Trekking in the High Atlas of Morocco
Easily accessible from Europe, but another world in terms of culture and landscape, trekking in the High Atlas mountains is an exhilarating experience, as local guide Mohamed Aztat explains.
In the northwest corner of Africa, a landscape of rugged mountains, green valleys and traditional Berber villages is accessible yet far removed from 21st-century life; It's a fabulous region for trekking and exploring.
The Atlas Mountains extend about 2,500 km (1,500 miles) west to east, from Morocco through Algeria to Tunisia, separating the Mediterranean regions from the Sahara. In Morocco, the Atlas is divided into three separate ranges, the High Atlas, Middle Atlas (to the north), and Anti-Atlas (to the south).
The Moroccan High Atlas is by far the most popular area for trekking. The gateway to the region is Marrakech - cheap and easy to fly to (as well as being a fascinating destination in its own right), and from there it’s remarkably straightforward to reach the still-remote villages and valleys leading into the heart of the mountains.
GUIDE TO TREKKING IN THE HIGH ATLAS MOUNTAINS
There are three principal areas for trekking within the Moroccan High Atlas: the Toubkal Massif directly south of Marrakech, the Tichka Plateau directly to the west and, further east, the Mgoun Massif near Ouarzazate. Other regions, such as the eastern High Atlas around Imilchil, are slowly opening up.
The Toubkal Massif
In the west lies the oldest portion of the range, with its western edge marked by the high passes of the Tizi-n’Test and the eastern edge by the Tizi-n’Tichka (both crossed by main roads). Several peaks in this area exceed 4,000 metres, with the highest point at Jbel Toubkal - at 4,167m the highest peak in North Africa, which is visible from the city of Marrakech. Jbel Toubkal lies in the Toubkal National Park. 65km south of Marrakech, and is the most visited area as it is so easy to get to, and is well developed and organised.
Accommodation on an organised trek generally involves a mixture of Berber houses, mountain refuges and camping. The main departure point is the large village of Imlil in the valley of Aït Mizane, and the most popular trek is a circuit that takes in the summit of Toubkal. Imlil marks the end of the road. From here onwards, the main thoroughfares are mule trails. In fact, the entire area is crisscrossed with a network of mule tracks, and the trekking possibilities are practically endless.
The main Toubkal trail from Imlil follows the Mizane valley up to the village of Aremd (with gite accommodation). This is an area of ancient terraced fields, walnut and fruit trees set against the stark mountains. The mountain trail proper begins at Aremd, from where it’s around five hours to the sturdy stone Toubkal refuge (once called the Neltner hut) at 3,206m, via Sidi Chamarouch where there is a sacred shrine. The summit of Toubkal is a further three hours or so from the refuge.
There are plenty of short treks that head directly for the summit of Toubkal and then back down in 2-4 days. Most Toubkal circuit treks take 6-8 days. There are various permutations for these, but many people begin in Imlil and head east to the attractive Berber village of Tachedert via the Tamatert pass. Alternatively, Tachedert can be accessed from the road-head at the large village of Oukaimeden via another pass, the N’Addi. From Tachedert, one route ascends to Azib Likemt and the Lac d’Ifni (2,295m) before climbing steeply to the summit of Toubkal, then returns to Imlil via the Toubkal refuge and Aremd.
A scenic route begins at Imi-Oughlad north of Imlil, heads southwest to the picturesque red clay village of Tizaine, set on terraces, and D’knt before looping east to Toubkal via Azib n Tamsoult. This route takes in more in the way of foothills scenery and passes through juniper and pine forests.
The Tichka Plateau (western High Atlas)
Lower and greener than the other two regions, the Tichka Plateau lies directly to the west of the Tizi-n'Test pass in the western part of the High Atlas range. It's an area of gorges, forests, delightful adobe- and stone-built villages surrounded by olive groves and green fields. The plateau's higher reaches are characterised by meadows, carpeted in wildflowers during the spring (which begins in February this far south).
There are numerous possibilities for hiking in this beautiful region. Many treks set out from the Tizi-n'Test pass, walk to the plateau and then head south via Afensou to the road-head from where they travel to the major town of Taroudant. A typical length is 4-6 days, and the walking is less demanding than at the much higher altitudes of the Toubkal and Mgoun areas. Trails are rarely marked in the Moroccan Atlas, and few people trek without a guide. Organised treks use mules to transport equipment and food.
The Mgoun Massif (central High Atlas)
For trekking far from the tourist trail, consider this dramatic region of the Atlas between Azilal and Ouarzazate, some 200-250km east of Marrakech. Here, the contrasting landscapes remind visitors of the Colorado, with its high plateaux, gorges and canyons, and its peaks sometimes splintered by erosion. Jebel Mgoun (4,068m) is the highest peak in this part of the High Atlas (and the second highest after Toubkal in the entire region). Mgoun is mainly visited in summer, and six days are normally required to complete the ascent to the summit and return.
The hub for trekking in this region is the scenic and fertile Bougemez Valley, and the village of Tabant, north of the massif - which has accommodation and other facilities) - is the place many trekkers will set out from. There’s a long climb up to the Tarkeddit plateau, and from there it is an exhilarating climb up to the summit of Mgoun. There is spectacular trekking along a high ridge some 20km long. Many people opt for a circuit which ascends to the summit of Mgoun and takes 6-7 days; other itineraries continue from the summit following the ridge to the east before turning south into the Mgoun Gorge (Achabou Gorge), which descends into the Dades Valley. The route crosses the Imi pass to El Marabtin and Boutaghar, with some precipitous descents.
TOP 5 EXPERIENCES
1. The highest point in North Africa
At 4,167 metres (13,671ft), the summit of Jebel Toubkal commands amazing views across the region, to the Anti Atlas and Sahara in the south, and north across the plains to Marrakech.
2. Berber villages
Staying in traditional Berber villages such as Tiziane, Techedert, D'knt, several in the Tichka region and - further east in the Mgoun area - Zawyat Oulmzi, amongst others, allows you to get close to the lives of the locals.
3. Mgoun summit and ridge
The fabulous ridge walk and summit of Mgoun gives an utterly spectacular panorama across the palm groves and oases of the Draa Valley, with the Saghro massif and the Sahara beyond.
4. Ancient terraced farmland
Trekking past ancient terraced fields, herds of sheep and goats, groves of walnut trees and orchards is a major part of the Atlas experience. The valleys leading down from the Tichka Plateau, and the Bougemez Valley ("Happy Valley") north of Mgoun Massif are especially scenic.
5. Lac d'Ifni
The trek from Toubkal to Lac d'Ifni, or vice versa, is a thrilling experience. The blue lake, the only body of water in these mountains, is a surreal sight in a rocky, lunar landscape.
WHEN TO VISIT
Best times to go:
The overall best months are mid-March to late May and September to early November. Trekking at higher elevations is perfect from early May until mid-October, but the lower valleys can be furnace-hot at this time. Conversely, conditions for winter trekking can be perfect lower down, but although many companies offer winter treks in the high mountains, conditions can be extremely cold at higher altitudes. There’s a greater risk of rain (and snow higher up) in the winter months. Trekking high up in the Mgoun Massif is particularly challenging in winter.
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