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Desert Companion

The road less traveled: Cool trips without the crowds


Whether you’re seeking peace and quiet or pulse-pounding thrills, these trips offer it all — without the crowds, hassles and expense

Great Basin National Park

Stargaze in Great Basin National Park

It’s like: Checking out the stars anywhere else — but with darker skies

Look upward in Las Vegas and the Luxor’s blinding light clouds the view of anything star-worthy, so head north out of the city for the world’s largest, most spectacular, free nightly show. Once you reach Great Basin National Park, look upward on a moonless night for a feast of generally unseen celestial bodies. What are those strange lights dotting the sky? Why, it’s a far-out selection of thousands of stars, several of the solar system’s planets, meteors and satellites. Low humidity plus minimal light pollution and high elevation also make it possible to see the Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way with the naked eye. A summer astronomy festival provides context and equipment for those wanting to hone their star-searching skills, but rangers offer information on the skies, one of the area’s greatest resources, year-round. Escape the campground with its glowing fires for the best viewing conditions in the park. Info:

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Rent a houseboat on Lake Mead

It’s like: Booking a vacation rental with a built-in swimming pool

Need to get the extended family together for a reunion? Check! Searching for the perfect place to hold a get-together for the college roomies? No problem! Staying in a vacation rental has become a popular alternative to booking a few hotel rooms. If you can handle close quarters with your family and friends, up the ante by renting a houseboat on Lake Mead. The dog days of summer are ideal for lounging by the pool, but with a houseboat, the world is your swimming hole. A number of companies offer houseboat rentals on the expansive body of water, many of which are as classy as any kind of accommodations found on land. Fully furnished kitchens, barbecue sets, flat-screen televisions, hot tubs and even water slides come standard on most boats. Price per night is high, but splitting it between everyone on the boat sweetens the deal. Info:,,


WineSip wine in Temecula Valley

It’s like: Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast once you’ve “been there, drank that”

Though California’s most famous wine regions along the Central Coast are worthy of recognition and worth the trip, you don’t have to return year after year to raise a glass to an authentic winery experience. Temecula Valley, a wine region within an hour-and-a-half drive of every major southern California city, is home to more than 35 wineries, 35,000 acres of photogenic vineyards and more than a dozen wine country restaurants. What was once a sleepy area in Southern California has become a hot spot for wine-lovers, many of whom seek a weekend getaway. Most wineries have tasting rooms but, with hundreds of wines harvested here, it’s impossible to taste them all — an excuse for a return trip. To navigate the grapes, take advantage of one of the self-guided tour suggestions offered by the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association, which groups wineries into themed categories to make decisions easier. Info:


Park CityStrap on skis in Cedar City

It’s like: Skiing in Park City — without draining your checking account

There’s something prestigious about skiing in Park City, Utah, but that name recognition comes at a cost. Adults can expect to pay more than $100 to hit the slopes in Park City for the day, and while the mountain is worthy for a reason, this price tag comes with the baggage of crowded lifts and lodges. Instead, pack your bags for a trip to Brian Head in southern Utah for less than half that price — $49 for a non-holiday, full-day lift pass and $56 on a holiday. At this price, you can afford to ski more often and, with minimal lines and a manageably sized resort, trading Park City for a more accessible experience is a no-brainer. Brian Head sits at a higher elevation, which means bluebird skies and cooler temperatures are the norm. Dress warm to enjoy the light, fluffy champagne powder, which stays “powder” longer because of the temperature. Info:

Berlin-Ithosaur State Park

Go back in time in Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park

It’s like: Visiting a ghost town — with a prehistoric twist

Ghost towns are typically skeletons of the past with a few lonely buildings and the occasional passing visitor. But they’re missing one thing that Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nevada has: prehistoric fossils. Around 250 people lived near the mining town of Berlin at its peak, and you can poke through remnants of these long-lost days, but travel back in time by several million years to discover the first true inhabitants of the area. Giant marine reptiles used to rule the waters when Nevada was covered by a warm ocean, and today these bones mingle with the shadow of mining days. Visit during the summer months to tour the Diana Mine and fossil shelter for the best of both skeletal worlds. Info:


Salt River

Get wet on the Salt River

It’s like: Rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon — without the frustrating wait time

If whitewater rafting down the Colorado River through the iconic Grand Canyon is on your bucket list, make plans now to do it … at some future date. A bureaucratic nightmare of permit applications and weighted lottery systems makes it downright nightmarish to launch a noncommercial raft on the river (the FAQ on how to apply is 21 pages long — yikes!). Though there are commercial companies running the waves through the Grand Canyon, parties need to book far in advance to reserve their desired seat on the water. Skip the lines and get wet now by heading to the Salt River, located in Central Arizona, where noncommercial rafting is also available. Instead of navigating the unpredictable waves of government regulations, however, noncommercial rafters simply need to purchase a daily permit and sign a waiver, while commercial companies offer an easy alternative for getting on the river today. Info:,,

Grand Canyon

Peek into the Grand Canyon from the North Rim

It’s like: Exploring this natural wonder from the South Rim — without the crowds

Somewhere beyond the exhaust-spewing tour buses and camera-toting tourists is a gigantic hole in the ground known as the Grand Canyon. Every year, nearly 5 million people squeeze shoulder-to-shoulder on the South Rim of the canyon, angling their cameras to catch a photo before crawling back onto a shuttle bus to reach the next overlook. As awesome as the Grand Canyon is, the South Rim is the epitome of a tourist trap in comparison to the North Rim, which receives a mere 10 percent of the park’s visitors annually. The North Rim is more difficult to access and isn’t on the way to anywhere, which means day tours don’t hijack the view, and, even on holiday weekends, it’s possible to snag a camping spot (though you should book in advance to avoid disappointment). To escape the crowds almost completely, take a lengthy day hike to claim the canyon for yourself. Info:


GirlsEat locally in Central Arizona

It’s like: The farm-to-table trend — but this cuisine tempts the palate with a desert twist

Farm-fresh food is all the frenzy along the West Coast, but lush greenery is not a prerequisite for an agricultural adventure. Tucked among the desert landscape near Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek, Ariz., are a number of local food producers who, when strung together, create a culinary trail that rivals those found in other parts of America. Start at the Orange Patch, where fresh produce is plucked from the orchard, and, down the road, visitors can learn about the dairy-making process at Superstition Farm. For lunch, eat at Joe’s Farm Grill, a centerpiece in the local co-op community, Agritopia, which promotes a simpler, community-centered lifestyle. Moving on, stop by the Queen Creek Olive Mill, Arizona’s only family-owned and -operated working olive mill and farm, where visitors can learn about the production of extra virgin olive oil. In the spring, cross the road to Schnepf Farms, where plump peaches are ripe for picking. Info:,,,

Fruit Stand

Kolob Canyon

Hike in Kolob Canyons

It’s like: Visiting the southern portion of Zion National Park — without the stress

Zion National Park is a fan favorite. Visitors love to hike The Narrows in their hip waders and thousands of people make the treacherous journey out to Angel’s Landing every year. It’s an accessible, family-friendly park with activities that cater to everyone’s strengths and abilities. But if you’ve “done” Zion a hundred times before, chances are you’re still missing something. In the northwest corner of Zion is an region called Kolob Canyons. It takes longer to reach this area, but those who make the drive are practically guaranteed solitude in this part of Zion that is no less impressive than its southern brother. Three hiking trails of varying distances give visitors the chance to wander along cliff ridges, deep into box canyons and through primitive wilderness areas scattered with wildflowers and awesome canyon views. Make plans to visit now before word gets out about this secret corner of Zion. Info:

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