris Hardy)
Salmon Creek Ranch, a working ranch with a treehouse that will soon be rented out. Jocelyn Brabyn herding ducks. (Chris Hardy)

As plush as the nest once was and surely will be again, it’s not currently wired for electricity and there is no running water, bathroom facilities nor heat. The Hollands used lamp oil for light and heat, but installing a small solar panel is an option for the Brabyns.

The spiral staircase, close in color to the Golden Gate Bridge, was built and installed by Stocklin Iron, a Santa Rosa company that makes about 400 staircases a year. The Eagle’s Nest staircase is anchored by several feet of concrete set deep into in the forest floor.

The Range Rover connection runs more deeply than just a treehouse and the men who built it. As a real estate agent was showing the property to the Brabyns, she mentioned that Range Rover held training sessions at Salmon Creek and that the land had hosted a Range Rover Trek event in 1999. As she spoke, she didn’t know that John is a Range Rover aficionado. After countless off-road adventures that included learning to fix the vehicle in many out-of-the-way locations, he launched a website, rangerovers.net, in 1997. What began as a hobby, a way to share his expertise with other Range Rover owners, grew into a successful commercial venture. The site, which he sold several years ago, thrives, with nearly 10,000 daily visits and more than 1 million page views each month.

Salmon Creek Ranch, a working ranch with a treehouse that will soon be rented out. Lesley Brabyn walks across one of the rope bridges to the tree house. (Chris Hardy)
Salmon Creek Ranch, a working ranch with a treehouse that will soon be rented out. Lesley Brabyn walks across one of the rope bridges to the tree house. (Chris Hardy)

An engineer by profession, he is the CEO of Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco. Lesley earned a psychology degree from Stanford University and founded the Asthma Education Council, which she headed for more than a decade. Today, she manages the ranch. Their son, Trevor, recently received a master’s degree in history from the University of Michigan and plans a career as a college professor. Their daughter, Jocelyn, the face of Salmon Creek Ranch at farmers markets, is working on a master’s in anthropology at Sonoma State University.

Once the Eagle’s Nest is ready for visitors, they will be treated to a parade of wildlife from the forest below to the skies above. For several years, the Audubon Society has included Salmon Creek Ranch in its Christmas bird count, with more than two dozen species identified. When it comes to life on the ground, mice, rats, gophers, snakes, bobcats, coyotes, badgers, foxes, mountain lions, deer and more make their home here. Every fall, a great blue heron arrives and lingers for a few weeks, feeding on gophers.

The Brabyns did not purchase the property directly from the Hollands, but rather a subsequent owner. For several decades, the land was leased for cattle grazing, though it had once been a working dairy.

Because of its out-of-the-way location, the treehouse is easy to overlook, and, if you’re not an adventurous, natureloving sort, you might not find a reason to traverse the staircase and footbridges. The nest so easily could have begun a long process of entropy, had the Brabyns not happened upon the place. Call it coincidence, serendipity, synchronicity or even magic — something about the land that would become Salmon Creek Ranch called to the Brabyns.

After living in Mill Valley in Marin County for more than 20 years, they had grown restless. Both came from farming families and they wanted land, they wanted a ranch. After searching the world, including in John’s native New Zealand, they found their little patch of Sonoma paradise in Bodega.

“It’s a very special place,“ Lesley said as she led the way across the footbridges and down the staircase to the forest floor. “It has everything we could ever want and we feel so very blessed to be here.”


Salmon Creek Ranch, 1400 Bay Hill Road, Bodega, 707-876-1808, salmoncreekranch.com

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