It is estimated that some 100,000 tourists visit Morocco each year with the primary objective of exploring the country’s extensive mountain regions, and with good reason. Upland Morocco offers exceptional beauty, high drama and intruiging cultural encounters in equal measure, and , with an emerging infrastructure to cope with the demands of today’s adventure traveller and a long list of foreign and local tour operators that offer well-organised adventure tours, there’s never been a better time to visit the ‘Land of the Berbers’. Mountain trekking, characterised by multi-day hiking circuits often incorporating a summit climb, attracts the lion’s share of visitors, although mountain biking, rock climbing and canyoning are growing in popularity. Accessibility and infrastructure tend to dictate which areas draw the most interest, suffice to say that the Toubkal National Park in the High Atlas is by far the most visited region by virtue of its proximity to the tourist Mecca of Marrakesh.
Times have changed since the first European expedition conquered Jebel Toubkal in 1923. Back then the notion of climbing a mountain for pleasure would have been an alien concept for High Atlas villagers, and although this may still be the case in the remoter regions, the inhabitants of Morocco’s main trailheads have a good understanding of the requirements of the visitor. All of the country’s main hiking regions have a principle village or town where you can engage the services of mountain guides, mules to carry bags, and cooks if required. Some villages have an official guide office (Imlil and Setti Fatma are two examples), but if not, asking around normally yields quick results. In all but the very busiest season you should be able to find a guide available for a departure the following day. Check the guide’s credentials as the country’s only official mountain guides have completed an extensive training course at Africa’s only mountain guide training college at Tabant in the Ait Bougmez valley. Bone fide guides carry a permit that you can ask to see. Discuss in detail your plans and objectives, agree on a price before setting off, assess the need for a cook and mule(s) to carry your bags and ensure that you are clear on the accommodation and catering situation whilst on trek. In the absence of any other options, most trekking circuits require you to camp, although certain villages in the High Atlas offer basic lodgings for walkers. The Club Alpin Français (CAF) operates five refuges in the Toubkal National Park, and some regions are equipped with Gites d’Etape, basic village houses licensed to serve hot meals and provide lodging for tourists. Such houses are important to the rural economy and studies undertaken in areas of the High Atlas suggest that the revenue generated from lodging twenty hikers on a half board basis is equivalent to a year’s revenue from agriculture – a good enough reason in itself for opting to stay in a Gite wherever possible. Also bear in mind the equipment-intensive nature of camping in your trip planning.
Where to go
The most visited of Morocco’s hiking regions is the Toubkal National Park in the High Atlas, home to the country’s highest peak, Jebel Toubkal (4167m/13671ft). Between late spring and early autumn, Toubkal, accessible from the village of Imlil, can be scaled in two days, although many walkers prefer to save North Africa’s highest peak for the climax of a week’s trekking starting from Setti Fatma (in the Ourika Valley) or Oukaimeden. Throughout much of the High Atlas valley walks (as opposed to peaks) offer the best snapshot of rural life, which, in many communities has hardly changed in centuries. The legendary hospitality of the Berber people and the sublime beauty of these villages leaves a lasting imprint on all who visit.
Further to the east, M’goun (4071m/13356 ft), Morocco’s third highest peak, sits in one of the most beautiful parts of the High Atlas. The trailhead valley of Ait Bougmez is home to some of the country’s best-preserved vernacular Berber architecture and offers a hassle-free starting point for five to ten day circuits that scale M’goun. Head for this region during the summer months where temperatures rarely exceed 28°c, a welcome break from the heat of Marrakech, which lies some four hours by road to the west.
One of the few valleys whose beauty compares to Bougmez is the Vallée de la Tassaout which is accessed by way of the Tizi-n-Rogault pass from the M’goun region. Villages in this valley are regarded to be some of the finest in Morocco and offer interesting possibilities for hikers, whether camping or taking advantage of Gite d’etape accommodation in some of the hamlets alongside the Tessaout River. The Bougmez and Tessaout valleys form two stages of a mammoth three-week High Atlas traverse that links this spectacular region with the Toubkal area, a programme offered more and more by foreign adventure tour operators.
More peripheral, although no less striking, are the Jebel Saghro and the Jebel Siroua, two mountain ranges on the south side of the High Atlas. Both are accessible by tarmac road and offer adequate infrastructure in their respective trailhead towns of N’Kob and Taliouine. Trekking in both regions is best in spring and autumn.
The Saghro, which lies to the south east of Ourazazate is an isolated and savagely-beautiful range of angular peaks and table top ‘mesas’. Navigation difficulties and a profound shortage of water in the range make hiking here a challenge so always engage a qualified local guide which you can normally find in the pleasant town of N’Kob. The range offers the full gamut of possibilities from multi-day circuits to hikes that head north to join the tarmac route around the town of Kelaa Mgouna, on the Ouarzazate-Errachidia road. Be warned that the kind of Gite and refuge accommodation commonly found in the High Atlas is practically non-existent here so nights in the Saghro are normally spent under canvas.
The Siroua region forms a volcanic bridge between the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas Mountains and most treks in the region tackle the non-technical summit of Jebel Siroua (3304m/10839ft) to the north of the trailhead town of Taliouine. On a clear day this nub-like summit offers some of the best views in Morocco, with the High Atlas, the Anti-Atlas, the Jebel Bani and even the dunes of the Sahara in view. In this region it’s possible to stay in Berber houses (chez l’habitant) and guide and mule services are available in a limited capacity in Taliouine.
Other mountain sports
Morocco’s extensive network of pistes (jeep roads) makes the country ideally suited to mountain biking. Harsh gradients and poor surfaces in the Central High Atlas make off-road biking only truly accessible to experienced riders but the Jebel Siroua, the Anti-Atlas Mountains and the Draa Valley offer gentler possibilities. Good quality mountain bikes are not available for hire in Morocco, so you are recommended to bring your own if you want to travel independently. Local maps show some, but not all pistes, and navigation without a guide can be much more difficult than you may anticipate.
Rock climbing is a popular pursuit in Morocco particularly in the Todra Gorge and the Anti-Atlas Mountains around Tafraoute. Equipment hire and professional guide services are not always easy to come by, so organising a trip of this nature with a tour operator makes practical sense.
The Central Atlas mountains around Ait Bougmez are ideally suited to canyoning, but a shortage of skilled guides and good quality equipment have left this sport in the hands of a few specialist (foreign) operators. Trips of this nature should be organised prior to your arrival in Morocco.
Skiing is not perhaps a sport you would normally associate with Morocco, but it is nonetheless feasible in the High Atlas and Middle Atlas Mountains between December and April. Snowfalls are by no means guaranteed but the northern orientation of the (one) ski slope at Oukaimeden, the country’s best-equipped ski resort, gives skiers the best chance of some downhill action, however limited. Services at this resort are rudimentary – there are a few chair lifts and a cable car to the summit of Jebel Oukaimeden – and piste options are not particularly expansive. Off-piste skiing is possible in the Central High Atlas but can be life-threateningly dangerous without a qualified guide.