Seven Keys To A Vacation That Doesn't Suck - 2 | Active Light Photography | Photo Tours to Hidden Destinations, Anasazi Ruins
(408) 483-3782
Curious about how to shoot ruins?(408) 483-3782

You discovered the first three keys to a vacation that doesn’t suck last week. Now it’s time for the final four, and some resources to help you plan.

Forgot those first three keys? Find them here.

4. Go Unknown

When everyone else goes to a well-known attraction, visit a nearby unknown and avoid the crowds.

For example, instead of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, check out Ouray or the Lizard Head Wilderness. Ouray hosts one of the best mountain trail loops near a populated area sometimes called the Switzerland of America. We sampled the Perimeter Trail’s glaciated mountain views in July. We had the trail mostly to ourselves. The 1000 or so feet of elevation gain in about four miles of sometimes narrow trail discourages many visitors. Don’t let the narrowness and dropoffs scare you – but keep a close eye on your kids. We managed the hike with our two fairly well-behaved dogs in tow. The bonus was great dining afterwards in Ouray’s excellent restaurants.

From the Perimeter Trail, Ouray, Colorado

From the Perimeter Trail, Ouray, Colorado

The Lizard Head Wilderness has many backcountry trails around its prominent craggy landmark. You can sample wildflowers and scenery without walking very far for this one, and have most of it to yourself, even in mid-summer.

Lizard Head Wilderness, Colorado

Lizard Head Wilderness, Colorado

5. Stay Outside

Stay outside your National Park or other attraction to avoid the crowds. The only other thing you lose is some extra time getting there, and you may discover other nearby, unvisited sites.

For example, Yosemite Valley is a summertime zoo. Even if you make the reservation for Yosemite Lodge or Curry Village a year in advance, you might not want to stay there. Since you’re looking for less-visited sights anyway, it makes more sense to stay in Lee Vining, just east of the park. You’ll have great access to Mono Pass and Tuolumne Meadows. You’ll also have scenic and cultural bonuses even closer at Mono Lake, the Ansel Adams Wilderness and Bodie Ghost Town.


Mono Lake South Tufa, California


Bodie Ghost Town, California

6. Consider an RV

Looking for a dog- or kid-friendly hotel that’s in every place you travel?

An RV may be your answer. You don’t need one of those big 40-foot jobs that’s too long and delicate to take anywhere except interstate highways. A smaller class B+ or C will fill the bill for couples or small families, and still get you down dirt roads to Chaco Canyon and other unvisited places. At the end of the day, you’ll retire to your own rolling bedroom, without the bedbugs and other possible hazards of remote lodging. If you want, you can cook your own meals, important if you have food allergies or foods you want to avoid. You’ll also have some of the best dining room views.

Leisure Travel Unity 24TB RV at Sunrise Campground, Bozeman, Montana

Leisure Travel Unity 24TB RV at Sunrise Campground, Bozeman, Montana

And you don’t have to buy one. Rent an RV from Cruise America or El Monte RV. You may also find local RV rental firms in your city.

7. Try Other Activities

When there are hiccups in your main event, it’s your chance to go for great same-area alternatives.

Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta is well known for its colorful mass ascensions and bizarre special-shapes balloons. Hundreds of hot-air balloons and their crews from around the world participate every October. But the weather doesn’t always cooperate, and the balloons sometimes can’t fly. That’s when it’s time to head over to Albuquerque’s Petroglyph National Monument. You’ll be looking at 25,000+ petroglyphs carved by residents and travelers over a few hundred years. The hiking is mostly level and short. If you’re into geology, you can get up close and personal with five big volcanic cinder cones along a north-south fissure eruption zone. The last volcanic activity was 130,000 to 150,000 years ago – just yesterday in geologic time.

Traveling Snowbird and pals, Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

A one-hour drive north brings you to the twisted slot canyons and conical shapes of Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. A relatively easy three-mile hike takes you through carved sandstone from an ancient seabed and climbs to spectacular views of the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains.

Sandstone, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico

Drive a bit farther north, and you’ll reach the cliff dwellings of Bandelier National Monument. The Ancestral residents carved dwellings out of the solidified tuff cliffs, and also built free-standing pueblos. Frijoles Creek provided reliable water for crops and wildlife, both good reasons for locating there. Trails through the shady pine forest to ruins and falls also offer great views and some solitude.

Ruin, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

You’ll be sharing most of these sites with folks who really want to be there and respect the place – the best of the best. They may be there for the same reasons you are – a memorable experience without the crowds. I compare Yosemite in winter to a hiker’s heaven, where people are reasonably quiet, considerate, and willing to tell their stories if you ask.


Depending on time of year and popularity, you may still need advance reservations for some of these sites, even with an RV. The best way to find a local RV Park is with the RV Parky app. This will show you parks and campgrounds near your present location, or at a remote spot of your choice, and gives you links to maps, contacts, prices and directions. It’ll also have reviews of some sites.

It pays to have AAA and Good Sam memberships. These can save you 5-10% on lodging, whether it’s an RV campground or motel. I also invest in a National Park Service annual pass, since I usually visit more than four National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges or National Forests a year. This pass is currently $80 a year. If you’re 62 or older, you can get a lifetime pass for just $10 – a huge bargain, good for the rest of your life.

I also rely on Yelp and TripAdvisor for help with lodging and restaurants. But read the reviews with a boulder of salt – some are very opinionated, with their own special viewpoint. You can usually tell who was having a bad day.