Home to a majority Amazigh population, life in the Atlas Mountains seems to have stood still. Children run freely through valleys, playing innocently. Farmers, both men and women, tend to their lush plots of land. Donkeys provide a mode of transport for both young and old. Stony pathways wind through the mountains to villages not visible from main roads. Agriculturally rich, the trees (apple, cherry, apricot, and even almond and walnut trees) begin to bloom in February throughout the Atlas Mountains, creating a riot of colours and smells. The Atlas Mountains are popular year-round with locals, but the summer months see many Moroccans escape the heat of nearby Marrakech by heading to Toubkal National Park.

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The Dades Gorge in the High Atlas Mountains is said to be
one of the most scenic drives in the world

The Atlas Mountain range comprises the Middle Atlas in the country’s north, the High Atlas in central Morocco and the Anti-Atlas in the south. Each is drastically different and provides varied trekking options – even the colourful carpets produced by the many tribes are as diverse as the landscapes.

The most popular route for hikers visiting Morocco is to trek in Toubkal National Park, an hour’s drive from Marrakech. Here, visitors can summit Mount Toubkal, Morocco’s highest peak at 4167m. However, there are many more routes available across the Atlas Mountain range.

Given the unmarked paths and unfamiliar terrain, hiring a certified mountain guide for half, full or multi-day treks is strongly advised. These highly-trained guides often hail from the local region and can navigate the diverse terrains, language barriers and unexpected weather changes. They also often have the contacts to provide access to encounters with locals one may not otherwise experience, such as visiting villages, finding amazing artisans or hiking alternative routes.

Whether venturing off on a full- or multi-day trek, don’t be surprised if your host prepares a piping hot pot of mint tea in the middle of a lush green valley, shares fruits from the region depending on the season, or presents fresh bread and hot tajine to enjoy mountainside. A donkey often accompanies trekkers carrying supplies for the journey along with trekkers’ luggage.

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View from the hiking trail to the top of Mount Toubkal

Hiking Mount Toubkal

You’ll need moderate fitness, decent weather and at least two days to summit Mount Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak. Starting in the village of Imlil, approximately 1.5 hours drive from Marrakech, this trek winds up to the Amazigh village of Aroumd before jagging up through small villages and rocky valleys to the basic Refuge de Toubkal. The walk takes between four and six hours depending on your pace, moving steadily uphill. Along the way, you’ll cross a river bisecting Imlil Valley, see the white rock shrine of Sidi Chamharouch, where superstitious Moroccans offer sacrifices to the Sultan of Jinns (King of devils) and see the majestic Mount Toubkal growing ever closer.

Most hikers break their trip at the Refuge de Toubkal, where basic rooms and dorms offer shelter overnight. Hikers on organised trips can expect dorm beds to be booked in advance by guides, who will often arrange for sleeping bags to be rented. If you plan on hiking independently, it’s a good idea to call ahead to book a space. Alternatively, it is possible to camp in the refuge’s grounds in the summer. Make sure to head outside after dark to look at the stars in the night sky.

Many climbers will wake early and attempt to summit Toubkal before sunrise, allowing for spectacular views over Morocco as the sun breaks over the horizon. From the refuge, the ascent is 1km to Toubkal’s peak. The trail zigzags upwards for 750m to the Tizi n Toubkal Pass (South Col), a dramatic ridge that will take you to the summit. The pass can be slippery if you choose to trek in winter when ice axes are recommended and guides necessary. From here, you’ll descend to the refuge before heading back to Imlil. Expect along day of around 12 hours hiking.

The trek can be difficult and inexperienced hikers should hire a local mountain guide (who will also organise a cook and mule for transporting baggage and supplies and accommodation in the gites). Summiting Toubkal is preferable in the summer months rather than winter, when the snow-capped mountains can make for difficult trekking conditions (crampons and full winter gear required) and cold days lead to even colder nights. In winter, it is possible to have to abandon summit attempts if the weather is bad. Make sure to bring sturdy walking boots and mountaineering equipment if you decide to summit Toubkal between October and February.

Altitude sickness can be a real issue when hiking Mount Toubkal, so it’s worth acclimatising with an overnight stay in Imlil or at the refuge. For those looking for less strenuous hikes, try a half or full-day trek starting in Imlil and climbing up to Aroumd before crossing the dry riverbed and wandering through the region’s small villages.

Guesthouse options in the region range from simple homestays, to fancier kasbahs and the luxurious Kasbah Tamadot hotel nearby. From Marrakech, travel agents provide various day excursion options. For the more adventurous, share a grand taxi from Marrakech with other passengers escaping to the popular village and find a local guide at the tourist office upon arrival.

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A small vilage in the High Atlas countryside

Ait Bougmez and the Mgoun Massif

Few visitors journey to Ait Bougmez, a valley running along the Mgoun Massif in the Central High Atlas. Those who do are rewarded with lush pastures, picturesque views across the valley and hospitable locals who don’t let language barriers get in the way. In the spring, nomadic Ait Atta tribes from the south cross Mount Mgoun (the second highest mountain in the Atlas region) to reach green pastures and a glacial lake where they reside for the summer months. Mount Mgoun is exactly 100m lower than Mount Toubkal, but receives 25% fewer visitors.

Experienced hikers can join the trek as donkeys and mules carry supplies and accompany the nomads along with their herds, spending between 3-4 days walking in Ait Bougmez.

The region’s remoteness (it’s a 6 hour drive from Marrakech or 3 ½ hours from Beni Mellal) means that most visitors choose to base themselves in Ait Bougmez’s main town of Tabant during their stay, which offers a number of gites and hotels. Day hikes in Ait Bougmez can be organised from the nearby Touda EcoLodge. Head out for a pleasant wander along the dirt treks winding through villages, green farmland and crumbling kasbahs.

For a more moderate full-day option, you can trek through juniper forests and rugged terrain to reach the glacial Lake Izourar. The return across the rocky trail returns to the small village where Touda EcoLodge is located. Trekking boots are strongly advised.

The roads leading to the valley can be difficult to traverse during winter months. So, come during the warmer months between April and November.

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Ouzoud waterfalls, Grand Atlas

Ouzoud Waterfalls

An easy hike around the Ouzoud waterfalls, or Cascade Ouzoud as it’s known locally, makes for a pleasant day trip from Marrakech any time of the year. Located 2 ½ hours drive from Marrakech, these stunning 110m waterfalls tumble down red rock cliffs. Start this easy hike at the top where the flowing river cascades into the basin 600 metres below. Follow the pathway down to the base of the waterfall, encountering cheeky Barbary macaques that will happily accept a peanut or two along the way. The trek takes about an hour, but sitting at the base and admiring the waterfalls from below and enjoying the cooling mist is satisfying.

Travel agents organise both private and group excursions daily. The area is not accessible by public transport, but the local guest houses in Tanaghmeilt can arrange private transport for travellers wishing to extend their visit beyond one day.

Amein Valley, Anti-Atlas Mountains

The Berber heartland of Tafraoute, surrounded by the majestic rocky Anti-Atlas Mountains, provides a starting point for multi-day treks or day hikes through the beautiful Amein Valley. You don’t have to wander far from Tafraoute’s town centre to spot millennia-old rock carvings of animals that remain throughout the region. Longer day treks through the argan trees, which only grow in southwestern Morocco, and almond trees dot the landscape as trekkers wander between the more than 20 villages that make up the valley.

More experienced trekkers may opt for a multi-day trek that includes summiting Jebel Kest, the region’s highest peak, before returning to Tafraoute. Don’t miss the light over the rockscape as the sun sets and the range radiates magical hues of red.

The craggy rock and huge boulders around Tafraoute makes the region very popular with rock climbers, who descend on the region between September and April.

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Road to Todgha Gorge, High Atlas

Todgha Gorge

Located in the eastern part of the Atlas Mountains and carved between the Todra and Dadès rivers, Todgha Gorge is a 300m deep fault that offers excellent walking.

Guides in Todgha Gorge are familiar with a day hike that leads to a nomadic family’s settlement, far from the village of Tinghir, overrun with tour buses. Leave the mudbrick village and lush farmland behind, wander through the limestone gorge and river that runs alongside, and begin the ascent to the rocky mountains that wind their way up along unexpected trails. Views from the top provide stunning vistas of the surrounding landscape. With only minimal scrub bush, start the hike early to avoid the heat of the midday sun. A guide is a must as are sturdy hiking boots and plenty of water.

Dadès Valley

The backdrop to the picturesque Dadès Valley leading to the Dadès Gorge is one of mesmerising rock formations, known locally as the ‘monkey fingers’. Often a short stopover en route to the Sahara Desert, it’s worth scheduling at least a half-day trek climbing through the rocks, lush valleys and little bridges with the river running beneath. A local guide is a must as the paths are unmarked. Bus agencies drop passengers in the nearby town of Boulemane and comfortable hostels are available throughout the valley and closer to the gorge.

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Traditional red stone berber village and oasis in the Dades Valley

Villages and culture

Imlil is a bustling hub within Toubkal National Park as trekkers start their ascent to Mount Toubkal or Jebel Toubkal as it is known locally. Friendly locals have set up shop and are ready to sell all kinds of fossils, carpets, jewelry and other tat to visitors passing through. Homestays and lunches in a local family can be arranged with the help of a local guide or travel agency. Small snack bars and informal restaurants serving tajines cooked over coal-fired grills dot the roadside.

The Anti-Atlas Mountain town of Tafraoute is worth a visit for a night or two allowing for at least a day hike, or just a break for travellers heading to/from the Sahara Desert. Famous for its almonds, colourful babouche slippers particular to the region, and even as a starting point for cycling up to the blue rocks and spotting prehistoric rock carvings. The town hosts an almond blossom festival, typically in February although the dates vary, which includes folklore displays to celebrate the harvest. The town is accessible by national bus companies.

Todgha, or Todra as it is sometimes spelled, Gorge has become something of a tourist bus hotspot with locals selling carpets, fossils, and other finds as visitors wander amongst the limestone canons and cafes lining the riverbed. A number of three-star guest houses provide the perfect base for leisurely wanders through the palm groves or a longer trek through the mountains where nomadic families are known to reside. National bus companies provide service to this region daily.

Weekly markets are held in busier towns across rural Morocco and provide an opportunity for locals from the surrounding villages to stock up on goods for the week – fresh produce and meats, dry goods and spices, and supplies for daily life. In the middle of the action, there is sure to be a tent supplying sfenj donuts and smoky grills preparing mouth-watering meats and vegetables to stuff into a fresh loaf of bread when hunger strikes.

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View from a hiking trail in Imlil, High Atlas

Hiking in Morocco

By Mandy Sinclair

Mandy Sinclair is a travel and public relations consultant based in Marrakech, Morocco. Having swapped public employee life in Canada for a life unknown in Morocco, she’s constantly exploring the North African kingdom. She hosts the bi-weekly podcast Why Morocco, conversations with the creative and inspiring personalities she meets while living in Marrakech. When she’s not at her desk, she’s meeting guests on Tasting Marrakech food and cutlural tours, a business she developed given her love of street food, arts, culture and architecture. Mandyinmorocco.com

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