***I had decided not to go into the Sahara desert after reading the reviews, but many suggested making a day trip to the Western Atlas mountains that separate the habitable areas of the country from the desert itself. It takes about 4 hours each way to reach the peak, or a full day of round trip travel. The hotel staff recommended against using a full day of vacation to get to the peak. They instead suggested going to the first stop in the mountains, Ourika Valley, which is a bit more than an hour away and where one can still see Berber (or traditional) villages. Everyone online commented positively on the photo ops.
I booked a bus through Supratours, which I also later used to take to get to the seaside town of Essaouira. The agent there was very helpful, one of the few truly friendly Moroccans I met. He gave up his university studies to work because he needed the money. He said that job prospects were grim in Morocco even with a college degree. Christian, the hotel owner, made a similar comment about economic uncertainty following the Arab Spring uprisings in the region. The agent spoke good English, and struck me as a genuinely nice guy. He even personally met me at the hotel to walk me to the bus pick up point, since the location wasn't obvious. I hope he goes far in life.
The trip to Western Atlas was a bit of a bust. The good news is there were only three of us on the minibus. The sites and the weather, however, could have been better. The sky was very hazy and obscured the views of the mountain. When the bus came to a "lookout" point to see the mountains we were approaching, we all queried "lookout where?" Then we could faintly make out the mountains in the horizon.
That set the tone for the rest of the trip. We drove on and stopped at a local Berber home to have tea, but it struck me as just a tourist stop as busloads of other tourists were there. We went to see an Argon oil cooperative; it smelled like another tourist trap. Eventually we made it to the Ourika Valley. It was pretty, with home run restaurants dotting the small stream that ran through it. We hiked to the the top of a waterfall, and then walked around the town before heading back.
Overall, the trip was an interesting diversion, and I took a couple of decent photos. Still, it was nothing special and I probably wouldn't do it again. If I had the time, perhaps going all the way to the peak to see the desert on the other side would have been worthwhile.
Photos here: Western Atlas